What will COVID-19 mean for TNE in the Middle East?

It is certainly no revelation that transnational education in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is driven by the bottom line. Until the 1990s, with the exception of Lebanon, the provision of higher education in the MENA region was shouldered by the public sector.

But the oil-poor states of the region, those with the largest populations, had undergone a decade or two of brutal structural adjustment, accompanied by growing inequality and punctuated by cost-of-living riots that presaged the uprisings of 2011.

The fiscal crises had two main by-products. In the 1990s several states legalised private, including for-profit, education and simultaneously encouraged the leadership of public institutions to seek new sources of revenue. Luring foreign students to domestic institutions was one of the tolerated mechanisms.

By the late 1990s the MENA region had the Bologna Process as a model for promoting mobility among the region’s institutes of higher education, and some steps were taken to institute a credible system of accreditation, including equivalency of degrees. Fierce regional rivalries, followed after 2011 by civil and proxy wars, and the collapse of three states (Syria, Libya and Yemen), rendered these cautious steps futile.

Transnational education

Nonetheless, some important progress had been made. Countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), especially Abu Dhabi and Qatar, made big wagers on transnational education (TNE), signing several agreements for foreign branch campuses, cautiously welcoming foreign students and recruiting non-nationals to senior leadership positions.

The GCC, a region that exports oil and gas, was not driven by the bottom line but rather by image, reputation and links to key foreign allies like France and the United States. The financial crisis of 2008-09 put a dent in this programme as a certain number of projects were abandoned on financial grounds, but several projects that were underway were consolidated.

Countries that were less well-off began to recruit foreign students from their hinterlands: Egypt in the Nile Basin and East Africa, Morocco in the Sahel and West Africa, and Jordan in the Arabian Peninsula. Regional conflicts impeded this process, but still some progress was made.

Egypt’s Al-Azhar University had long drawn students from throughout the Muslim world. Egypt’s secular universities increased foreign enrolments from about 12,000 at the advent of the millennium to over 90,000 in 2017, bringing in US$120 million in revenue.

Egyptian nationals pay no tuition fees while foreigners pay US$5,000 to US$9,000 a year. In addition, Cairo University has established an international branch that has contracted with foreign universities to establish joint-degree programmes taught in a foreign language. Significant tuition fees are charged for these ‘international’ degrees.

Jordan and Morocco have made similar progress. It is interesting to see muscular state enterprises, such as Saudi Aramco and Morocco’s Office Chérifien des Phosphates, playing central roles in the design and implementation of such projects.

The fiscal crises at the heart of the 1990s initiatives are very much present today: witness the widescale protests in recent months in Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, the Sudan, Iraq and Iran. So the financial incentives to change have not diminished. Syria, Yemen and Libya are not part of that picture, largely because they are failed states, mired in ongoing violence.

The post-COVID outlook

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the institutions of higher learning in the predominantly Arab MENA were not major draws, even for Arab students. The eruption of the pandemic has made a difficult situation significantly worse. It is hard to see any scenario in which TNE does not suffer – further.

Foreign students, outside of refugee populations, are not likely to go to war zones nor entrust themselves to medical systems battered by local conflict, corruption and weak administration. Lebanon has paid both prices. The GCC, above all Saudi Arabia, has not wanted its nationals studying in Lebanon, once the epicentre of regional education, because of the presence of Hezbollah, ally and proxy of Saudi Arabia’s arch-enemy, Iran. Lebanon’s largely private medical infrastructure is under heavy stress.

Outside of the venerable Al-Azhar University, Egypt will be a hard sell. It is perceived as administratively weak, corrupt and, of course, politically repressive.

The latter is a general condition throughout the MENA region. It is even harder now to imagine parents sending their children off to countries with weak medical infrastructure or to universities that rank low in the tables and that still demand significant tuition fees.

There may be a positive offset to these factors: MENA countries may see a return of their own nationals currently studying abroad. That would shore up national enrolments, but not TNE.

COVID-19 may more reflect Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction than Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation. The witches’ brew of autocracy, deadly conflict and the pandemic itself offer fully visible threats, but the existing systems may be unable to respond adequately to what is staring them in the face.

That is, this super-crisis may not be creative, it may not lead to the necessary re-thinking of incentives and institutions that can make regional political systems viable in the long term, and, as important, attractive to outsiders.

Nonetheless, the fiscal crises of the 1980s and 1990s did produce two very positive outcomes. One was the creation of hundreds of private universities and the other was the cautious ceding of autonomy to public institutions.

The private sector is better equipped to develop an educational product at acceptable cost that will attract non-national students. At the same time, the relative autonomy of private institutions has encouraged the public authorities to empower public university leadership to be creative in generating new sources of income, including the recruitment of foreign students. These changes, while modest, could have systemic implications.

John Waterbury is former president of the American University of Beirut (1998-2008). Before that he was a professor of political science at the University of Michigan, a faculty associate of the American Universities Field Staff in Cairo (1971-77), visiting professor at the Université Aix-Marseille III in France, and for 20 years a professor of public policy and international affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. In 2011 he was senior advisor on higher education to Abu Dhabi’s Executive Authority and from 2012 to 2015 visiting professor at NYU Abu Dhabi. He is author of Missions Impossible: Higher education and policymaking in the Arab world, just published by the American University in Cairo Press.