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.
(For part 1, click here)
Populist policies in education. When asked about the state of academic freedom in Arab universities, an Algerian professor explained, “In Arab universities, instead of academic freedom, there are different levels and types of academic oppression” (quoted in Taha-Thomure, 2002, p. 75). Another professor remarked “If the West has borrowed our sciences, scientific methodology and academic institutions in the past, I doubt that our invention of “academic police” (quoted in Sabour, 2001, p. 120). What are the factors that contributed to this dismal state in higher education in the Arab world, and what are the challenges that need to be addressed? For the purposes of this paper, I am considering the post-colonial era as the period extending from the date countries in the region gained heir independence in the wake of World War II until fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. After independence, and specifically in the 1950s and 1960s, local governments adopted the populist policy of free education for all and at all levels, from basic to tertiary education. In Egypt, the Nasser regime went a step further and guaranteed a government job to all graduates. The policy was a recipe for disaster as such promises were unsustainable. As a result, the Egyptian public sector is currently bloated with 6 million poorly paid and inadequately trained university graduates (Anderson, 2012).
According to recent United Nations Development Program (UNDP) reports, youth under the age of 25 represent an estimated an unprecedented 60% of the Arab world’s population. In many of the region’s countries, approximately 30% of the population is between the ages of 15 and 29 (UNDP, 2009). The majority of these youth find themselves growing up in unbearable circumstances that stifle their creativity, failing economies, and crushing political realities that offer no hope for change. What is worse is that students graduating from universities in their respective countries find no place in the labor market. Youth unemployment in the MENA region is the highest in the world, with Middle East rating 21% and North Africa at 25% out of whom one-third are university graduates (Al-Khatib, 2014). Recent figures from MENA region indicate that higher education rates have doubled during the period 1960-1995. Moreover, the public sector in the region dominates the labor market and limits the role of private enterprise, which doesn’t reflect well on diversification of job opportunities and the labor market at the local level (Al-Khatib, 2014).
Lack of planning
What exacerbates the problem is a glaring lack of long-term planning to ease the transition of students from universities to labor markets. Iraq, once a regional scientific power and one that fell for the “open for all” policies, research funding followed a simple mechanism before the fall of the Ba’ath Party dictatorship. According to Alex Dehgan of the U.S. Agency for International Development in Washington: “a wave of Saddam’s hand” was all a researcher needed to get unlimited governmental funding (Bhattacharjee, 2010), a fact that reflects the severe lack of serious scientific endeavors and strategies to support research and higher education. In fact, expenditure on research and development remains insignificant, in comparison with research budgets in the developed world (Porta, Arcia, MacDonald, Radyakin and Lokshin, 2011).
Lack of resources
As a result of planning and long-term strategizing, the region has limited infrastructure in technological and communication provision, with “outdated education practices and a lack of national planning to identify national concerns and foster an enabling environment” (Al-Khatib, 2014). The lack of monetary reward is another worrying and debilitating aspect of the universities in the region. A doctoral supervisor in a national university in Egypt, for example, is paid the equivalent of $40 to supervise a thesis. As a result, supervisors find no motivation or time to dedicate to the process. Graduate students are left with insignificant, if any, mentoring, and many of them end up paying their supervisors to perform their tasks (Anderson, 2012; Zohny, 2011).
(Part 3 will include a look at the lack of academic freedom, critical thinking, and issues of access to higher education in the Arab World.)