Many of the Arab nations have been blessed historically with oil and natural gas, which became the dominant engines of economic change in the last century. That is the good news. The bad news is that oil and natural gas are the sole economic foundations of the Arab world. What the Arab world has failed to achieve is economic diversity. If we are to exclude oil and natural gas from the various Arab economies of the 300 million inhabitants of the Arab world, the cumulative GDP would be less than that of Finland, a country with a population with just over 5 million.
The Arab world, with a few exceptions, has failed miserably at catching up with the economic renaissance of most other corners of the world. It is now struggling to catch up and reforming the educational system should be the starting point. Higher education in the Arab world has performed inadequately and produced graduates that are having a difficult time integrating and assimilating into the global economy.
A recent study compiled by the International Ranking Experts Group and the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington found only one Arab university at the bottom of a list of 3,000 world universities. In contrast, some Israeli universities are among the top 200 on the list. The DNA of the Arab universities seems to be poorly constructed. There seems to be a virtual wall between the universities and the real world. College culture does not encourage individuality and fresh ideas. The curriculum structure in universities is often rigid and sheltered. There is an urgent need to overhaul the system. In many universities that I have visited in the Arab world, enrolment is viewed as a right rather than a privilege. Some Arab governments pay monthly salaries to all enrolled students in tuition-free state universities – regardless of their financial needs, their area of specialization, or their academic performance.
The teaching quality in the so-called hard sciences and mathematics are weak and rank poorly when compared to international standards. The vast majority of Arab universities teach their students what to think instead of how to think. Unless this mentality changes fast, little hope of progress will be seen on the horizon. Hisham Ghassib is the president of Princess Sumaya University for Technology in Jordan. In a recent interview, Ghassib, an advocate of change in the region?s universities, observed that Arab societies’ focus should be on promoting free thinking, whereas the current system brought out graduate students “submissive to all the powers of society . Additionally, many graduates are very narrowly focused in their studies with very little prospect of using their college training in future careers. For example, each year tens of thousands of graduates throughout the Arab world major in Islamic law or Arabic literature.
The vast majority of them will be unemployed, underemployed, or end up working in the swelling government sector – further contributing to already bloated and inefficient state bureaucracies. Furthermore, an unemployable college graduate is an unhappy and frustrated graduate, who will become a prime candidate for recruitment into fundamentalist causes. Institutions of higher education must look at the needs of the private sector, determine the future demand of the labor market, and adjust the curricula accordingly. Universities must downsize programs of study or limit enrollment in programs unlikely to yield economic benefit to society. The value of fine universities is immeasurable to any culture. Lebanon benefited from having the American University of Beirut (AUB). Founded by missionaries in 1866 as a private non-sectarian liberal arts college, AUB became a beacon of change in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East.
The commitment to critical thinking and to well-rounded liberal arts education was and still is integral to its mission statement. Sadly, AUB is one of the few exceptions in the Arab world. Arab countries must incorporate higher education into their strategic planning. There must be a partnership between the private sector and educators. Arab universities should focus on market-oriented majors.
Large universities in the Arab world tend to be run by governments. Perhaps giving freedom to the private sector to launch private colleges and universities is a step in the right direction. Universities must serve the national economy and train the future leaders that will move the region to diversify its economy and help catch up economically with the rest of the world. Thus far, the performance has been dismal. An urgent overhaul is needed. Oil will not last indefinitely.
Raja Kamal is associate dean for resource development at the Harris School for Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR