HE challenges in the Middle East and North Africa

Recent graduates from higher education systems hindered by low quality, inequity and lack of relevance have been integral to what came to be called the ‘Arab spring’, and the resulting unrest disrupted universities. These problems need to be resolved to help achieve political stability and development across the region.

Three years after the beginning of the so-called Arab Awakening in several countries from North Africa through the Middle East and down to the Arabian Gulf, the outcomes of these popular mobilisations have been mixed, according to the book The Arab Uprising: The unfinished revolutions of the new Middle East.

“Some led to the overthrow of longstanding autocrats, as in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. Other uprisings have been brutally suppressed, as in Bahrain. Yet others are still unfolding, as in Syria,” according to a review of the book.

As 2014 begins, University World News asked experts about major developments in higher education in the Middle East and North Africa – MENA – during 2013, the impacts of waves of unrest on the performance of universities, and possible future developments.

Security and academic freedom

Manar Sabry, an Egyptian higher education expert at the State University of New York in the United States, said that during 2013 the greatest challenge for higher education in the Middle East and North Africa was “safety and security for both faculty members and students.

"The continuous political instability in the region, particularly in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, is creating a new challenge for academic freedom as well as research,” Sabry told University World News.

“Universities in the region are still subject to restrictions on the intellectual content of research and the curriculum that is limiting academic freedom,” said Sabry – and suppression has tightened over the past three years in the wake of uprisings.

“Student demonstrations and political unrest have caused growing limitations on expression of opinion and research, particularly if it relates to political analysis.”

Finance, brain drain and unemployment

Sabry said political unrest had also impacted negatively on investment in research and on private investment related to the higher education sector, which had resulted in financial deficits for most universities across the region.

The brain drain had affected development in the MENA region for a long time, and was a result both of intellectual and political restrictions as well as the lack of job opportunities.

Further, said Abdelkader Djeflat, an Algerian higher education expert at the University of Lille in France: “The best lecturers leave for more lucrative activities locally or are attracted by international careers abroad.”

Sabry pointed out that the region continued to suffer from a mismatch between education systems and the skills and qualifications needed for the job market. Young people aged 15 to 24, including university graduates, had the highest unemployment rates in most countries.

Djeflat told University World News that university curricula were often outdated or totally irrelevant in terms of job market needs, resulting in masses of graduates being jobless or employed in jobs totally unrelated to their university training.

Further problems

Other problems facing universities in the region included lack of research and publication, challenges of accessibility and quality, and low levels of student and scientific mobility and innovation – although Djeflat pointed out that the situation differs greatly across countries.

“In big countries – Algeria, Morocco, Egypt for example – the high numbers of registered students are constantly bringing the quality of the training down in spite of the efforts made by governments to keep up in terms of infrastructures and funding,” Djeflat added.

Sadallah Boubaker-Khaled, a professor of mathematics at École Normale Supérieure in Algiers, emphasised that point: “We have almost 1.5 million students in Algeria but not enough labs and teaching rooms along with university staff to deal with them.

“Thus, implementation of reform plans ended up with extremely bad results,” Boubaker-Khaled told University World News.

Ahlam Saleh Bin Braik, an associate professor of community medicine at Hadhramout University in Yemen, said universities there offered poor quality programmes with weak assessment.

There were equity problems, with students from poor backgrounds unable to access higher education. Further, most universities were not accredited and academics were not well trained to conduct research, which had no clear budget.

Ala-Eddin Al Moustafa, a researcher in Syria’s Cancer Research Centre, told University World News that political instability and low investment in research were major problems facing universities in Syria and across the Middle East.

According to Abdelkader Djeflat, in some universities the language issue had not been resolved. “Students are taught in Arabic, but most documents are in French or English.” Workplaces, and postgraduate research, mostly used French.

“This linguistic mismatch creates problems.”

Reforms needed

Extensive efforts were needed to implement higher education reforms in MENA countries and universities, said Egypt’s Manar Sabry.

The employability problem should be addressed by improving the quality of education and critical thinking, and allowing students and faculty to explore new ideas.

“It is important to promote problem-solving skills, which in turn can help in improving many issues related to the development and stability of any country.” Entrepreneurship and innovation needed to be promoted in higher education.

“Governments in the region must allow a higher level of autonomy and stop the threats of punishing or even arresting professors and students. We need to limit political involvement in decisions about curricula, research, events and the hiring process. These decisions need to be made by qualified professionals,” Sabry argued.

Djeflat said the use of ICT should be intensified at all levels in administration, teaching and research. Sandwich courses allowing students to spend time in the workplace were needed, along with systems to evaluate lecturers and encourage them to update their knowledge.

Further, private universities should be under tight supervision and be allowed to flourish to create competition, and grants and financial support should be provided to students who could not otherwise afford to access private institutions.

The way forward

During 2014, Sabry argued, countries “should focus on bringing stability to university campuses by allowing students and professors to voice their opinions through legitimate channels and enabling universities to [fulfil] their roles as the main source of innovation and human development.

“The MENA region must move to an aggressive agenda of reform more like a real revolution in the education system in order to accumulate serious improvements and to guarantee high quality education in order for graduates to compete in the job market.” Universities needed to be enabled to operate more soundly and effectively.

According to Djeflat: “There is a need to take politics out of universities, which should remain sanctuaries of knowledge diffusion and research only. Total academic freedom should be given to universities to be innovative and to respond adequately to the economic and social needs of their countries and their populations.

“Universities should not be looked at as a separate entity but as part of larger system of innovation and knowledge diffusion. They should become a spearhead to fully penetrate the knowledge economy.”