The future of social sciences and humanities departments at Arab universities seems increasingly in doubt. Amid a growing emphasis on linking curricula to the labour market, policy makers focus more on applied studies, leaving theoretical colleges and academic programmes to struggle for funds.
Saudi Arabia, for example, decided to cut down the number of students admitted to theoretical faculties and to transform 40 theoretical faculties into applied health, technical, and engineering faculties.
Egypt, meanwhile, is realigning its higher education sector by opening new universities that offer majors in scientific fields related to labour market needs, as an alternative to theoretical colleges.
Against this backdrop, Al-Fanar Media talked to several scholars of the social sciences and the humanities about the status of these disciplines today and how they can remain relevant in the future.
Moushira Elgeziri, associate director of the Arab Council for the Social Sciences, in Beirut, says the devaluing of teaching the social sciences and humanities is a global issue, and does not apply only to the Arab region.
“Over the past few decades, the university community embraced a widespread idea that social sciences are poorly related to the development, knowledge, and economic growth needed by societies, and are thus irrelevant to the labour market.”Moushira Elgeziri, Associate director of the Arab Council for the Social Sciences
“Over the past few decades, the university community embraced a widespread idea that social sciences are poorly related to the development, knowledge, and economic growth needed by societies, and are thus irrelevant to the labour market,” she said via e-mail. “There is also a belief that scientific disciplines, especially information technology, management, and entrepreneurship, are the most needed disciplines in the current era.”
Elgeziri said this perception had negative repercussions on the social sciences, making it harder to fund these disciplines. Consequently, many universities around the world have been forced to shut down their social sciences departments.
“The situation is different in the Arab world, given the official view of social sciences as marginalised majors usually chosen by students with low grades, as is the case in Egypt,” she said.
She thinks that social sciences in the Arab world can be developed through the advancement of their teaching methods and content to highlight their potential in bringing about social change.
Study of the social sciences and humanities helps students think creatively, innovatively, and critically about social issues, she said. It also helps them deepen their understanding of other cultures or societies, and develop analytical thinking skills.
Elgeziri believes that the lack of focus on the latent capabilities of the social sciences deprives societies of the critical and creative thinking needed to understand and analyse problems, and develop solutions to them.
She says it’s important to spread awareness about the importance of the social sciences in the development of societies. She calls for introducing students to the various job opportunities offered by the social sciences, and highlighting the contributions of successful public figures and role models who studied social sciences.
Elgeziri also calls on Arab universities to update their social sciences and humanities content and teaching methods, so that they engage with global developments in knowledge production and become more relevant to society’s issues and priorities. She welcomed a trend in many universities of using interdisciplinary approaches in teaching critical social sciences that question authority and power and focus on the practices of resistance, the issues of daily life, and the roles of marginalised groups in the production of alternative knowledge.
Changing Views About the Social Sciences
Reem Alrudainy, a professor of Islamic history at Kuwait University’s College of Arts, said that “Arab universities need a revolution in their understanding of the role of the humanities and social sciences, to realise that these disciplines’ main role is to explain the interactions of community members and to provide solutions from their perspective to these issues.”
“Arab universities need a revolution in their understanding of the role of the humanities and social sciences, to realise that these disciplines’ main role is to explain the interactions of community members and to provide solutions from their perspective to these issues.”Reem Alrudainy, A professor of Islamic history at Kuwait University
That view stands in contrast to the prevailing concept of these disciplines as dealing with outdated, traditional issues, she told Al-Fanar Media.
Alrudainy, who founded the first Women’s and Gender Studies Research Unit at Kuwait University, said universities should be adopting new curricula and theories in the humanities, rather than cancelling departments or cutting down the number of students admitted to them under false pretexts. Eliminating fields of study, she said, also violates the right of students to choose the majors they prefer.
Alrudainy thinks that the problem for Arab universities is their adoption of classical teaching methods and curricula that do not interact with society and its real issues, for religious and cultural reasons. She pointed out that universities are usually afraid of any change to avoid being labeled as bowing to Western interventions that seek to change values and concepts in the Arab region.
For a real-life instance, she cited that the research unit she founded in 2019 had faced attack campaigns from public figures and lawmakers who questioned the purposes of the unit, making many students and academics reluctant to join.
“The Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting economic downturn in most of the Arab world exacerbated the bad conditions of social sciences and humanities students.”Hania Sholkamy, A professor of anthropology at the American University in Cairo
She also thinks that the essence of the development process is to present new visions in teaching on topics that intersect with current societal issues, and for authorities to support the role of these disciplines and their researchers and make use of their knowledge and expertise in policy-making and design.
Hania Sholkamy, a professor of anthropology at the American University in Cairo, believes that the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting economic downturn in most of the Arab world exacerbated the bad conditions for social sciences and humanities students. This makes her pessimistic about the chances for developing academic programmes in these majors in Arab universities.
The social sciences and humanities suffer in particular from cuts in higher-education budgets because of a widespread belief that they do not achieve quick profits, compared to applied colleges, she told Al-Fanar Media. That means social sciences departments must contend with continued reductions of official support and resources, in favor of faculties of engineering and science, she added.
[Enjoying this article? Subscribe to our free newsletter.]
Other aspects of the crisis for these disciplines include the neglect of their curricula in policy-making, and the gap between sociologists’ research and real problems in their societies, Sholkamy said.
These conditions leave her less than optimistic about the future of social sciences departments in Arab universities and their prospects for development.