Arab Private Universities Could Drive Broader Improvements

Private higher education is expanding rapidly in the Arab world. Many institutions are serving a niche clientele of wealthy but poor performing students, while others are drawing top talent – both students and professors – from public universities. Without policy changes, private universities will likely magnify inequalities in access and erode the quality of public higher education.

Before determining how to ease such impacts, it’s best to review where private higher education now stands.

Private higher education is relatively new in most Arab countries, with Lebanon and Palestine notable exceptions. Some countries, such as Jordan and Tunisia, began privatizing higher education in the early 1980s. Syria began private higher education only after 2000, and the first private university just opened in Algeria in 2009. Private higher education is growing rapidly and here to stay.

Most of the newly founded private universities are for-profit, in contrast to the older ones such as the American University of Cairo and the American University of Beirut, which were founded by religious orders. In some countries, such as Tunisia, private universities are required to be for-profit, because no legal code exists for a private non-profit university.

In other countries, such as Jordan, universities are legally required to be non-profit, but exploit a loophole that allows them to make substantial profits. Investors create shell companies that rent the university’s land and buildings to it at high rates. This practice is carried out in plain sight and government officials are sometimes shareholders.

This is not to say, however, that all private universities care only about their bottom line. Many view their institutions as innovative service providers meeting demand for education that the state cannot provide. Many private universities care about their reputations and about the quality of the education they provide.

The other distinguishing feature of private universities in the region is that they often more closely link themselves to the needs of the private labor market than public institutions. Some even perform de facto training for private companies – such as the Jordan Applied University in Amman, which was founded by hoteliers to provide hospitality degrees and hands-on internships in hotels owned and operated by the university’s founders. Such a model can help Arab nations’ meet the needs for specialized training – but at the same time, such institutions cannot provide the broader academic grounding that public universities also offer.

Because private universities are tuition dependent, they tend to be more expensive than public universities, prohibitively so for many families. This means that they open up new pathways to higher education for the wealthy, but are inaccessible to the poor. In research for an article to be published in the next issue of Comparative Education Review, I found that private higher education in Egypt caters to wealthy but low-performing students from Cairo. The growth of private universities, without policies in place to offset costs, is likely to exacerbate already severe inequalities in access to higher education.

Additionally, private universities tend to have lower admissions standards. In Jordan, Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, private universities are all permitted to accept students who have either failed to gain acceptance to public universities or been kicked out of public universities (in the case of Tunisia).

Not surprisingly, the tuition-dependent nature of private universities and their lower academic standards means that they are often viewed negatively. In interviews I conducted about private universities in Jordan, Syria and Tunisia, those interviewed criticized private universities as “selling their degrees” or called them “commercial enterprises, not educational institutions.”

At the same time, many private universities allow students to study a topic they could not have studied in a public university, or to study in an English-language environment. For example, I interviewed a young man in Syria in 2009 who said “all I know about private universities is that if there are 20 students in a class, there are 20 chairs.” His implication was that the educational resources were better in private universities than public universities where a lack of seats and books can impede learning. The English environment at some private universities is a mixed blessing, of course. Students emerge better prepared to work for global companies, but can struggle to comprehend academic concepts in a language not their native tongue.

Some evidence exists that private universities can drive innovation. For example, in Tunisia, the first public English-language graduate school, the Tunis Business School, was founded in 2010 at the University of Tunis. The institution is considered by many to be the public sector’s response to the opening of a private English-language business school, the Mediterranean School of Business, which opened in 2000 and is now considered one of the best business schools in Africa.

The declining quality of Arab public higher education helps private universities grow. Private universities can also undermine the quality at public institutions by hiring professors away at higher wages, and in some countries, skimming the best students. It is common for professors at public universities to combine class sections or skip lectures to moonlight at private universities or private language centers, a practice many of them view as justified by their low wages. Ministries of education and public universities need to ensure that professors’ wages are competitive and their teaching loads reasonable. That will help to ensure that public universities keep their best and brightest professors.

For governments, trying to restrict the growth of private institutions would be counterproductive.

How can privatization be a force for good in the Arab higher education landscape? I don’t pretend to have instant answers, but do have a few recommendations:

Governments might give private universities expanded freedom to create new academic programs. At the same time, education ministries could push private universities to meet high quality standards and encourage them to seek national and international accreditations at the program level.

Government should allow non-profit private universities and encourage them to create endowments. They could also regulate university profits by setting a maximum profit margin, requiring other income to be invested in faculty research and student learning. To improve equality of access to private universities, governments could require private universities to offer scholarships and create scholarship programs that follow students to either public or private universities. That would help to create a climate that rewards institutional excellence.

With more active and carefully thought out government policies, private-university growth could be a force for improvement in Arab higher education.

Editor’s note: We welcome readers’ thoughts in the comments about other ideas they have for policy recommendations that might shape private education as a force for good.


  1. Thanks Elizabeth for the insightful article, and I look forward to reading your article in Comparative Education Review. But I have a couple of comments.

    First, I hope you exclude the American University in Cairo and American University of Beirut from the group of private universities in the region with low standards and selling degrees. This is not clear from the article.

    Second, I wonder if accreditation is necessarily a good guarantor of quality. It simply respond to the neoliberal drive towards external accountability, and international accreditation need not address contextual needs of each country. I also know from experience that some not-very-great programs can get international accreditation. Granted, they are probably still better than other non-accredited programs, but accreditation is not necessarily a guarantee of quality.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Maha. I agree that the article is not entirely clear about the status of older private universities. I was intending to focus on the newly founded, predominantly for-profit private universities in the region, and think that should be more clear in the text. I certainly exclude AUC and AUB and a number of other elite-targeting private universities, which do not fit into this analysis mainly because they tend to be both older and well established, as well as non-profit universities.

    Second, I agree that accreditation is a complicated issue — but I do see it as one way that universities can assure — or strive to assure — quality. Although I understand your comment about external pressure, I do not view accreditation as neoliberal — the United States as pursued a model of regional education accreditation for universities that has been in place for decades and certainly pre-dates neoliberalism. Instead, I see it as one way that educators or professional associations (Engineers for example) can maintain standards over education, rather than having the government or universities themselves be responsible for standards. In general, I think that is a good thing — the argument is that Engineers are in the best position after all, to know the needs of Engineering students. ABET (Engineering Accreditation) is currently being pursued by universities across the region — and I think this is generally a good thing.

    To create country specific standards, governments themselves could be responsible for setting quality assurance standards – and it is worth pointing out that many do have Quality Assurance projects or bureaus that are becoming more active. These QA standards are essentially government definitions of quality that are required to maintain university accreditation. There are two difficult issues here — one is that I’ve found Ministries in the region to set high standards for quality based on factors such as faculty-student ratios, library resources, etc — however, not all universities are compelled to follow these regulations. In fact, in Jordan, it is the public universities that are required to accept more students than they want to accept, knowing that this will mean that the university is not meeting its quality assurance standards but that accreditation can’t actually be taken away from public universities.

    Private universities, at least, are held more strictly to these quality assurance standards at least for student-faculty ratios because they are not compelled to accept students (as many public universities in the region essentially are).

    The other issue, though is that accreditation requirements and QA standards — at least thus far, have tended to be somewhat superficial — focusing on resources, etc. as opposed to learning outcomes. One argument is that professional association accreditations (at the programmatic level — for example in Engineering or Architecture, etc) which tend to be international are more focusing on learning outcomes.

    Also, regardless of what you think about whether universities should or should not be pursuing international accreditations, I believe that they will continue to do so because it is in their interest. Private universities in particular, need to convince their potential students of the quality of their programs.

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