Despite dramatic growth since the 1990s in the number of private institutions, which make up about 45% of all Arab universities and have a market size of US$1.2 billion in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates alone, these institutions continue to have little impact on the development of higher education systems in the Arab world.
This is due to limited capacity, lack of academic credibility, absence of quality control and performance standards, and the perceived threat to Arab cultural identity that branches of Western universities represent.
Educational reform is urgently needed to reach minimum levels of quality and produce students who meet national needs.
The status of private universities
Private universities in the Arab world emerged as a result of the inability of most public universities to meet the demand for higher education, in terms of both student numbers and academic quality.
Public universities are heavily subsidised and run at a considerable financial loss. They are intensely overcrowded and cannot absorb the high demand for places, estimated at about 6.2 million in 2010. The problems of Arab public universities were outlined in the 2009 report Challenges Facing the Privatisation of Higher Education in the Arab World.
As a result, since the early 1990s, 14 out of 22 Arab countries have officially opted for privatising higher education and started licencing private universities, which have been set up by either local investors or foreign universities.
Two-thirds (around 70) of the new universities founded in the Arab states since 1993 are private, and at least 50 of them are branches of Western, mostly American, universities, according to another 2009 report, The Politics of Higher Education in the Middle East: Problems and prospects.
For example, Jordan has at least 12 private universities and Lebanon has only one public university and 28 private institutions. Syria has licensed some 20 private universities since 2001, 14 of which are up and running. Tunisia had the highest increase in the number of universities, up from 22 in 2003 to 44 in 2008, including 31 private universities.
Manar Sabry, a higher education expert at State University of New York in Buffalo, US, and the author of the report Funding Policy and Higher Education in Arab Countries, said Arab nations were the last to establish private universities.
However, the number of private universities is increasing: of 152 new universities established in Arab countries from 2003-08, 115 were private - about 4.4 times the figure for 1993.
Nevertheless, private universities have little impact on higher education in the Arab world. Regardless of their increased numbers, Sabry told University World News, the public sector remains dominant in the provision of higher education "with the private sector still playing a small role in most countries in the region, as private universities are usually small and offer limited disciplines".
Market- or state-driven private universities?
A 2010 report, Universities in the Arab East: A crisis of privatisation and internationalisation, indicated that besides private for-profit universities, the Arab world has two types of universities: public or national universities, which absorb the overwhelming majority of students; and private non-profit universities, which attract the upper-middle class.
Some private institutions historically belonged to missions, such as the American University of Beirut in Lebanon and the American University in Cairo. And some public universities have created private programmes, leading to the creation of what are in effect semi-private universities.
While private non-profit universities in Lebanon date from the 19th century, Jordan opened its first private for-profit university in 1990, followed by Egypt, Syria and the Gulf region.
In Saudi Arabia the private higher education sector, although still small in size, is growing at an annual rate of more than 35% compared to the public sector, which is expanding at only 10%, according to an October 2011 study, GCC Insight Report: Investment opportunities in K-12 and higher education in the United Arab Emirates and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, prepared by the Parthenon Group, a strategic advisor to the global education industry.
Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have adopted a model of offshore campuses of foreign universities in remote educational cities.
Since 2003, Qatar's Education City has welcomed at least eight universities (six American and two Australian). A 2009 study, The Politics of Higher Education in the Middle East: Problems and prospects, indicated that in Qatar funding is mainly governmental, through the Qatar Foundation, which covers the bulk of the construction costs for branches of foreign universities.
But in the UAE, Dubai International Academic City, or DIAC, is following a market-driven approach, where branches of foreign universities are covering their own costs in what is designed as a co-investment operation.
According to a May 2011 report, The Higher Education Landscape in Dubai 2010, published by Dubai's Knowledge and Human Development Authority, DIAC currently hosts 32 institutions from 13 countries including the US, UK, Canada, Australia, India, France, Singapore, Belgium, Russia, Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon and the UAE. It has 20,000 students from more than 100 nationalities on some 300 higher education programmes.
The Parthenon Group's study pointed out that Western-branded higher education institutions in the UAE are growing at 18% per annum.
DIAC is hosting 58% of the foreign branch universities in the Arab world, according to the Guide to Universities in the Arab Countries issued by the Beirut-based UNESCO Regional Bureau for Education in the Arab States.
According to the UNESCO document, which covered 22 countries in the Arab world, the UAE hosts the most foreign universities. Of the 15.4% of the universities based there, 6.4% operate under DIAC. Among the Arab states of the Gulf, DIAC and the Dubai Knowledge Village host 23% of the total number of universities.
Foreign university-based private institutions
The higher education community has expressed divergent views concerning the significance of establishing foreign branches of international universities in the Arab world.
Sabry indicated that the inability of some governments to improve the quality of their public higher education institutions due to management difficulties led them to partner with foreign universities to fill the gap.
But Hilmi Salem, an international consultant in higher education, told University World News: "This is just a transplant process for setting up revenue and profit-orientated fully fledged foreign branch campuses in the national education system, leading to the production of a foreign brain-washed generation as well as a new form of mental colonisation."
Salem continued: "Some of the off-shore campuses of foreign universities in the oil-rich Gulf states are running out of cash as they struggle to attract enough students and develop a viable business model."
According to an October report on the website of international business services company High Street Partners, titled Universities Re-thinking Global Expansion, George Mason University left the UAE two years ago, before its inaugural class could graduate, and Michigan State University, failing to recruit even a quarter of its planned student numbers, pulled out of Dubai after just two years in business.
"Answers to several questions remain to be seen, especially regarding who is evaluating foreign branches: the local authorities or overseas quality assurance and accrediting agencies? Who will control admission fees, how will foreigners be admitted, and how they will be managed?," asked Hilmi Salem.
"And who will control a highly complex set of foreign university practices and relationships, and how will the cultural identity of these universities interact with the local cultural identity and the meeting of societal needs?"
Salem's views echoed a statement made in a paper, "The Impact of Globalisation on Higher Education and Research in the Arab States", presented at a 2007 seminar held in Morocco.
"These private universities were not created following the models of Western countries. Instead, they were established in haste to try to solve a social problem rather than to improve higher education research activities and the quality of education. They were not well planned and could be compared to fast-food stands in the crowded streets of Western cities, whose role is to provide food to appease hunger," argued part of the report.
On the other hand, a UAE economic expert was quoted as saying to Gulf News: "I believe those who criticised the move have extremely exaggerated the issue, with no consideration of the scientific and developmental role that can be played by the branches of these universities. We must take into consideration that some of these universities are prestigious ones with rich contributions to human development for more than 200 years."
Problems facing Arab private universities
The main problem with the establishment of private universities in Arab countries is that they are mostly for-profit and many have been established without adequate planning, clear policy or regulations, funds or even qualified staff, according to Manar Sabry.
She said that in most Arab countries, private university programmes were duplicating the public model. They neither offered innovative nor were they responsive to the needs of the job market.
The lack of clearly implemented policy and regulations produced low quality private universities, and had frustrated private providers. Politics and cumbersome approval processes by regulatory committees often restricted the establishment of new universities and discouraged international investors.
As a result, the establishment of private universities in Arab countries has not, in most cases, led to improving education quality, Sabry argued.
With one public university and 28 private universities licenced through the government but operating independently, Lebanon could be considered an extreme example of the crisis of Arab university privatisation, which was highlighted in the Muhanna Foundation's November 2010 study Private Universities in Lebanon: Performance indicators, accountability and value-for-money.
The report highlighted several challenges, especially with regard to producing adequately qualified human capital responding to the needs of the labour market and the sector's quality assurance and brand standing in the region.
"Several countries have passed to us their complaints over the quality of graduate and doctoral education received by Lebanese students," the local Daily Star quoted Education Ministry Director General Ahmad Jamal as saying at a June 2011 workshop.
Hilmi Salem argued that given problems associated with branches of foreign universities, "private universities built by wealthy Arab businessmen, individuals or national organisations must be encouraged, without scarifying quality and performance standards".
But Sabry warned that heavy regulations could demolish the private sector completely. Instead, there should be a functional legislative framework that would ensure transparency and accountability - legislation to offer the basis for rights and responsibilities, she suggested.
The strategy to achieve reform must include establishing quality assurance mechanisms to evaluate and accredit programmes and degrees offered by educational providers, Sabry argued. Although some countries had established a national system for quality assurance, the infancy of these systems limited their effectiveness.
Besides encouraging and supporting non-profit private universities and academically elite universities, more use should be made of international benchmarks, Sabry added.
In addition to improving quality in private universities built by local investors, Salem called for building regional world-class universities and expanding partnerships with the world's best universities in the form of student and faculty exchanges, collaborative research, joint degrees and twinning programmes as well as help in setting up regional research centres.
* Wagdy Sawahel is a higher education and scientific research advisor and the general coordinator of the Science Development Network, as well as the director of the Virtual Incubator for Science-based Business. He was a guest on the Aljazeera programme "Foreign Universities in the Arab World".
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters