Call for increased 'Arabisation' of higher education

Arab universities are coming under increasing pressure to use Arabic as a medium of instruction and expression in higher education.

In the latest development, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Ryan Gjovig, head of common educational proficiency assessment at the National Admissions and Placement Office, called on universities to offer degrees in Arabic to provide students with an alternative to learning through the medium of English.

The issue was raised at a 23 May forum, “Accessing Higher Education – The language debate”, which addressed the failure of UAE schools to prepare students adequately for degree courses taken in English.

If UAE follows Gjovig’s advice, it will be the latest of three countries to heed the recent call of the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation (ALECSO) for Arab universities to teach science in Arabic.

Egypt and Qatar are already planning to offer courses taught in Arabic throughout the university system.

A new law for Egyptian universities, published on 4 May and still under discussion, stated that while universities should focus on reviving Arab culture and the heritage of Egyptian people and traditions, they should also strengthen “cultural and scientific links with other universities and scientific bodies and work on the Arabisation of science”.

Earlier this year Qatar's Supreme Education Council issued a decree indicating that Arabic should be the official teaching language at Qatar University.

In a statement on 1 March, ALECSO underlined the need for skilled human resources to translate scientific terms in all fields of knowledge and human activity into Arabic.

It noted that teaching science and other subjects in Arabic at more Arab universities would be better than teaching them in foreign languages, to remain up to date on modern technology and sciences.

To make the higher education curriculum more locally appropriate, ALECSO’s 2008 Plan for the Development of Education in the Arab Countries called for promoting the Arabic language in teaching and research and the Arabisation of science and technologies at universities and scientific centres.

This objective is shared by the Jordan-based Association of Arab universities, which wants to standardise the definition of scientific terms and promote translation.

However, research has previously indicated that the Arabisation of degrees faces a serious threat from the dominance of English and the inadequacy of technical material translated and published in Arabic.

This is due to a lack of language planning and linguistic policies to protect, develop and promote the Arabic language, the study indicated.

Racquel Warner, senior lecturer and programme coordinator for the international foundation programme at Middlesex University UAE, told University World News: “I do believe Arabic students should have the option of studying at the tertiary level in their mother tongue or in English.

“In many other countries around the world degrees in the native language in addition to another language, say English, are usually available. Why deprive students of this opportunity?"

Duncan Perrin, manager of the British Council’s Abu Dhabi teaching centre, told University World News: "In my personal opinion, Arabic should be used as a medium. It is important for countries to offer their young population the opportunity to study at universities and it is unfair to provide courses only in English."

But Christina Gitsaki, associate academic dean of English at UAE’s Higher Colleges of Technology academic central services, warned that degree programmes delivered in Arabic would not solve the problem of students being unable to enter a tertiary study programme.

"Students who are weak in English are usually weak in Arabic too. So there are no guarantees that switching university programmes to Arabic will enable a larger number of Arab students to obtain bachelor degrees,” she said.

Gitsaki said students in any country can cope well with studying a degree, undergraduate or postgraduate, in a language other than their own – it was just a matter of learning the second language.

"Hundreds of Arab-background students go to English-speaking universities abroad to study for a degree and they do it in English and they are successful at it."

Gitsaki, who is also vice-president of the Gulf Comparative Education Society and executive treasurer of the International Association of Applied Linguistics, said that in the Gulf region and especially the UAE – which is home to more than 200 nationalities – English is the lingua franca. So the ability not only to communicate in English but also to use it in a professional setting is imperative.

“The country’s vision to be an international hub for science, business and tourism makes proficiency in English an educational priority," she said.