Universities agree need for Arab world mobility scheme

An Erasmus-style exchange programme for the Arab world gained ground at the second Arab-Euro higher education conference held in Jordan last month. “It received substantial support from people who are at universities and also contribute to policy-making in the region,” said Michael Gaebel, head of higher education policy at the European University Association.

There were 250 participants – including 150 university leaders and vice-presidents as well as officials – at the AECHE conference held in Amman, Jordan, from 10-12 June and titled “Strengthening Arab-Euro University Collaboration: The importance of regional mobility”.

The gathering was jointly organised by the Association of Arab Universities and the European University Association, or EUA, with the University of Barcelona – which provides the initiative’s secretariat – and Princess Sumaya University for Technology, the host.

The idea of the Arab-Euro Conference on Higher Education, or AECHE, the organisation says, is to build a dialogue platform for Arab and European university leaders that will support cooperation between the regions, which is already extensive for geopolitical and economic reasons as well as proximity.

The first AECHE dialogue was held in Barcelona in 2013, with internationalisation the theme and a first set of bi-regional cooperation priorities defined. “This time we focused very much on mobility, which is a topic of high importance both to Europe but also to the Arab regions,” Gaebel told University World News.

Collaboration, mobility and exchange

Despite brain drain concerns, greater academic mobility was seen as a “very positive and pertinent development that should be better exploited”, according to the official conference report. The importance of structured mobility, embedded in institutional partnerships and agreements, was stressed.

Discussions revealed that incoming mobility had particular significance. “An international student body is becoming an indication of the quality and global relevance of institutions,” said the report. Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, or EPFL, in Switzerland reported hosting students from 125 countries, and Qatar University had students from 44 countries.

The lines between domestic and foreign students were becoming arbitrary, and many universities were making ‘internationalisation at home’ a priority – which was particularly important for institutions with student populations that were not physically mobile.

What was striking, Gaebel told University World News, were the very high numbers of mobile students in leading universities in both regions. “It is quite amazing that there are international hubs in both Europe and the Arab world these days.”

“There was nobody who said ‘this is not important for us’. So internationalisation and mobility is on everybody’s agenda now, at least that is what we got from the participants.”

The universities described a great range of collaborative activity, from high-level research with joint PhDs to capacity building to support the development of other universities. There was considerable cooperation between Arab and European universities, often supported by the European Union, Arab foundations and other funds.

Joint programmes had gained prominence, and although resource-intensive and involving limited numbers of students, said the report, they had “clear impact on internationalising curricula, enhancing the quality of mobility and deepening institutional partnerships”.

Good examples were the University of Edinburgh’s four-year degree with universities in Arab countries, with two years taught in Edinburgh and two years at a partner institution. The University of Pavia in Italy has collaborative PhDs with 10 Palestinian universities that includes outgoing mobility of European students – the exchange is two-way.

The conference stressed the importance of partnership and trust, networking and reciprocity, and flexible funding. Mobility had to be two-way in order to create real global opportunities and face global challenges.

A large number of institutions at the conference had offshore branch campuses and joint academic programmes with partners elsewhere in the world.

Ten years ago, said Gaebel, such activities were primarily North-South and West-East. “Now you can really see South-South movement. For us, this was an eye-opener.”

Arab universities that reported having branch campuses in the Middle East, the Gulf and parts of Africa were Mohammad V University in Morocco, Qatar University and the University of Science and Technology in Yemen.

Interestingly, offshore campuses had moved far beyond being a means of recruiting students, to complementing mobility and becoming important spaces for collaboration in, for instance, research and with industry.

An example was the German-Jordanian University, in which a group of German universities of applied sciences have joined forces with a Jordanian institution to deliver degrees recognised in both countries. The collaboration offers training that is oriented towards the labour market, with applied skills and workplace internships.

There was discussion of how European and Arab universities cooperate with industry to provide international placements for students and researchers.

It was suggested that Euro-Arab initiatives involving exchange with industry should be a primary element of collaboration going forward, with placements within the region and bi-regionally a strategic means to orient student mobility towards future employment and to consolidate collaboration between universities and companies.


General obstacles to mobility were highlighted at the conference, and they included lack of funding, poor promotion, recognition of studies and language barriers. Participants stressed visa and political restrictions.

“Visa delays and refusals are a problem both between Arab countries and with Europe,” said the conference report.

There were examples such as Palestine, where mobility and collaboration faced significant obstacles. Marwan Arwatani, president of Palestine Technical University, stressed the importance of mobility but also the institution’s international isolation.

Further, there was little exchange among Palestinian universities, because of political difficulties and their homogeneity – there was little incentive to collaborate.

In such a small, relatively restricted academic system, targeted mobility programmes were crucial to connect Palestinian staff, students and institutions to the world and to help drive institutional development and academic excellence.

Awartani also pointed out that internationalising “requires structural adjustments and faculty openness, two elements that are non-fait accompli”. For instance, mobility requires developing a language policy and language support for students and staff.

An Arab Erasmus

At the first AECHE conference it had become clear that a lot of universities in the Arab world were familiar with European higher education through EU funding programmes and through adoption of the Bologna process by some countries.

In Barcelona Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan of Jordan – founder of Princess Sumaya University for Technology, host of the second meeting – stressed the importance of the Bologna process as a model that could be emulated in the Arab world and proposed a pan-Arab mobility programme along the lines of Tempus and Erasmus.

The idea gained ground in Amman. “There is a growing awareness of the need for a kind of joint framework to enhance all the collaboration going on,” said Gaebel.

Participants discussed how European mobility programmes had shaped protocols and tools for mobility, and shared experiences in managing mobility programmes for students and staff. There was full agreement that the European initiatives enhanced internationalisation and helped cultivate institutional partnerships.

“A main virtue is that they emphasise inter-institutional agreements, which have longer-term benefits both in teaching and in research,” said the conference report.

“As no such programme exists yet between Arab countries, Arab participants expressed their interest in developing and supporting an Erasmus-like mobility programme for the Arab region, which could have a considerable impact on regional cooperation more generally.” It will start with a small pilot programme involving some countries and universities.

Unwanted mobility was also debated, given the crisis in neighbouring Syria and the critical problem of Syrian scholar and student refugees. While international interventions were being made, it was felt that the international academic community could do more.

What next?

There is already an array of collaboration and exchange between Arab and European universities, but they have not been mapped. So for AECHE the question is how to ‘bundle’ these activities into a large, supportive network.

There is no real need to build bridges between universities in the Arab world and Europe, as they already exist. “What I think is more of importance is to have a platform where you can discuss structural issues that are closer to policy level, and this is something where we will continue to try to play a predominant role in future,” said Gaebel.

“We are looking at how to build a more proactive structure where we can work together with EUA members and partners from the Arab world to focus on core issues.”

AECHE was working to avoid the malaise that affects many collaborative initiatives driven by universities and their leaders. “We won’t be able to change that completely but we hope to be able to get more collaboration and exchange and get more and different actors to the table.

“This has been recognised at least at the political level.” The initiative was mentioned in the joint declaration of the Third European Union-League of Arab States ministerial meeting held in Greece last month. “That’s quite promising. It is always good to have political recognition also from top-down if you want to build a process bottom-up.”

The third Arab-Euro higher education conference will take place in 2016, with discussions under way as to where it will be held.