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Arab University Administrators Get Their Own Report Card

In a time of year that is dotted with announcements of the latest institutional moves up and down university rankings, one organization is offering an alternative. The World Bank, working with partners in the Middle East and North Africa region, has created a benchmarking system about a key institutional yardstick: governance.

Governance is important, of course, because without an effective administration, little other improvement in how an institution performs takes place.

Last week, dozens of World Bank staff, professors and higher education researchers gathered in Washington, D.C., to discuss a new book about models of higher-education governance. Many of their Arab counterparts joined by live webcast.

The book, Benchmarking Governance as a Tool for Promoting Change, is the result of over three years of research focused on improving the quality and relevance of higher education in the region, carried out by the World Bank’s Center for Mediterranean Integration.

The book’s lead author, Adriana Jaramillo, senior education specialist at the World Bank, explained that the demand to understand what works in higher-education governance actually came from participating university and government leaders. She said that the World Bank “believes leaders need to be accountable, whether university administrators or governments.”

Karma El-Hassan, from the American University of Beirut, agreed: “Governance is crucial for any institution that wants to have improved outcomes. This topic has never been tackled before, so all the institutions that participated were very motivated and eager to look at the results and participate in surveys.”

One hundred universities were involved in the final project, drawn from Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Tunisia and Morocco. Within each nation, the authors gathered a diverse group of universities, including public, private, old, new, and comprehensive and specialized institutions. The institutions included the American University of Beirut, the venerable private university in Lebanon, Hassan II University, a comprehensive national university in Casablanca, and the Mediterranean Business School in Tunis, a young, small private institution specializing in business and management.

One of the initial challenges was simply to come up with a methodology for measuring university governance, which varies both across and within countries. The World Bank focused on five areas: context, management, participation, accountability, and autonomy. Context refers to how well defined the university’s mission is and the process undertaken to establish it. Participation refers to how involved different stakeholders are in the university’s decision-making process. Participating universities were asked to carry out a questionnaire of 45 questions, covering each of the five dimensions.

Karma El-Hassan from the American University of Beirut said that thinking of governance along five dimensions “really broadened our understanding of what governance is, and alerted us to the importance of participation in governance,” explaining that listening to the voices of students and employers in governance was not something that they had previously made a high priority of.

The book finds that university governance generally falls into two broad models of governance – public and private. Public universities typically have well-articulated formal missions, but low autonomy and lower levels of accountability. Private universities and those public institutions following the private model generally have loosely defined missions but high levels of autonomy and accountability. The report also says ten universities in the region have scored high marks on all five dimensions of governance and called them “good governance universities.” The institutions were not named. These good governance universities came from both public and private sectors and were found in a number of different countries. Seven of them were public universities, of which five were located in Morocco, one in Egypt and one in Palestine, along with three private universities in Lebanon.

“It is important that in the same country, we have high performers, high accountability and the low performers, so it’s not about national policy, it’s about management,” Jaramillo stated. In response to the project, universities throughout the region have undertaken reforms such as developing their own strategic plans, introducing new policies for tuition and faculty pay, and reforming human resources and management practices. But many of them still run into national obstacles that make improvement difficult: Universities in Morocco, for instance, are obligated to take on many new students by the country’s demographics and policies but also have a mandatory retirement age for professors at a time when replacing those professors will be difficult.

Based on the five criteria, the project also produced a screening card for each university and the trends in each nation, which allows universities to compare their governance model with their counterparts in other nations. The authors stress that the screening card is not the same as a ranking system.

Alan Ruby, a Senior Fellow in the Higher Education Division at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, who spoke as a discussant, emphasized the importance of the benchmarking approach in contrast to simple rankings.

“The World Bank has taken a benchmarking approach, to compare institutions across dimensions, and this is quite different from grading and ranking. It is a tool that can be used to improve higher education,” said Ruby.

Ruby explained that the screening card approach, “provides a reality check” to individual institutions, to compare how they are doing on university governance, which can lead to self-reflection and improvement.

The screening card approach also provides a common language to administrators and officials, which can promote communities of practice among professionals and can give policymakers a tool to examine how their institutions compare to those in other nations.

The book launch was broadcast in real time on the Internet, with an additional 25 participants from different parts of the world attending the event virtually. University administrators and researchers from Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Palestine and Iraq also participated in the book launch via Skype.

University officials from the participating countries suggested that the experience was beneficial. Karma El-Hassan emphasized that the project “alerted us to the diversity of governance models that exist, and we appreciate the differences in these models.”

Similarly, calling in from Tunisia, Leila Triki from the Mediterranean School of Business explained that the process complemented the business school’s efforts at self-reflection, and “shed light on areas we could improve.”

The book does not attempt to link governance to student-level outcomes, but this is a direction for potential future research. “We would like to correlate governance with performance, but we have a lack of information on performance — the data is scarce,” said Jaramillo. In the future, the World Bank hopes to examine higher-education governance models in other countries and regions, which collect this data more systematically.

The book is available as a PDF on the Marseille Center for Mediterranean Integration website in English and Arabic.

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