Recent political turmoil and upheaval across the Arab world, from Tunisia to Iraq and Bahrain have shocked the world and brought the concerns and demands of the region’s 100 million youth into focus. Demands for political and social change have been met with varied success (Tunisia) and in many cases turned violent (Egypt and Libya), culminating in civil war (Syria). The demands to overturn the existing social structures in the region signaled the deep frustrations with the prevalent status-quo and the disillusionment of the youth with the broken promises of a brighter future offered by successive dictatorships and a broken higher education system that has been failing to provide the basic skills to compete in the global economy.
On the backdrop of these events, I will briefly look back at the history of higher education in the Arab world, and the conditions that contributed to its demise and failings. I will also investigate the current status of the system, the challenges it faces, and the few attempts that are being made to address those problems.
The challenges facing the higher education system in the Arab world are enormous, and range from those that are self-created, like misallocation of resources and indifference to research, others are beyond the control of academics, while many are a hybrid of both. I will attempt to discuss some aspects of those challenges and their etiologies. Given the current state of affairs of Arab universities, it is easy to overlook the significant contributions that the Arab world has played in producing the higher education system that we know today.
The golden age
The collective nostalgia of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) peoples towards the days of the Islamic caliphate, when Arabs ruled the lands extending from the lands of Saudi Arabia to the Iberian Peninsula, stems primarily from the success that the rulers of the era had achieved, and the cultural, scientific, and economic riches enjoyed by their followers at the time. During the period from the 9th to the 13th century, the Arab world enjoyed unprecedented, and as of yet unmatched cultural and academic prosperity. Fields of study varied from mathematics, trigonometry, algebra, geometry, optics, medicine, chemistry, physics, astronomy, agriculture, navigation, architecture, and music flourished under the auspices of the Arab-Islamic rulers of the time. Research was a thriving endeavor, and Arabic books were translated to Latin, and later to vernacular European languages at a constant rate. By the time of the Italian Renaissance, Arabic culture was a major source of knowledge for Christian Europe. The madrasa (school) remains a mainstay of the Arab institutional life. And while it specialized largely in religious sciences, it was the origin of many common features of the contemporary university such as conferring master’s and doctoral degrees, protections for academic freedom, inaugural lectures, the wearing of robes, and the holding of chairs. Some scholars also argue that the “highly sophisticated method of legal disputation used in teaching the Islamic legal sciences that came to be used in the exact sciences” was adopted in Europe and Persia and became known as the “scientific method” (Makdisi, 1990). Academies like Beit al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) in Baghdad became bustling centers for scholars from across the world. It is no coincidence that many Arabs track the demise and capitulation of the Arab culture to the fall of Baghdad and its famed library (housed in Beit Al-Hikma) to the Mongols who turned the water of the Tigris River black with the ink of books thrown into it.
Turning of the tide
Following the Italian Renaissance, which started around the same time of the fall of Baghdad, and the Industrial Revolution, the Ottomans became the rulers of the Arab world under the pretext of religion. Two significant events played a role in shaping the educational landscape of the region at the time. The first was the reluctance of the Muslim world, and the Ottoman Empire in particular, to embrace the printing press, albeit the first book to be printed in England was a translation of Arabic text via Latin, then French. The second event was the indisputable rise of Europe as a global world power, forcing the Ottomans to endorse European higher educational models as “containing the formula for achieving power, economic success, and scientific advancement” (Herrera, 2007). And so, in 1809, viceroy Mohamed Ali Pasha, ruler of Egypt, started sending students on educational missions to Europe and then establish numerous schools in Egypt specializing in medicine, agriculture, pharmaceutics, chemistry, engineering and translation.
Early European missions in the Arab world
With the increasing dominance of the European culture and waning power of the Ottoman Empire, missionaries from Europe and the United States started to set their own institutions of higher education. These were mostly tailored to the Christian and Jewish Arab populations through their extensive networks of primary and secondary schools. That fact offered a the missionaries a degree of freedom to introduce their curricula and teachings, and a guarantee to the Muslim leaders that the institutions are not targeting their “brothers in faith” or undermining their power. The Syrian Protestant College, later named the American University of Beirut (1866), the University of Saint Joseph, also located in Beirut and established by French Jesuits (1875), and the American University of Cairo (1920) all remain pioneering forces in setting the standards of higher education in the region. They served as templates for the national universities, which started to gain presence after independence.
(Part 2, will focus on the post-colonial era and the rise of the national universities, and the challenges those faced in the police states and authoritarian regimes that dominated the region.)