Seeking good-quality, socially engaged universities

Only 14 universities existed in the Arab region in the 1950s. Today, they number nearly 1,000. This rapid expansion, mostly in the past 20 years, has brought challenges for higher education quality. Part of the challenge is down to the significant increase in the number of private institutions in the region.

“When free market competition substitutes for national vision of higher education, quality suffers a great deal," said Dr Munir Bashshur from the American University in Beirut in his inaugural keynote speech at the recent conference on “Quality Higher Education in the 21st Century: Achieving effectiveness and adding value” in Kuwait City.

The conference, held on 28-29 March, was jointly organised by the Arab Network for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ANQAHE) and the National Bureau for Academic Accreditation and Education Quality Assurance (NBAQ) of Kuwait and attracted nearly 150 participants.

Despite considerable unity of culture and language, the standard of higher education policy, practice and institutions varies greatly across different countries of the Arab region. Therefore, adopting international systems and frameworks for quality assurance without reference to the local context may not add value, said Professor Badr Aboul-Ela, president of ANQAHE.

Meanwhile, Dr Nouria Al Awadi, first director general of NBAQ, emphasised the significance of promoting a culture of quality in the region so that procedures and protocols can be effective in this era of rapid growth.

The vast majority of higher education institutions in the Arab region today are ‘modelled’ after European and American systems and institutions. Additionally, nearly 200 institutions in the region are branch campuses of European, American, Canadian or Australian higher education institutions.

It appears that the Arab region is afflicted with fraudulent and fake practices, degrees and institutions far more than others. Concerns about quality at the conference, therefore, focused a great deal on how to regulate private institutions so that students do not suffer. Much discussion was focused on creating robust systems for ensuring quality and compliance with national frameworks. In this context, lessons from Europe and Asia were also shared.

A rich tradition

Yet higher education has deep roots in the region. When one speaker drew attention to the fact that the oldest university of the region – Istanbul University – has been running since 1453, it was possible to get a sense of a long history of learning, knowledge and institutions in the Islamic world.

A commitment to learning and institutions that supported universal learning in the Islamic world go back to the period since Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Hundreds of public and private libraries, with tens of thousands of books and manuscripts, have been maintained in many countries since the seventh century.

Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, Tripoli and southern Spain were important sites of such libraries and learning centres. European knowledge institutions – libraries and colleges attached to monasteries – only appeared five or six centuries later.

With such a rich history of indigenous knowledge and teaching traditions, it is somewhat intriguing that contemporary higher education institutions in Arab countries are ‘modelled’ after European or American forms of higher education.

The curriculum and pedagogy of teaching in these higher education institutions is no different from those in Europe and North America. The disciplinary silos, programme designs and even language of learning are quintessentially European.

Add to this the recent pressure of global rankings. Certain ‘elite’ universities are being pushed to become ‘research-intensive’ universities, competing in the global ‘marketplace’.

Concerns about quality in higher education are not merely about preparing youth for global labour markets. With more than half the population of 365 million in Arab countries being youth under 20, the challenges of preparing the next generation of ethical citizens are equally pressing. Higher education institutions can add value through good-quality higher education by situating themselves in the local contexts of their societies.

Higher education’s three functions – teaching, research and service – can be more appropriately shaped in a socially engaged manner, responding to the aspirations of the people in these societies. This may call for the systematic restructuring of the higher education system, drawing inspiration from the glorious history of knowledge and learning of the Arab region.

Of the four public higher education institutions in Kuwait, only one is a multi-faculty university. One is focused on building professional competencies in shorter college programmes. The other two teach theatre and musical arts. Kuwait’s Higher Institute of Musical Arts promotes the learning of Arabic musical traditions.

I wonder how both Kuwait University and the Higher Institute of Musical Arts could work together to integrate the best learning practices available in those two institutions. After all, colleges of divinity and theology remain integrated with computer science and business economics in the Harvards and Oxfords of the Euro-American genre.

Can Arab higher education institutions throw up new global ‘best practices’ in the quality of higher education they offer that is anchored in social progress and peace for their peoples?

Dr Rajesh Tandon is co-chair, UNESCO Chair in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education. Dr Tandon was a keynote speaker at the “Quality Higher Education in the 21st Century: Achieving effectiveness and adding value” conference.