Opportunities for universities in the Middle East and Africa

The universities of the Middle East and Africa have an opportunity to use the new and changing global higher education landscape to their advantage, according to speakers at the second QS-MAPLE conference, held in Durban, South Africa, this month.

According to Nigel Healey, pro vice-chancellor (international) and head of the college of business, law and social sciences at Nottingham Trent University in the United Kingdom, the relatively young universities of Africa and the Middle East had a chance to “make their own destinies” in the context of global trends in higher education.

Healey said that although global ranking of universities had become a very powerful tool for measuring quality and informing opinion about the world’s 20,639 universities, a clear understanding of a university’s mission was also important.

“Use league tables only if your mission is to be [like] Harvard, otherwise define your own performance metrics,” he told representatives from African and Middle Eastern universities.

“Focus energy and resources on pursuing that mission and be less bound by historical conventions,” he suggested.

In a presentation titled “The Changing Landscape of Global Higher Education”, Healey described higher education as one of the “most successful industries on the planet”.

This was evidenced by the rapid globalisation and growth of the sector, now reflected in a global student population of 165 million in 2012 – up from around 100 million in 2000 and predicted to rise by another 100 million in the next 10 to 12 years.

Outlining trends in global higher education, Healey listed new kinds of competition in the form of private for-profit institutions such as Kaplan, Apollo, Laureate and BPP which, he said, represented an “aggressive new model” of education focused solely on teaching and which had been facilitated by the general liberalisation of higher education.

He also highlighted the trend towards what he called “disruptive online technologies” which allowed for the delivery of high-quality free online courses such as those offered by Yale University professor of economics Robert Shiller, and the Khan Academy, which claims to have delivered 147,481,545 online lectures and has a library comprising more than 3,200 educational videos on almost any subject.

Changing demographics around the world, Healey said, meant a shrinking pool of students in developed regions such as Europe, where population growth was in decline and there was less public money to support them, but significant demand for education from students particularly in Asian countries where populations were still growing.

Among other factors influencing higher education, Healey listed global fiscal stress and climate change, which would have an impact on the frequency and pattern of air travel by academics.

Healey encouraged ‘newer’ universities to “make the most of their freedom to be innovative” and to deliver curricula that were “fit for purpose”. He urged educators to stop writing online distance learning material that could invariably be found elsewhere and focus instead on group and experiential learning.

“Forget the technical detail; teach students to think creatively and give them transferable skills,” he said.

Governments around the world recognise the value of higher education for both individual citizens and for society, and as a primary driver of economic growth and development.

Healey said it was important not to underestimate the strength of competition, which was likely in the global higher education arena given the changing demographic landscape and Asia’s massive investment in higher education.

He said that while Western countries were the original big players in the trade around global students – the numbers of which have grown from under one million in 1975 to 3.7 million in 2009, according to OECD figures – this pattern had now started to shift.

Internationalisation not only about mobile students

According to QS Consulting Director Catarina Roscoe, who addressed delegates earlier in the day, this shift was now also showing itself in the regional movement of students between Arab states and Sub-Saharan African countries.

Roscoe told delegates that the trend towards internationalisation should be viewed not as an end in itself but as part of a broader institutional strategy to improve the quality of existing services – teaching and learning; research and knowledge transfer; and community service – offered by any university.

“The trend towards internationalisation seems to be so strong as to appear to be unavoidable; as such, the reasons behind such a trend often get lost,” she said.

Roscoe suggested that internationalisation was not merely confined to the issue of students and mobility. “There are benefits to broadening and diversifying faculty and students for research and knowledge production, curriculum development and innovation.”

Internationalisation can also increase inter-cultural awareness, facilitate the transfer of unique skills, improve the quality and diversity of students, improve academic quality and achieve a diversification of sources of income, she said.

Furthermore, she said, internationalisation was highly valued by employers. She cited the QS Global Employer Survey Report 2011, which sampled the views of more than 10,000 employers in 116 countries on five continents and found that despite variations between countries, six out of 10 employers around the world give extra credit for an international student experience.

Roscoe said institutions could help to increase student employability – a burning issue for all countries in the current financial global context – by building international links with institutions with experience in entrepreneurship, and links with both national and international employers.

She said it was also important to focus on the internationalisation of research.

Universities need to concentrate on developing links with institutions that are strong in specific areas – and not necessarily top-ranked – and build partnerships both with these universities and with industries, she said.

Among the common factors in any successful internationalisation process, Roscoe listed a comprehensive internationalisation strategy, alignment between internationalisation initiatives and overall institutional strategy, and the importance of a governance structure to support such a strategy.

In the past 20 years, many leading universities had established senior executive positions and centralised international offices, but there was a risk in isolating the internationalisation project instead of building it into an institutional strategy aimed at improving existing services.

In order to build a global reputation, institutions needed to “do the basics well, develop an edge by focusing on key areas and “make sure everyone knows about it”, she said.