Are universities ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
"The region has moved away from the teaching university model responsible for producing qualified human resources to the research university model with an emphasis on knowledge generation and entrepreneurialism," Abd-El-Aal said.
He said the importance of entrepreneurial universities was increasingly being recognised by higher education ministries and other decision-makers. Universities have been established in smart cities – in the Casablanca Smart City in Morocco, the Tunis Smart City in Tunisia, and the Nouakchott Smart City Project in Mauritania – all of which are fostering industry-academic cooperation and greater employment opportunity for university graduates, along with promoting knowledge transfer, the development of new syllabuses and the production of human resources needed for an innovation-based economy, according to Abd-El-Aal.
Several research universities have also been established, including Zewail City of Science and Technology and the Nile University – both in Egypt, and aimed at fostering innovation, promoting entrepreneurship and developing a sustainable knowledge economy.
In addition three of North Africa's universities were included in a top 15 African universities ranking in terms of their research influence in 2015. These included the University of Marrakech Cadi Ayyad and the University of Hassan II Casablanca in Morocco, and Suez Canal University in Egypt.
In addition, the University of Sfax in Tunisia has introduced an entrepreneurship programme, created a centre for entrepreneurship promotion and launched about 100 enterprises, and is considered a role model for the region, he said.
Egypt has also inaugurated a ‘Children’s University’ programme which is aimed at enhancing the scientific and innovation abilities of school children, as well as preparing them for the transition from secondary school to university education, Abd-El-Aal said.
Despite this progress, the region’s higher education sector faces significant challenges.
Narimane Hadj-Hamou, international consultant and founder and CEO of the Center for Learning Innovations and Customized Knowledge Solutions in the United Arab Emirates, identifies graduate unemployment as one of the biggest.
In North Africa youth unemployment is more than 29%, more than double the global average.
"Employers in the region complain that university graduates lack the skills needed to work in the global marketplace," said Hadj-Hamou. "The decline in state support for higher education including lower fund allocations for public universities, a reduction in the number of government scholarships provided and the emergence of more private universities have all had significant impact on affordability.”
Brain drain was an increasing challenge, Hadj-Hamou said. "Universities need clear strategies and a holistic approach for both attracting and developing talented staff and faculty members at all levels," she said.
Clear strategies are also needed to embrace technology as a tool in the mainstream delivery of higher education (i.e. online learning or blended learning) or to support traditional learning. “Besides solving problems related to university access and affordability, embracing new forms of technology – if properly deployed and integrated – has the potential to improve the learning experience for students and learning outcomes,” she said.
Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid, professor of agricultural biotechnology at Cairo's National Research Centre in Egypt, identified a range of other, largely social, challenges facing universities. One was the problem of extremism.
“The growing numbers of university graduates joining the Islamic State, or Daesh as it is known in Arabic, indicates the importance of university involvement in fighting all forms of extremism," he told University World News.
He also pointed to the need, more generally, for greater support for vulnerable students, students with disabilities, and awareness around mental health issues. This was particularly pressing, given the rising number of suicides at North African universities.
All North African countries face the challenge of university student dropouts which need to be tackled through academic support programmes, student support regarding personal issues and financial support. He said there was a need for data-driven innovations to identify struggling students.
Food was another challenge, he said. "With rising concerns about the quality of food services at student residences, North African universities must act urgently to deal with food insecurity and safety to minimise its effects on student health and academic performance,” he said.
Finally, violence on campuses needed to be addressed.
"The growing incidents of violent attacks and physical assaults by university students on academic staff or by police on protesting students should be dealt with by encouraging disciplined, peaceful and independent student activism, regulated by a comprehensive student conduct code, which should be seen as a tool for making universities and higher education institutions agents of political, environmental, economic or social change and not only as agents for educational and scientific advances," Abdelhamid said.
Are North African universities ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution – a new era marked by emerging technology breakthroughs in fields such as robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, quantum computing, biotechnology and the Internet of Things?
Abdallah Daar, a member of the Independent Strategic and Scientific Advisory Board of the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa, said there was a need for North Africa, like the rest of the world, to rethink its higher education system to meet the needs of the fourth industrial revolution.
According to Daar, many university curricula are colonial and more than a century old. “At the same time we must think about the necessary balance between the humanities and science and technology. We must both train the mind and enhance the capacity of the mind to apply itself to solving problems. The biggest challenge is finding consensus on how not to close the mind."
For Juma Shabani, former director of development, coordination and monitoring of UNESCO programmes with a special focus on Africa, there were two “strategies” available to ensure universities met the challenges of the fourth industrial revolution: the inclusion of the educational needs of the industrial revolution in the criteria to be used for programme accreditation and quality assurance at continental, regional and national levels; and strengthening the capacity of academic staff in the design, development and implementation of new curricula.
Reconstructing North African university education systems and programmes to prepare students for the next industrial revolution is admittedly a “huge task”, said Manar Sabry, an Egyptian higher education expert at the State University of New York, but with “careful assessment, planning and implementation" it was not impossible.
"We need to have the right model of university programmes,” said Sabry who is also Middle East and North Africa region editor for the Comparative and International Education Society newsletter.
"In a digital era, we need universities to produce graduates with an advanced ability to solve complex problems and a cognitive flexibility that allows them to be creative, lifelong learners,” Sabry said.
She said in addition to increasing funding for innovation there was a need for universities to work more efficiently, including eliminating programmes no longer needed by the economy.
"We need graduates with advanced skills in computer science, robotics, big data as well as analytics. Universities need to reconstruct their systems to allow for creativity and entrepreneurship with an emphasis on STEM majors, but they should not overlook the liberal arts,” she said.