BEIRUT

Middle East

More freedom in Libya university but little change

TRIPOL: Portraits of toppled Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi may no longer adorn the walls of Tripoli University, but it is likely to be a long time before new values and higher standards become entrenched there.

The signature red, black and green of the 2011 revolt that put an end to 42 years of stifling dictatorship now decorate the corridors. And inside the classrooms, things are also beginning to look a little different.

The curriculum no longer expounds on the slain dictator's views on politics, the military and economics -- which were outlined in his "Green Book" manifesto and fleshed out over endless speeches that were then documented in annual tomes.

Although it may take many years to revamp the system completely, the culture is slowly shifting.

For starters, dissent is now tolerated and no longer lands people in jail.

"The main change is that we now have freedom of expression and we can demonstrate," said law student Nauroz Said.

Political science professor Ahmed al-Atrash says the university now allows demonstrations but it is also making efforts to promote the concepts of civilised expression and organised protest in order to avoid major disruptions.

"We don't know the ABCs of democracy," said Atrash, who tries to promote the idea of "civilised, democratic dialogue" in his classroom.

Such lessons matter greatly in a country where freedom of expression was virtually non-existent. Finally unshackled, many Libyans -- and that includes students 00 are clamouring to have their voices heard and demands met.

Small, unruly and sometimes armed rallies are part of the capital's rhythm.

And in the eastern city of Benghazi, which spearheaded last year's uprising, mass demonstrations in favour of a national army and against armed groups of former rebels captured world headlines.

Mahmud Ramadan, an agriculture professor who ran in the July elections for a national assembly, insists that a stable government and a change in mentality are necessary if the higher education system is to be reformed.

"Some people think freedom means they can do anything... (but) democracy has rules," said Ramadan, recalling how the dean of his faculty resigned this year after students revolted during an exam.

He said a major challenge is uprooting a culture of free passes and the distribution of rewards such as scholarships and jobs on the basis of personal connections, "wasta" in colloquial terms.

-- New bureaucracy, old corruption --

-------------------------------------

In the past, those who were close to Kadhafi's regime advanced more easily through the system, Ramadan said. Today it is those who fought in the revolution who expect the scholarships and easy passes.

"Education is education -- you cannot pass it until you pass it," he said.

The new education authorities say they want more scholarships and programmes focused on language and computer training, skills necessary in a country where hopes of economic development are pinned on the oil and private sectors.

With new bureaucracy, old corruption and 530,000 university students to accommodate, the deputy minister of higher education said his department has its work cut out.

"There are slow changes," Fathi Akkari told AFP, adding that the first challenge his department had to overcome was the return of thousands of students whose education was disrupted during the conflict.

"We have many problems that we cannot sort out in one year," he stressed.

Professors note that favouritism, cheating and underqualified staff became engrained in the sector over four decades, and warn that it could take an entire generation before such vices are finally stamped out.

But many students are already growing restless, and say that they are not receiving the education they deserve.

"They have mapped out steps (to improve education), but they haven't taken them," said Ziyad Belazi, a medical student.

Elham Fawzi, who is also studying medicine, added: "The first thing we want is to change the labs and bring in the right teachers."

Fawzi sees English -- which was not on the syllabus under Kadhafi -- as key to getting a good job. Without it, Fawzi worries that she will end up unemployed.

"I didn't study for years to sit at home," she said, concerned about high jobless rates among young people in the North African nation.

Law student Said agreed.

Although there may be more wiggle room on the expression front, education methods remain stuck "in the same routine," she lamented.

 

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