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Students in countries affected by the Arab Spring are failing to get a proper university education because they still feel unable to challenge their tutors, an international conference has heard.

Speaking at the European Association for International Education's annual conference in Istanbul, Khaled Fahmy, professor of history at the American University in Cairo, said the culture of deference to lecturers was more damaging to student development than overcrowded classrooms or the general lack of university resources.

Students are keen not to embarrass their instructors by asking them hard questions or probing the limits of their knowledge, said Fahmy, a former Fulbright scholar who taught at New York University before joining AUC. "Students are actually well ahead [intellectually] of their advisers," said Fahmy at the EAIE conference. "But when they have meetings they make huge efforts to dumb themselves down ... even [trying] to appear backward or lazy, otherwise their professors will be challenged," he said.

Fahmy traced the culture of undue deference toward academics back to the hierarchy between teachers and students found in the French academy, which was the model for most Egyptian universities. "This is the curse [in] Cairo University ... far more than the large numbers of students," he argued, citing his neighboring university, which has about 280,000 students.

But Michael Willis, King Mohammed VI fellow in Moroccan and Mediterranean studies at St Antony's College, Oxford, said attitudes may start to change because young people felt more empowered to question orthodoxies since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.

"What most depressed me about living and teaching in Morocco was the sense of fatalism in young people," Willis said. "They felt the future could not be changed and everything was fixed and tied down by self-appointed elites, but there is now a sense things can be changed."

Fahmy also believed the current status quo was "untenable" but that vibrant democracies could not be established unless liberal arts began to flourish within universities. "There is actually no term in Arabic for liberal arts," he said, adding that universities were too focused on providing degrees in science, engineering and medicine. "The result is that it is very difficult for critical thinking to take place on campus."

Without new ideas arising from the humanities subjects, more vocational skills could not be effectively applied to real-world problems, he added. "In engineering, our expertise is how to pour concrete, but there is no knowledge of urban planning or how to organize public space."

The overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt after growing discontent with its administration may also be attributed to its failure to engage with the liberal politics demanded by people nowadays, he said.

"The common critique of the Muslim Brotherhood is there isn't a single poet, artist or writer in their leadership -- 85 percent of them hold engineering or medical qualifications," he said.

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