With the start of the New Year, Al-Fanar Media surveyed the opinions of some scholars who focus on Arab education about the past and the future:
Manar Sabry, Egyptian higher education expert at State University of New York at Buffalo, United States:
Arab universities did not achieve much during 2014. Unfortunately there was no real progress across the region.
The one serious problem that is not getting enough attention is the status of Arab refugees who are mainly from Syria and Iraq. Neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Kuwait are unable to accommodate the refugees on their campuses. Even Turkey, which has put effort to receive Syrian students in its universities, is not able to meet the growing demand.
Academic freedom has witnessed great deterioration. Conflicts in Libya and Egypt have negatively affected academic freedom. Students and professors are jailed or killed for voicing their opinion or even during the dangerous commute to universities.
But on other side, universities continued toward improving the quality of education, and we have seen some positive signs. We now have the first university rankings for the Arab region. We hope that the rankings create more competition among Arab countries and we also believe that it may lead to additional accessible standardized educational data.
The progress in research capacity and innovation is too slow. Many factors played in the stagnant situation but the political instability and limited funds are the two major contributors.
Anouar Majid, Moroccan higher education expert and vice president for Global Affairs at the University of New England, the United States:
Except in the Gulf region, Arab universities will continue to struggle in 2015. Most are underfunded; there is comparatively no culture of basic research in science and technology and freedom of thought will remain constrained by several forms of authoritarianism.
This state of affairs will continue to have dire consequences for a region that is lagging behind in most measures of human development.
Arab nations need to set up university free zones and fund them generously to support research and publications. If universities are to become incubators of new knowledge in the Arab world, faculty, students and researchers must be guaranteed absolute freedom. There is no other way that I can see.
Abdelkader Djeflat, Algerian higher education expert at University of Lille, in France:
Arab universities are still suffering from low quality and inefficiency. With few exceptions, they still produce low-caliber graduates who have performed poorly both in the workplace and in research. Overall university finances are unstable and unpredictable, making long-term commitments such as tenure and research difficult. In particular, funding for STI (science, technology and innovation) is under pressure and fewer young people appear attracted to the subject.
Students suffer from double isolation from international renowned universities and from the business sector.
The lack of university autonomy has prevented independent scientific research. Instead, universities continue to passively absorb political orientations and guide lines. . .Although there is now a relatively high share of women in university education, the percentage of women researchers is particularly low.
Mohamed Al-Rubeai, Iraqi higher education expert at University College Dublin, Ireland:
Arab universities face challenges related to a critical shortage of quality teaching and research staff, poor governance, leadership and management, deteriorating quality of research, irrelevance of many degrees to the labour market and undue influence of government and religion.
The Arab Knowledge Report 2014 released in December, has indicated that the Arab region is falling short in knowledge development.
Amal Rhema, a Libyan higher education expert and a lecturer at Aljabal Algharbi University, in Libya:
Most Arab countries need to start fundamental reforms in order to address the challenges that they face. Those reforms need to come in stages, with the first ones focusing on the fields most related to preparing the state and society for upcoming changes. I think that the great deployment of information and communication technology and e-learning, assisted by the international community, can provide the Arab countries with the opportunity to significantly reform their education systems, modernize instructional methods and improve access to higher education.
In universities, more new educational technologies are required to develop new progressive institutions by involving students in problem-solving, working in teams, learning as opposed to teaching and interacting with the world around them.
Yasser Gaber Dessouky, dean of scientific research and innovation at the Arab Academy for Science and Technology & Maritime Transport, in Egypt:
We need to study the success stories in Turkey, Brazil, South Africa and Malaysia to see how these countries moved forward with the education within the total system of their remarkable development.
Hassan Moawad Abdel Al, higher education, science and technology consultant, former president of the City for Scientific Research and Technology Applications in Alexandria:
The Arab world needs to set up a regional higher education observatory to provide review, assessment and evaluation of higher-educational sector to policy makers to enable them to prepare evidence-based strategies for reforming and upgrading universities.
Hilmi Salem, director-general of applied sciences and engineering research centers at the Palestine Technical University:
With some Arab states declaring 2015 as the “Education Year” (in Yemen) and the “Year of Innovation” (in the United Arab Emirates), I hope that Arab states will declare 2015 as the year of regional higher education. We need higher education focused on employment and sustainable development.
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