What Future for Higher Ed in the Arab World?

Higher education leaders in England, France and Italy often take pride in claiming that their country is the seat of the oldest university in the modern world.  Indeed, Oxford University was set up in 1167, the Sorbonne was created in 1160, and the University of Bologna began to operate in 1088.  But historians have established that, in reality, the oldest university still functioning in modern times is the Qarawyyin in Fes, Morocco, which started as an institution of learning as early as 859.  The Arab world can also take pride in the contribution of other prestigious universities, such as Ez-Zeituna in Tunis, Al-Nizamiyya in Iraq or Al Azhar in Cairo.  More recently, the University of Cairo was hailed as the lighthouse of the Arab intelligentsia for many decades during the twentieth century.
 
Today, however, the higher education systems of the Arab world face important challenges.  While most countries in the region have witnessed a rapid growth in the number of universities and seen a tremendous increase in student numbers, quality and relevance are sources of serious concern.  Lack of selection and insufficient budgetary resources have resulted, in many cases, in situations of over-crowding and inadequate facilities.  The University of Cairo has more than 250,000 students.  After a recent merger, the University of Rabat enrolls close to 100,000 students.  Many universities in the region operate with a traditional curriculum and outdated pedagogical practices, resulting in high dropout rates—sometimes half of an entire student generation—.  According to Al-Fanar Media, more than half of Jordanian universities recently failed a national proficiency exam held by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research.  Finding a job remains a difficult adventure for large numbers of graduates throughout the region.  In fact, graduate unemployment was one of the triggers of the Arab spring, most notably in Tunisia. 
 
In short, the achievements of the Arab higher education systems do not seem to be on par with the economic weight and the long scholarly tradition of these countries.  Compared to the OECD countries and the emerging economies in South-East Asia, the Arab systems are way behind in terms of program quality and research output, they suffer from relatively high levels of graduate unemployment, and are characterized by inadequate governance arrangements.  Many public universities in the Arab region are driven by interest groups who are resistant to change, they suffer high levels of academic in-breeding, and are constrained by rigid and bureaucratic administrative systems.  Some universities are governed by large scientific councils with close to 100 members, which makes it difficult if not impossible to take innovative initiatives. 
 
The Arab world represents 5.8% percent of the world population and produces 4.5% percent of the planet’s GDP, but its universities account for only 0.08% percent of the top 500 institutions in the Shanghai ranking.  The poor results of a large country like Egypt—the 15th most populated nation of the world—are striking in contrast to the impressive performance of a small country such as the Netherlands, which places four universities in the top 100 of the Shanghai ranking.  The tiny territory of Hong Kong has more universities in the Shanghai ranking as all Arab countries considered together.
 
At the same time, it is fair to acknowledge several positive developments in the region.  Saudi Arabia, in particular, stands out for the rapid progress of its top universities in recent years.  Four Saudi universities are present among the top 500 institutions in the Shanghai ranking, two of them appearing in the 150 to 200 group.  It is also the only Arab country included among the top fifty higher education systems ranked by the international consortium Universitas 21 in the annual assessment prepared on its behalf by the University of Melbourne.  Saudi Arabia was ranked number 28 in 2015, up two spots compared to 2014.  Also, in countries as diverse as Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco, a few private universities have emerged as centers of innovative curricular and pedagogical practices.  KAUST, the youngest public university established in Saudi Arabia, is on its way to becoming rapidly a scientific powerhouse.  But these outstanding examples remain the exception, not the rule. 
 
If universities in the Arab world are to see better days, two key developments are necessary.  First, following the recent examples of a few Gulf States, each nation ought to formulate a comprehensive and audacious vision of the future role of higher education, and translate it into a strategic plan spelling out the concrete reforms, investments and actions needed to implement the vision.  Fostering an institutionally differentiated system, composed not only of research-intensive universities but also good quality teaching universities and community colleges with a professional focus, is important to offer relevant opportunities to the rapidly growing youth population of these countries, and to produce the range of professionals and technicians that the economy needs.  In that context, the Northern African and Middle Eastern countries whose public universities are starved for resources must significantly increase public investment in higher education and research.
 
Second, the higher education systems in the Arab world need to build their capacity to design and implement deep reforms in a consensual mode, in order to modernize governance structures and processes overall, allowing for increased institutional autonomy and full academic freedom.  To be successful, these reforms must be designed and implemented in a spirit of transparency and objectivity, on the basis of a realistic assessment of existing needs, gaps, strengths and weaknesses.  It would make such a difference if the Arab countries would start showing as much enthusiasm for the transformation and modernization of their higher education systems as for the results of their national soccer teams on their way to the next World Cup qualifier match!
Themes
Higher Education, Employment and Skills Gap

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reply - Sep 14, 2017
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