MIDDLE EAST: Higher education needs a revolution

What does the unrest in the Arab world mean for higher education? In a new session type at the annual European Association for International Education conference, the EAIE took on the challenge of trying to find answers to great challenges beyond Europe.

Guided by David Wheeler, Editor at Large for The Chronicle of Higher Education, the 'Dialogue Session' panel took its starting point in the 'Arab Spring' of 2011, noting that young people played a crucial role in the chain of revolutions that have turned the region upside down since Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze in Sidi Bouzid.

Each from their own angle, the panelists touched upon important issues that may come to define higher education in the Middle East in the decades ahead.

The importance of developing the social sciences in Egypt at a higher level to promote civil citizenship was raised. But the contrasting priority of Saudi Arabia to strengthen science and technology, both at home and through partnerships abroad, tacitly but powerfully exposed the dominant policies that still prevail in the region.

The one person who perhaps came closest to summing up the challenges for the region was Lebanese Education Minister Hassan Diab. In nine points, he listed the solutions to a problem he didn't need many words for: "Quantity versus quality".

"Institutions across the region are extremely under-staffed," Diab said. "In 1998, there were three million students in the region. Today there are 7.6 million. And 65% of the population is under age 25."

The result?

"Of the 50,000-odd schools in the region, perhaps 1% are good."

What then, according to the Lebanese minister, should be done to make a brighter future for universities in the Arab world?

"One, we need to restructure higher education to respond to labour market needs," he said.

"Two, we need to reinvent education, entering 21st century skills into the curriculum. Three, we must integrate critical thinking. Four, we must replace transmission-based learning with new forms of education, such as problem-solving. Five, we must enhance faculty research, because in my view a good researcher is a good teacher," Diab continued.

"Six, we must better explore the potential of technical and vocational education. Seven, we must make universities not-for-profit. Private universities are generally for-profit. Universities should definitely be encouraged to earn money, but profits should be ploughed back into the institution. Eight, we must think globally. And nine, we must promote quality assurance and evaluation systems."

That was an impressively visionary and comprehensive list. But one key issue was missing and the fellow panelist to his left should have reminded Diab.

By his side sat academic Jomana Shdefat, a lecturer from Al al-Bayt University of Mafraq in northern Jordan. With her very presence, she had powerfully demonstrated the tremendous obstacles for women in the Middle East. It was her first trip ever outside the region.

"Mafraq is in the middle of the desert," she said. "When I grew up, my parents wanted me to be a good student and then a loving wife, like any other girl. To the dismay of my family, I am not a wife and I got a PhD."

She was heard and applauded, but despite some efforts made towards the end of the session, the debate failed to really tackle this single-biggest issue in human capital development in the Middle East.

The cue her presence and story offered was not followed up with a quest (or a question) for a tenth solution. Rather provokingly, at some point it was even suggested that the whole issue of women in the Middle East was a bit of an overused cliché in Western Europe to criticise repressive policies in the region or Islam in general.

Partly true, but when a Swedish participant asked whether distance learning had been researched as an option to involve women in education, Hassan Diab replied that female participation in higher education was not an issue at all.

And while this is correct in one sense - contradicting prevailing prejudice, in some of the most populous countries of the region female participation is considerably higher than male participation - the real problem is that this truly immense source of developed human capital lies almost entirely unused in most countries in the Middle East.

This is because so few women get a chance to exploit their educational achievements in the labour market - or have the bravery to defy their culture and fight for the chance, like Jomana Shdefat.