Higher education challenges and solutions for 2018

The 16th meeting of the Arab Ministers of Higher Education and Scientific Research unveiled a new agenda for higher education which included a set of urgent challenges for 2018 and beyond.

Held under the theme "Arab Higher Education and the World of Labour and Production – New vision" from 26-27 December at the Arab League headquarters in Egypt, the gathering was attended by representatives of the Arab world’s 22 countries, 10 of which are in Africa.

The new agenda calls for the coordination of higher education and scientific research with labour market needs and the priorities of member countries’ national plans for sustainable development.

Furthermore, the agenda urges the scaling up of support for institutions of higher education and scientific research in conflict-hit Arab countries such as Somalia and the occupied Palestinian territories.

The agenda is in line with the Strategic Plan (2017-2022) of the Tunisia-based Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALECSO) which focuses on promoting the development of higher education and scientific research in the Arab world.

University World News interviewed a selection of scholars and experts on their views on the future higher education agenda, as well as the major future trends expected to impact Arab higher education.

Farouk El-Baz : Director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University, United States, and a member of the Presidential Advisory Council that advises Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi

During the past few decades, Arab universities have degraded into production factories of ill-prepared degree holders. Most have lost the respect of the people and governments. Thus, reduction of funding support, especially of research, has made things worse.

It is up to university leaders to change this sad condition and revamp the system to reignite the torch of new knowledge and respect of the higher education profession. Presidents of the institutions should be held accountable by the public and the governments. Improvements are possible in the short term, if there is a will and determination.

Anouar Majid: Moroccan higher education expert and vice-president for global affairs at the University of New England in the United States

Arab universities, as reflections of their broader cultures and societies, are suffering from a “knowledge deficit”. Nations with sovereign wealth, as well as several others, are rushing to import Western educational systems, or outsource programmes to foreign universities under the guise of “partnerships”, to make up for the Arab world’s long negligence of higher education and promoting a culture of reading, research, innovation, the arts, etc. Consequently, Arab societies are paying the price.

Arab decision-makers should make universities autonomous, give them an initial budget based on a strategic plan, and determine in the next funding cycle whether a university has met its goals. Building a strong university system cannot take place in a social vacuum, though. So the Arab states must invest in a culture of reading and research, museum-going and the arts.

Amal Rhema: Libyan higher education expert, Aljabal Algharbi University

In consideration of the recent crises in some Arab countries – the political crisis and the destruction that followed – their higher education systems need to be rebuilt and redeveloped. The use of Information and communications technology and e-learning could play a vital role in this process.

In the Arab world, the use of ICTs and the implementation of e-learning are still at an early stage. The recent political crisis has resulted in a setback to e-learning efforts; however, the deployment of ICT and e-learning can provide the opportunity to significantly reconstruct the education system, modernise instructional methods and widen and improve access to higher education.

Juma Shabani: Former director of development, coordination and monitoring of UNESCO programmes with a special focus on Africa

The most urgent and serious challenges facing Arab universities are related to the implementation of the current and emerging global trends in higher education development. These include broadening access to higher education and enhancing its relevance, while ensuring quality and equity.

Arab universities are expected to achieve these challenges in a particular context characterised by an increase in the number of countries undergoing terrorist attacks, the need to expand access to large numbers of refugee students, and the high rate of graduate unemployment, which was one of reasons behind the origin of the Arab Spring movement.

In the current context of the knowledge economy society and the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, Arab universities should build their strategies on increased use of ICTs, through innovative models of e-learning and strengthening of university cooperation, particularly in research, innovation and co-publication of scientific articles.

Narimane Hadj-Hamou: International consultant, founder and CEO, the Center for Learning Innovations and Customized Knowledge Solutions, United Arab Emirates

Despite various challenges, including university access and affordability, governance, graduate unemployment and academic brain drain, many Arab countries have established national educational strategies and policies, created research councils and established regulatory bodies to oversee the quality of programmes at universities.

At an institutional level, universities still need to address aspects related to building capacity, as well as sharing experiences, knowledge and resources, along with strengthening the cooperation between higher education and industry. Successful strategic industry-university partnerships would not only help improve graduates’ skills and thus increase employability, but also ensure that relevant curricula are developed and continuously reviewed to address the dynamic changing needs of today’s global workplace.

Manar Sabry: Middle East and North Africa region editor for the Comparative and International Education Society newsletter, and Egyptian higher education expert at State University of New York at Buffalo, United States

Political instability and the slower economic growth are exacerbating the challenges facing Arab universities and threatening the progress reached thus far. Higher education is already competing for funding with other more crucial public sectors such as education, housing, health, economic infrastructure and national security. But with the current trend of military spending in most Middle East and North African countries, higher education will certainly be the last item on the agenda of government spending.

The international education established in the region, whether through university branches or partnerships with international universities, and through the number of international students, will be the first to suffer from continuous war in the area. Funding higher education in non-oil rich countries continues to be a serious issue. There continues to be a mismatch between higher education outcomes and the job market because we are ignoring data driven decision-making.

Abdelkader Djeflat: Algerian higher education expert based at the University of Lille in France

The challenges facing Arab universities include: quality and relevance of higher education to meet the needs of Arab economies and societies; addressing ethics and professionalism; re-establishing merit as the only form of recognition; and bad governance of the university in general.

While we cannot work out ready-made or universally applicable solutions, improving things in the short-term include:
  • • Re-establishing the authority of the university and its autonomy from external pressure.
  • • Universities must establish bridges with society and the economy to actively take part in transformation.
  • • Establishing quality control and certification of the diplomas and degrees delivered, while abiding by international standards.
  • • Universities should strengthen their digital capacities in teaching, research, administration and international cooperation.
Also, we must bear in mind that we cannot improve university education if the situation in the earlier stages of education and training is not drastically improved, especially pre-university education.

The university will only be improved when society recognises it as a vital entity and when the authorities give scientists and academics stature and recognition.