For decades, many of Libya’s brightest students have left the country to gain their university degrees overseas. But a series of reforms, which began in 2005 with the lifting of a 19-year ban on teaching English, could change that.

In 2006, the Education Ministry drew up a five-year strategic plan running from 2008-13 to upgrade the country’s educational facilities. One year later, the Organisation for the Development of Administrative Centres (Odac), a government body that manages strategic infrastructure projects, said it intended to issue tenders to build or enlarge 25 universities.

In June, a National Higher Education Committee was set up to create an education strategy for Libya’s new wave of universities. This has lead to new partnerships with international institutions, such as that between Sebha University and Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University, which is offering teaching expertise from its Institute of Petroleum Engineering.

Project pipeline

Contract awards have followed the announcement of strategic plans, with work on almost all of the universities moving ahead.

In October 2008, the US’ Hill International won a contract from Odac to be the construction supervisor on the expansion of Tripoli’s Al-Fateh University -the largest project of its kind in the world and the largest construction project on which Hill is currently working.

The total value of the design-and-build project, which will create two new campuses for the university and involves the construction of 73 buildings, is $3.2bn. Contracts worth $1.28bn have already been awarded to contractors including Turkey’s Guris, Feka, Nurol and Yuksil, and the local Libyan Investment & Development Company. Each contract covers the construction of about five buildings, with the first wave of projects expected to be completed by the end of the year.

Other elements of the plan, such as Al-Fateh’s new auditorium and library, which will feature a 120 metre-diameter glass dome designed by the UK’s Hamilton Architects and Mott MacDonald, will take until at least 2012 to build.

There has also been significant progress on the design and construction of the new universities. In July, Hill followed up the contract award on Al-Fateh University by winning a four-year contract to manage the design of all the new university campuses planned for the country. This work is expected to cost $3-$5bn in total.

The contracts to design the universities have been split into four packages.

The Argus Alliance, a consortium of UK architectural practices and engineers including Arup, Davis Langdon and Keppie Design, is working on the design of 12 universities. The contractors involved include Turkey’s Mesa Imalat, which is building Derna university, and Croatia’s Stipic Constructa, which is working on the Sahl al-Jafara campus.

Another UK firm, BDP, was awarded the contract to design 10 universities in the western region of Libya. It has already completed detailed proposals including architecture, landscaping, building services engineering, and civil, structural and infrastructure engineering.

The contractors involved include China’s Changjiang Geotechnical Engineering Corporation for the Awbari, Brak, Marzuq and Sabha campuses; Kuwait’s Gulf Group Construction Company at Sabratha; the local Akdeniz at Gharyan; and Spain’s Bruesa Construccion at Suruman and Zuwarah. In Nalut, South Korea’s Cosmo is the contractor, and Turkey’s BTK is building the Zintan campus.

Another design contract, for the campus at Misurata to the east of Tripoli on the Mediter-ranean coast, has been handed to Spain’s Idom. Italy’s Impregilo and the local Lidco are building the university. The UK’s RMJM won the contract to design the campuses at Bani Walid and Zliten.

Ian Purser, a director at BDP, says his team worked with the Education Ministry and education consultants from Europe and Canada to make sure the designs met the teaching needs of each campus.

“It was important for us to put the students at the heart of the design process, which was a transformational idea for the Libyan education sector” he says. “The designs are flexible to take into account the different uses. The spaces are all very adaptable”.

With most of the university projects now entering the construction phase, Tripoli faces a logistical challenge in ensuring the world’s largest university building programme is completed.

But the programme has already made more progress than many of the real estate construction schemes in the country. In contrast to the many building sites that stand empty in Tripoli, faculty buildings at Al-Fateh University are nearing completion. Once they are completed, the challenge for the government will be to ensure the quality of teaching the universities provide matches the country’s wider ambitions.