Despite facilitating several scholarship initiatives aimed at students, most Arab universities in Africa are not adequately preparing students to optimise learning opportunities at foreign universities or serve as cultural ambassadors, according to higher education experts, scholars and students.
This is despite the fact that the numbers of university students from North Africa who are studying in United States universities are growing. The Middle East and North Africa Open Doors 2015 Report on International Educational Exchange published by the Institute of International Education indicated that the overall number of North African students in United States universities increased by 7.1% .
The importance of pre-departure preparation and training for faculty, administrators, students and their families to prepare them to optimise their learning opportunities at the foreign universities was emphasised in a 2015 journal article entitled ”Preparing Students for Studying Abroad” by United States academic Federica Goldoni.
However, aside from a few printed guides, Arab students from universities located in 10 countries in Africa who are studying abroad have had hardly any targeted academic, cultural, linguistic and social preparation.
"Unfortunately, Arab universities in North Africa are not preparing their students for most of the issues that they face upon their arrival to foreign countries," Manar Sabry, an Egyptian higher education expert at the State University of New York, told University World News.
"The information and orientation they are given, if any, is limited," said Sabry, who is also Middle East and North Africa region editor for the Comparative and International Education Society newsletter.
No positive advice
She said there was “no positive advice” given to students about how to interact with locals.
"Advice is reduced to academic-related issues such as how to register for classes and the like,” she said. "Students are advised by their country of origin not to interact or to engage with nationals of the destination country, not to practise their culture in public, not to wear national dress.”
Concerns of extremism have also been fuelled by reports indicating a rise in the number of students and graduates from countries including Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Morocco joining the Islamic State, or Daesh as it is known in Arabic. Such reports include The Migration of Moroccan Fighters Descended from Northern Morocco to Syria and Iraq and Foreign Fighters in Syria.
"When it comes to politics, it is a list of forbidden acts such as no demonstration, no engagement with the public, talk only to people similar to you and people from your country, and make sure you do not engage with extremists.
"This is absolutely unacceptable and defeats one of the main purposes of studying abroad," she said.
There was also a serious lack of academic preparation, said Sabry. “Most students are unaware of the educational system and academic standards… Research and research methods are particularly problematic," she said.
Echoing Sabry's views, Abdinasir Yusuf Osman at Mogadishu-based Benadir University in Somalia, who just obtained his PhD from the Universiti Putra Malaysia, told University World News a significant proportion of Arab students studying overseas were held back by language differences and competencies.
According to Mohamed Mounir Elsutohy, a researcher at Assiut-based Al-Azhar University in Egypt, Arab students’ relatively weak language skills in foreign languages was evidenced by the fact that most Arab students are required to join intensive English programmes prior to starting full degree programmes in Western universities.
"This is a waste of money as Arab students should study foreign languages in their countries not abroad," said Elsutohy who just obtained his PhD from the School of Pharmacy at the United Kingdom-based University of Nottingham.
According to the Education First English Proficiency Index, most Arab states are classified as “low English proficiency”. These include Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya.
Elsutohy said there are usually no dedicated officers for international cooperation in most of the Arab universities in Africa, who could coordinate the preparation of students for foreign universities.
Furthermore, in most Arab states in Africa, there is no clear strategy on the part of each university regarding which country or university their students should seek to study in, leading students to waste time and resources applying to a wider range of institutions than is necessary.
Some of their choices of institutions are ill-informed.
“Many students also contact professors in any foreign university which could be in a lower academic position than those available at home,” said Elsutohy.
Elsutohy said universities in Africa should also provide their students with access to ongoing resources during and after their study to maximise the inter-cultural and intellectual learning potential at each phase of the study abroad experience.
Algerian mathematician Professor Sadallah Boubaker-Khaled at École Normale Supérieure in Algiers said like most international universities worldwide, Arab African students travelling overseas should go through comprehensive preparation and orientation, both in-person and online, which would cover topics ranging from health and safety to cultural awareness.
Sabry agreed, arguing that a list of what “not to do” was not enough.
“Students need to take an intensive course or at least a few one-day workshops to prepare them to engage with another culture… Many of the Arab African students' problems are related to culture,” she said.
Dealing with culture
Issues of women and topics such as the hijab and perceived gender oppression are commonly used against Muslim women students and may sometimes be used to encourage, directly or indirectly, retaliation against their governments, which in most cases have a political motivation, she said.
She said besides informing Arab students of the potential risks they face in different countries, they should be educated about dealing with issues such as discrimination and how to speak up for one’s rights and make sure they are getting fair grades and treatment.
Sabry said there should be follow-up and support for the students from embassies during their stay in the foreign country.
She said there was also a need to educate students about avoiding becoming “vulnerable targets” for foreign intelligence officers, although it did not happen often.
"This doesn’t necessarily mean that they will become ‘a spy’ but even some innocent interaction or sharing of information could be problematic."
The US Federal Bureau of Investigation has released a number of reports warning students about the dangers of becoming a foreign spy while studying abroad. These include Safety and Security for US Students Traveling Abroad, The Key to US Student Safety Overseas and National Security Concerns for Study Abroad Students.
Ultimately, the point of adequate preparation is not only about academic performance, Sabry said.
"We need to train Arab university students in Africa to be ambassadors of their countries, to engage in events and to learn the culture of others as well as to help others learn about the Arab and African culture."
"The main benefit of international education is that the more we are engaged and understand other cultures, the less conflict and better chance of peace and stability there will be for all countries."
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