Association of university presidents launched

A network of university leaders across North Africa and the Middle East, known as MENA, was launched at the first MENA Higher Education Leadership Forum in the United Arab Emirates last week.

"The initiative of launching the MENA Association of University Presidents was aimed at advancing higher education in the MENA region by forming a group of dynamic leaders that will have an effect in influencing policy makers,” said Nicola Degaetano, marketing manager of UAE-based Middle East Ellucian, one of the forum sponsors.

Degaetano said the association would also propose, debate and support innovative ideas that would influence emerging issues and trends that play an important part in the contribution to and promotion of community building.

"The 15 founding members from the 10 different Arab countries have a set of objectives to ensure that university leaders across the regions will share their thinking and exchange their experiences for better collaboration with the international and regional institutions, and effectively contribute to the development of higher education and its journey towards regional excellence," Degaetano said.

Mathew Boice, vice president EMEA & India, Ellucian and one of the forum speakers told University World News that every effort at a pan-MENA level to improve higher education outcomes should be supported and encouraged.

"With substantial youth unemployment across the region, the acute need is to develop knowledge-related and added-value jobs, as well as generating true Arab intellectual property right resources, but there are still too many structural barriers," Boice said.

"For example, the lack of a standard Arab degree transcript, or a basis for transferring credit between Arab universities, leaves employers struggling to make sense of qualifications and students that have almost no mobility as part of their studies."

A regional higher education voice

Dr Narimane Hadj-Hamou, forum chair and executive officer of the Center of Learning Innovations and Customized Knowledge Solutions, or CLICKS, said the main activities the new association would focus on included networking and sharing experiences, awareness campaigns, policy and strategy development and support, leadership development, and research and innovation.

These activities would be carried by organising events, meetings, setting up virtual communities, holding an annual forum and ongoing webinars, workshops and seminars, as well as using social networking to build a community of practice through which new ideas could be presented and debated.

Besides providing advice and support to institutions in establishing institutional policies, strategies and frameworks, the association will conduct regular leadership capacity-building programmes and offer individual mentorship and coaching to higher education leaders.

The forum as a regional think-tank

Hadj-Hamou said the forum had been set up with the aim of bringing higher education leaders and decision-makers from within the region and beyond to discuss latest trends, developments and challenges in the field, and to identify future strategies and roadmaps for cooperation and collaboration.

"I think overall that the forum was successful as it attracted over 170 leaders of higher education and decision-makers from over 33 countries," she said.

It had debated latest trends and issues dealing with higher education in the MENA region, including the issue of quality and accreditation, the lack of research focus in higher education institutions, aspects of technology integration and its implications.

"The forum has also provided food for thought on future plans and strategies that could be developed and implemented to collaboratively overcome some of the challenges facing higher education," Hadj-Hamou said.

Professor Nadia Badrawi, vice president of the Arab network for quality assurance in higher education and one of the forum speakers, said from her point of view the most important recommendations concerned increases in blended distance degrees in the Arab region, and working with quality assurance agency and higher education institutions on globalisation and internationalisation, while enhancing the new presidents association's ability to collaborate between universities in the Arab region.

The forum was organised by CLICKS in collaboration with the Association of Arab Universities, the International Council for Open and Distance Education, and the UT Global Initiative at the University of Texas at Austin.