Potential of the 'Arab Spring'

At gathering of European university leaders, speakers urge them (and American counterparts) to promote reforms in Middle Eastern higher education.
September 22, 2011

Partnerships between European and "Arab Spring" universities will be vital to improving higher education in the fledgling democracies, an international conference has heard.

Speaking in Copenhagen at the European Association for International Education’s annual conference, a panel including lecturers, ministers and education campaigners from Arab countries said that academic cooperation with Europe was vital in a period of transition.

Dissatisfaction among students with overcrowded, low-quality courses offering few job opportunities had been a significant driver in the Arab Spring uprisings, said Hassan Diab, Lebanon’s minister of education and higher education. There were 7.6 million students across the 22 Arab League countries in 2008, up from 3 million in 1998, but reform was needed to guarantee greater course quality, he said. It has yet to arrive.

Classes at some Egyptian universities contain as many as 1,000 students to one professor.

"Governments have resorted to increasing quantity, but the real issue is quality – there are poor educational standards," said Diab, an electrical engineering professor at the American University of Beirut. "We would not be serving the Arab region if we continue as we are now. The issue of quality is extremely important to address – we need better quality assurance."

Emphasis on rote learning was also harming the quality of graduates leaving Arab universities, he added.

"Our educational techniques do not promote critical-thinking skills. We need these because we have to train students to solve problems that do not exist at the moment," he said. "There is also a clear need for some type of career guidance that does not exist in the Arab world."

Jomana Shdefat, assistant professor in education at Al al-Bayt University, in Mafraq, Jordan, said student- and staff-exchange programs with Europe could help to break down the traditional gender roles prevalent in the Arab sector. Shdefat, a native Bedouin who was the first person in her family to attend a university, said: "They need to be exposed to European and American models of teaching. They need to return to Jordan with new ideas of scholarship. Many students come to take degrees without any aims – it’s a type of tourism. Students need to know why they are studying a subject. Girls are smarter in this way than boys, but there are no job opportunities for them because they are women. In my career, because I am a woman, I am always seen as second-class."

Female students face greater challenges owing to the expectation that they should marry before they begin their studies, she said. "A lot of my students have husbands and big families – two, three or four children. They have a lot of domestic duties to do."

With 65 percent of the Arab population under the age of 25, and with the recent popular uprisings being partly driven by demands for higher-skilled jobs, university reform would be key to building social cohesion, said Salah Khalil, an education advocate.

Khalil, an Egyptian businessman and philanthropist, who is attempting to compile an online database of key social science textbooks for use in the post-Mubarak regime, said a system of U.S.- or European-style endowments for Arab universities was needed. "It is embarrassing to be part of a world where there are all these riches, but the amount of philanthropy here is dwarfed by the U.S. This kind of thinking needs to be encouraged."

Salim Al Malik, supervisor for international relations at the Ministry of Higher Education in Saudi Arabia, which has 1 million students including 135,000 foreign nationals, said individual academics should take the lead in forming the partnerships the Arab sector needs.

"Building links is not done institution-to-institution – it’s done between individuals. Then you will build those relationships between institutions," he said.

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