Finding a Purpose & Defining Oneself: On What’s Needed for Success

In his writings exploring moments of greatness that separate exhilarating success from monotonous hours of mere competence, Robert E Quinn, University of Michigan’s Professor of Management and Organization, defines two “states of being”. The Normal State refers to the comfort-centered (sticking with what we know), self-focused (placing our interests above those of the group), externally-directed (complying with others’ wishes to avoid conflict), and internally-closed (avoiding risk-taking) set of behaviors that direct our day-to-day lives on the professional and personal levels. Quinn suggests that while the normal state of being is comfortable and safe, it leaves us with a feeling of languishing and emptiness. The second state Quinn describes is the Fundamental State of Leadership, which he suggests is critical to creating moments of glory and accomplishment. In a nutshell, the Fundamental State is everything that the Normal State is not. Rather than being consumed with self-promotion and personal interest, driven by pleasing others, worrying about their perceptions of you, and following the easier path, the Fundamental State prompts you to focus on one goal that trumps all else: delivering results. This state is usually attained under duress, time crunch, and exceptional circumstances where project completion becomes of existential importance for the organization/ team.

Under such circumstances, leaders become results-oriented,  fixated on the issues that matter the most and ignoring distractions because there is no other way forward. The result? Moments of brilliance and extreme productivity. When dissected, the foundations of the Fundamental State could be utilized to attain enduring, rather than fleeting, times of glory and triumph. According to Quinn, these foundations are: 1. Being results-centered, 2. Being internally-directed, 3. Becoming team-focused, 4. Opening up for feedback and adaptability.

An essential step towards implementing those foundations is defining your core principles. You cannot be relentlessly results-oriented without asking the core question: “What results do I truly care about?”. Neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl similarly postulates that our ability to thrive lies in finding a greater meaning to our existence (Man’s Search for Meaning, where he defined logotherapy, a form of existential analysis, explores this concept in more detail).

Maya Angelou once said that success is “liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it”. It is impossible to imagine success in those terms if one has not defined their purpose and their passion in life, then striving to achieve it on a daily basis. For leaders, it is becoming clearer that the essence of excellence is dedication to benefit the collective, rather than one’s self. A lesson that could not be stressed enough in a world that appears to glorify hostility in the business world.

Be the Learners Who Inherit the Future

“In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future.”

Reflection on the Human Condition, Eric Hoffer

Eric Hoffer’s words ring true like never before as our region gets engulfed in a wave of drastic political upheaval, economic downturn, vociferous demands for social change, and unprecedented technological advancement. These changes have left Lebanon and the Arab World torn between the nostalgia of our (distant) past accomplishments, and the allure of modernity and globalization.

At the beginning of a new academic year, your ability as students to keep a clear head, and wade through the chaos becomes exponentially more difficult; yet, it is equally critical to do so, for the survival and well-being of our nation depends on it. The path ahead, therefore, can take one of two forms. The first is the result of giving in to the crises we are in, and wallowing in the tragedy that we have inherited. The end result of that choice is an image of the present state we are in, and possibly worse. The second option is to dig in, commit to change the world and our circumstances, and buckle up for the ride of our lives in a journey of challenges, discovery, and small – but invaluable- steps toward a better future.

At the Modern University for Business and Science (MUBS), we have been vigilant in our pursuit of these latter higher values, working with our students, faculty, staff, and world-renowned scholars from Europe and the United States to establish a university that offers the latest in pedagogical approaches, hands-on learning experiences, modern laboratories, and access to the highest quality research. Fifteen years into our journey, we are reaping the rewards of our commitment, establishing a Research Office that is at the center of projects exploring a wide range of topics, from the role of parenting in academic achievement and social behavior (a collaboration with San Jose State University and UC Berkeley, in California), to understanding the psychology of success (in collaboration with Stanford University), the molecular mechanisms involved in motor neuron disease (with St Jude Children’s Hospital in Tennessee), and exploring the micropollutants in Lebanese water sources (in a joint project with Université d’Orléans in France), among many other projects supported by internal university funds and external grants from the European Union and the National Institutes of Health in the United States.

Along the same line of thinking, MUBS has launched the first University Community Center (UCC) in the Arab world, as a unique effort that capitalizes on the ability of an academic institution to utilize its resources, scientific capability, and human capital in the service of the community. The UCC, located in Jal-el-Dib, epitomizes everything that we stand for. In its essence, the Center is a project that bridges the creative, abstract, and scientific world of academic theory, and the concrete realities and struggles of our society. In other words, it is a commitment to the prosperity of our community through scientific and cultural engagement that benefits our society and offers our students the freedom to expand their horizons and develop their skills in the real word. Most importantly, MUBS, the Research Office, and the UCC are a chance for our students to be the explorers, adventurers, and learners Eric Hoffer so ingeniously predicts will inherit the future.

And so, I urge you to shed the past and its archaic ways, and explore the future with open eyes, through the lens of scientific research, and a commitment to face the challenges head-on, because hardships are lessons and opportunities for growth in disguise.

Responding to Students’ Developmental Needs at Community Colleges

by Nadine Alami


In January 2015, President Obama announced his plan for tuition-free community college, thus offering hope and providing educational opportunity to many American students and families. The initiative sends powerful messages on the affordability of education in the United States and stresses the significance of postsecondary degree attainment. The ten-year $60 billion plan could help around nine million students graduate with a college degree (The White House, 2015), at a time when earning a postsecondary degree is a prerequisite for the growing jobs in the new economy. Today half of the jobs require postsecondary education and college graduates earn as twice as workers with high school diplomas (Tanner, 2011). But with significantly low completion rates, cost is only part of the problem at community colleges (Community College Research Center, 2015). If Obama’s free community college initiative was fully funded by federal and state governments, community colleges will be required to react wisely to accommodate the learning and developmental needs of the anticipated large numbers of students.


Whether considered an extension to high school years or the first two years of university studies, community colleges are distinguished from other postsecondary institutions in many aspects. They are open-access and nonselective institutions by definition (Cohen, Brawer, & Kisker, 2013), hence providing affordable education to all segments of the society. Students apply to community colleges for a variety of reasons including updating their skills, job training, or to transfer to four-year colleges. Almost half of all undergraduates in the United Sates were enrolled in 1200 institutions nationwide during fall 2008 (Brown, 2012). In addition, the student body at these institutions is considerably unique and diverse. While 60% of the students are enrolled on a part-time basis, the average age of those enrolled in 2008 was 28 (Brown, 2012). Moreover, 44% of all African American students, 52% of Hispanic students, 55% of Native American students, and 45% of Asian/Pacific Islanders are registered in community colleges (Brown, 2012).

In the past few years, enrollment proliferated substantially in community colleges with an average increase of 11% between 2008 and 2009 (Goldrick-Rab, 2010). But the effort to expand enrollment at low cost did not increase completion rates. Although a significant percentage of students enroll in community colleges with the intention to receive some kind of credential (Martin, Galentino, & Townsend, 2014), they make little progress towards earning a certificate or degree, thus demonstrating a disconnect between aspirations and achievement. In 2010, only 28% of students enrolled graduated with a certificate or degree within three years and around 45% did so after six years (Brown, 2012). In their book Crossing the Finish Line, Bowen, Chingnos, and McPherson (2009) consider that dropout rates are linked to race, gender, and socioeconomic status, especially that non-white students have generally lower graduation rates than non-minority students (Martin et al., 2014). Therefore, although community colleges embrace a mission of “democratizing” (Goldrick-Rab, 2010, p. 437) opportunities, completion rates are still significantly low and imply drastic policy implications.

Access, a Prelude to Success?

Access and success do not necessarily mutually exist. If President Obama’s initiative was fully funded, it will provide more access to community colleges, but will also require that colleges respond to other major issues like student support, retention, success, and completion. Although the initiative brings more attention and resources to community colleges, several other issues need to be addressed to reap its benefit, especially that Pell grants today cover up to $5,730 of college expenses for the lowest income students, while the average community college costs $4000 (Bailey, 2002). Therefore, decreasing costs will not necessarily increase graduation. The critical work with this plan would be to increase success and completion rates, knowing that the free college initiative addresses issues of performance, progress, and completion (Community College Research Center, 2015). These stipulations would hopefully push colleges to create better policies that would contribute to enhanced students’ development and outcomes.

For community colleges to address students’ needs, they are required to be well informed about their backgrounds and characteristics, especially that students at community colleges face many more challenges than those at four-year institutions. Research indicates that minority student groups who are less academically prepared and who originate from low socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to persist in colleges (Martin et al., 2014). Another major difference between community college students and those at four-year institutions is the amount of time spent at work while attending classes (Townsend & Twombly, 2007). In conclusion, Pascarella and Terenzini (1991) found that two-year community college students are less likely to persist than four-year college students.

With President Obama’s current initiative, students would have the chance to work less, especially if their tuition cost is waived and if they can continue using the Pell grants to cover their expenses. If students work fewer hours, chances for success would increase (Martin et al., 2014). Shifting the focus of these individuals from being primarily workers to students might have a positive impact on success and retention, especially that research indicates that part-time students who spend long hours at work find difficulty in keeping up with their studies, and might consequently drop out (Brown, 2012). Upon getting the chance to work fewer hours, students should be encouraged by community college officials to be full-time students pursuing15 credits per semester instead of 12 credits. In this case, students will have a greater chance to attain their degree within three years of enrollment, thus enhancing not only completion rates, but also the pace towards completion.

Student Development Models for Community College Students

It is essential to note that the majority of research on student persistence has been conducted on traditional students at four-year institutions. Tinto’s (1975) model of student persistence focused on the relationship between student characteristics, goal commitment, integration, and institutional commitment as factors influencing persistence. But according to Braxton, Hirsch, and McClendon (2004), this model does not fit non-traditional students except in terms of student characteristics and its role in persistence. According to a recent study (Martin et al., 2014), students who are self-empowered with clear goals and high motivation are successful despite their academic deficiencies. Hence, predictors of low persistence may be overcome with sufficient motivation and empowerment from student development professionals at colleges. It is the community college’s responsibility to set procedures and practices to nurture these characteristics. Whether on the administrative guidance level, on the teaching level, or on the institutional environment level, programs should be put in place to foster these student characteristics.

Besides, student development programs at four-year colleges serve more homogeneous groups than at community colleges (Ortiz, 1995). Hence, student development professionals at two-year community colleges need to possess the ability of working with different types of students. Although the existing theories in student development literature apply to segments of traditional students, it is hard to operate without minimal theoretical guidance. Chickering and Reisser (1993) emphasize the importance of student autonomy and mastering intellectual, physical, and social competence. They consider that these tasks allow students to achieve a well-rounded identity that will facilitate development at college. Developing identity in underrepresented students may be challenging though (Ortiz, 1995). Underrepresented students may find it difficult to make friends in new environments, thus leading to isolation in these new environments. Richardson and Skinner (Ortiz, 1995) consider that this is a major reason why students choose a part time schedule sometimes. To help these underrepresented groups in developing identity and competence, student development professionals are responsible for creating support networks that may help provide similar support to that at their home community. Developing support groups and ethnic student organizations may largely help integrate these students into the institutional environment. On the other side, nontraditional aged students at community colleges are more goal-oriented, but they may experience feelings of incompetence and challenge to attain their goals due to their age. Supporting these groups of students by providing adequate career networks and guiding workshops would also be necessary to ensure their development.

Academic Preparedness

Bowen et al. (2009) describe academic preparedness as the major determinant in educational attainment. So in response to students’ academic needs, ensuring academic preparedness is crucial. In 1996, 57% of community colleges reported the academic preparedness of their newly admitted students as poor (Goldrick-Rab, 2010). In addition, 60% of new students participate in at least one remedial course (Hughes & Scott-Clayton, 2011). The significance of remedial courses stems from the fact that some of them like English and Math act as “gatekeepers” (Goldrick-Rab, 2010, p. 448) to college completion. Additionally, studies pinpoint that only one-quarter of students taking their first remedial complete it successfully due to the cost and time burden they set (Brown, 2012). Students who pass these courses and who get the chance to join higher-level courses have better chances of progressing towards completion (Fike & Fike, 2008). This is a serious challenge for community colleges as it may significantly cut off students’ pathways to their dream degree before they have even started. Besides, the economy loses around $2.3 billion from college dropouts and lost potential earning (Brown, 2012). In response, community college administrators should seek ways to reduce the burden of these developmental courses in order to increase success and persistence.

The problem of low completion in developmental courses may be partially due to the misalignment of curriculum between high schools and community colleges. Student success may be improved if placement exams are better aligned with high school curriculum, especially in Math and English. Community college administrators should share their expectations from high school graduates with school teachers and administrators, in an attempt to decrease the burden of academic failure in remedial courses.

In addition, since developmental courses are intensive in nature, they should be contextualized and targeted towards the specific learning styles and needs of students. Accurately identifying students’ deficiencies and necessities would serve students better and would also speed up their transition to the postsecondary programs. For example, the Math Jam program at Pasadena City College in California is a two-week free summer program in Math for new students (Brown, 2012). It provides innovative fast-track instruction, orientation, and support services to increase student achievement. Since its commencement in 2006, 842 students successfully completed Math Jam. This demonstrates that innovative approaches in remediation and preparation are required to facilitate student progress.

Moreover, some studies have pointed out to the importance of using multiple assessment measures besides the standardized exams to ensure better outcomes (Hughes & Scott-Clayton, 2011). For example, using high school transcripts and writing samples may provide sufficient information and would also allow for the appropriate course of action in terms of assigning remediation to students.   In addition, giving students the chance to enroll in accelerated remedial education may help progress towards graduation (Center for Community College Student Engagement, 2014).

Guidance and Support

Most students reach community colleges with completion as their goal. But, too often, students lack the ability to navigate the academic environment. Frequently, students do not possess the understanding and the information about course prerequisites, curriculum, and general requirements. This is not unique to community colleges, but also widely exists in four-year institutions (Brown, 2012). It is the colleges’ responsibility to ensure the acquaintance of every new student to the new educational experience. New student orientation is a gateway that may help improve student success and completion (Bailey, 2002). Orientation sessions, counseling, and curriculum guides might all support students to persist throughout their college years. Although these additional resources may incur a cost on colleges, investing in students who do not persist constitutes a larger financial loss for institutions (Cohen et al., 2013).

Providing adequate support services is crucial in student satisfaction and retention. Due to the wide range of information and the little advising, studies show that a fair proportion of students in community colleges take courses that they do not need, hence spending more time in college and eventually dropping out (Goldrick-Rab, 2010). Additionally, the concentration of poor and minority students with other poor and minority students risks the level of college awareness and knowledge due to potential isolation from other advantaged students (Roderick, Nagaoka, & Coca, 2009). Moreover, students from socioeconomically disadvantaged families are less equipped to make good choices when confronted with several pathways and options (Roderick et al., 2009). To avoid ineffective choices, Bailey (2002) calls for adequate course guidance and clear pathways in order to simplify students’ choices without limiting their options.

Therefore, it would be vital to provide community college students with enough support through orientation courses that teach study skills, time management skills, and effective college habits. It is also essential to try to involve parents in student advising and to ensure a smaller student-counselor ratio to guarantee personalized guidance for all students.

The Role of Faculty

Ensuring student success and development also requires that community colleges pay special attention to core functions such as teaching. Although there is vigorous and ample research on the effect of teachers on student outcomes in K-12, the role of faculty in community colleges is often neglected in studies (Goldrick-Rab, 2010). The conditions under which faculty members work, including reliance on adjunct faculty due to lack of resources, lack of incentives, and lack of professional development, are usually linked to student outcomes (Roderick et al., 2009). Community college faculty members, like all professors, need resources and opportunities for curriculum planning and development in addition to workshops and training on how to use new technology and set up proper assessment techniques.

Therefore, the quality of teaching at community colleges is generally debated (Goldrick-Rab, 2010). Aside from the lack of training and competency, heterogeneous student backgrounds and older student age groups make the job of teachers more challenging. Given this environment, faculty members at community colleges need to make the effort to engage students by accommodating the different learning styles students have (Svinicki, 1999) and by contextualizing knowledge so that it relates to the backgrounds and characteristics of their students. As per Dewey (1916), contextual learning that relates subject matter to real life situations motivates students and helps them make connections between theoretical knowledge and its application. Furthermore, research indicates that instruction for adults needs to be linked to practical applications especially in remedial level courses (Goldrick-Rab, 2010).

Another significant issue at community colleges is the shortage of faculty in science, technology, engineering, math, and nursing majors (Goldrick-Rab, 2010). This shortage is necessitating the recruitment of younger and less experienced faculty who very often lack effective pedagogical skills to engage students appropriately (Brown, 2012). Students in developmental courses need psychological support as much as they need basic skills instruction, for they often lack the confidence and motivation to succeed. That is why it is imperative to involve and train faculty to possess specialized teaching and intervention skills, especially that community colleges have the benefit of being solely teaching institutions unlike four-year research universities. For example, faculty members at Montgomery County Community College are required to redesign and reconsider teaching approaches to developmental courses in order to positively influence student achievement (Brown, 2012). By involving faculty in solutions to existing problems, student success rates may increase.


Overall President Obama’s initiative presents a golden opportunity for community colleges and students alike. In their turn, community colleges will be required to rethink institutional policies and to adopt an aggressive response to student needs. Lessening institutional barriers is a crucial matter in students’ success and progress at community colleges. Barriers like late registration that discourages student timely progress or payment for graduation that incurs additional costs should be reconsidered. With proper facilities and resources in place, community colleges may also adopt innovative solutions that include online teaching. Similar creative solutions would seriously reduce the problem of scheduling for working students. Yet, it is indispensible to note that community colleges will require support and resources to improve student outcomes. Lack of resources to fund reform and state-of-the-art practices in teaching and student services (Goldrick-Rab, 2010) should not be ignored.


While the debates on college access are giving way to debates on completion, relevance of student learning, and accountability (Brown, 2012), the recent proposal for tuition-free college provides an opportunity for community colleges to channel their efforts towards curricular reform and student success. The recent initiative for free community college along with President Obama’s American Graduation Initiative (AGI) in 2009 to increase educational attainment in the United States by 2020 (Mullin, 2012), also present an indisputable occasion to millions of American students to benefit from an affordable postsecondary degree and a chance to join an increasingly competitive knowledge society.


Bailey, T. (2002). Community colleges in the 21st century: Challenges and opportunities. Paper presented at the The Knowledge Economy and Postsecondary Education: Report of a Workshop, 59-75.

Bowen, W., Chingos, M., & McPherson, M. (2009). Crossing the finish line: Completing college at America’s public universities. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Braxton, J. M., Hirsch, A. S., & McClendon, S. A. (2004). Understanding and reducing college student departure. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Brown, J. N. (2012). First in the world: Community colleges and America’s future. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Education.

Center for Community College Student Engagement. (2014). A matter of degrees: Practices to pathways (High-impact practices for community college student success). Austin, TX: The University of Texas at Austin, Program in Higher Education Leadership.

Chickering, Arthur W., & Reisser, Linda. (1993). Education and identity. (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cohen, A., Brawer, F., & Kisker, C. (2013). The American community college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Community College Research Center. (2015). Statement from CCRC on president Obama’s plan for free community college.

Dewey, John (1916). “Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education”. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, Inc.

Fike, D. S., & Fike, R. (2008). Predictors of first-year student retention in the community college. Community College Review, 36(2), 68-88.

Goldrick-Rab, S. (2010). Challenges and opportunities for improving community college student success. Review of Educational Research, 80(3), 437-469.

Hughes, K. L., & Scott-Clayton, J. (2011). Assessing developmental assessment in community colleges. Community College Review, 39(4), 327-351.

Martin, K., Galentino, R., & Townsend, L. (2014). Community college student success: The role of motivation and self-empowerment. Community College Review, 42(3), 221-241.

Mullin, C. M. (2012). Student success: Institutional and individual perspectives. Community College Review, 40(2), 126-144.

Ortiz, A. M. (1995). Enhancing student development in community colleges. Community College Review, 22(4), 63; 63-70; 70.

Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. T. (1991). How college affects students: Findings and insights from twenty years of research. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Roderick, M., Nagaoka, J., Coca, V., & Moeller, E. (2009). From high school to the future: Making hard work pay off. Chicago.IL: Consortium for Chicago School Research

Svinicki, M. D. (1999). Teaching and learning on the edge of the millennium: Building on what we have learned. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Tanner, R. (2011). Federal student aid: Access and Completion. Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities.

The White House, Office of the Press Secretary. (2015). Fact sheet – White house unveils America’s college promise proposal: Tuition-free community college for responsible students [Press release].

Tinto, V. (1975). Dropout from higher education: A theoretical synthesis of recent research. Review of Educational Research, 45, 89-125.

Townsend, B. K., & Twombly, S. B. (2007). Community college faculty: Overlooked and undervalued. San Francisco, CA: ASHE Higher Education Report, Jossey-Bass.

Short Reflection on Academic Freedom and the Police State

academic freedom

In History of American Higher Education, John Thelin discusses the transformation in access to American higher education (Chapter 7: Gilt by Association) after World War II. Thelin highlights some of the challenges that arose in the aftermath of the heated political divide between the superpowers of the West, represented by the capitalist, free-market system led by the United States, and the socialist system in the East, led by the Soviet Union. The period between 1945 and 1970 was referred to as the “golden period” of higher education, witnessing enormous increase in enrollment rates and expansion in campus buildings around America. Incidentally, this prosperity that was propelled by a huge influx of federal and private funding, was not the result of a coordinated, preplanned effort on the part of the stakeholders. Furthermore, some of the challenges that the universities faced cut deep into the essence of their existence as beacons of academic freedom.

The backdrop of the Cold War played the major role in this threat when McCarthyism targeted university professors, and a witch-hunt ensued to beset those who were judged as sympathetic to the communist ideology. In the face of that push, university presidents and boards of trustees, for the most part, relented to political pressure. Faculty careers were quietly ended, requests for “loyalty oaths” pervaded, and the Association of American University Professors was embarrassingly sidelined and rendered useless. In the face of the anti-communist hysteria, two presidents stood-out to the pressure from legislature and congressional investigations: Robert Maynard Hutchins of the University of Chicago, and Nathan Pusey from Harvard. They were exceptional in the stance they took in support of academic freedom, and in their nonconformist attitude.

The general atmosphere during that time period of American higher education’s history, extending from the mid forties to the mid fifties, is reminiscent of the policed higher education system in the Arab World. The difference between the two, though, is that while the American system succeeded in removing the shackles and restrictions imposed by the legislature and governmental agencies, its Arab counterpart did not possess the ability to do so. History shows that the restoration of academic independence and freedom of thought within campuses was less an active effort by the universities and more a result of the political and judicial resistance to McCarthyism. This is especially alarming because it highlights the fragility of the academic, scientific, and scholarly environment in the face of political power. Indeed, this would explain the inability of the Arab higher education system to evolve in the face of relentless policing and surveillance. Arab academic norms were (and continue to be) dictated by the political, authoritative regimes of the Arab region ever since these nation states came into existence.

Building on this, the stand out example among Arab traditional institutes of higher education are the Lebanese universities, especially the American University of Beirut. Yet, this healthy atmosphere of academic freedom may owe its existence to the weakness of the Lebanese state institutions and governments. Lebanon has been in perpetual struggle between different factions of the society since its independence in the mid-forties. State institutions are merely a facade rather than powerful governmental agencies capable of enforcing governmental or state policy. The real power lies in the hands of opposing sectarian leaders, whose desires are the law of the land. Ironically, the higher education system in the country benefited has from the weakness of the police and intelligence organizations, which are traditionally the enforcers working to keep scholars in line with the official rhetoric. One of the Lebanese Prime Ministers commented that Lebanon enjoys too much freedom, and very little democracy. The statement was intended to reflect the state of anarchy in the country, in the absence of regulated democracy and a structured political system; nonetheless, that chaos has offered an oasis of freedom to scholars from around the country and the region to pursue their studies unchecked and with minimal harassment from governmental enforcers.


Thelin, John R. (2011). A history of American higher education, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Higher Education In The Arab World (part 2)

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)

Post-colonial era

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.)