Resources, commitment to change and demand for a skilled workforce are driving universities in the Gulf toward cooperation with European governments and academic institutions.
Throughout the past years plans were set and projects were started to encourage cooperation between Europe and the Gulf in higher education. But European governments and academic institutions may be on the cusp of a new era of cooperation with their Gulf counterparts.
“Unique opportunities are awaiting European institutions in the Gulf region in particular,” said Sultan Abu-Orabi, secretary general of the Association of Arab Universities (AARU), at the European Association for International Education (EAIE) 2013 conference held in Istanbul earlier this month.
“The Gulf countries are completely different from the rest of the Arab world, they’ve only introduced higher education in the last 50 years,” Abu-Orabi said during a session devoted to European collaborations with Gulf countries. Speaking on behalf of 240 Arab universities, members of the AARU, Abu-Orabi said, “the Gulf countries have the money and can finance more research now.”
The governments’ largesse is not all that is fueling increased interest and new collaborations in the region. Gulf governments are, in general, trying to convert their societies into knowledge economies. And the Gulf countries’ growing young populations, demand for research and a more specialized workforce are also major factors.
“There is a clear need in many sectors for engineers, nurses, doctors, anyone who can run a hospital, introduce an insurance scheme,—sectors where support is needed to bring quality to another level,” said Tijan Ramahi, director of the Netherlands Center for Higher Education and Research (NCHER). “And whoever has a genuine interest and capacity to turn manpower and time can find a partner in the Arab world, particularly in the Gulf region, because the money is available to pay for any sort of need, which is not always the case in other Arab states, unfortunately.”
The Netherland center’s initiative in Oman, slated to start in February 2014, began as a joint project by Maastricht University, the University of Groningen and the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sciences in the Netherlands. “Oman was supportive all along,” said Ramahi in an email.
For Ramahi and his colleagues Oman was the natural choice for their first project in the region: 3.8-million inhabitants, an “immense” young population, stable economic development, good infrastructure and relatively narrow wealth gap compared to other Gulf states like Qatar.
“In the years to come, there will be a huge demand for higher education,” said Ramahi. The center will be based in Muscat and plans to promote student exchange and capacity building.
Ultimately, it is the Omani government’s commitment to change that is fueling the initiative.
“The priority setting by Arab Gulf governments, to transform their societies by all means to become knowledge and human capital-based societies in the long run, facilitates the initiation of highly complex projects and partnerships,” said Ramahi.
At the same time, Omani educators say they are determined to reform university curriculum to reflect ongoing changes and future demand, as laid out in the government’s long-term plan Oman “Vision 2020.” The plan reflects an increasing demand for a workforce that is skilled and knowledgeable about oil and gas technology, fracking, entrepreneurship, and hospitality.
“The curriculum needs to reflect this,” says Kakul Agha, a professor at the Middle East College in Oman, who also spoke at the EAIE conference.
Saudi Arabia also offers plenty of opportunities for Europeans to cooperate on research, staff and curriculum development.
King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia recently allocated around $20 billion dollars for scientific research. In Saudi Arabia, many professors are expatriates.
“The Arab countries are not spending more than 0.6 percent of their GDP on research whereas the industrialized and developed countries spend between 4-6 per cent of their GDP on research,” said Abu-Orabi. In his view, “The Gulf has the money, but higher education over there is not as developed as in Jordan, Egypt or Morocco.”
At the conference in Istanbul Abu-Orabi spoke at a panel called “Linking Europe, the Mediterranean & the Gulf: Towards a Euro-Mediterranean Higher-Education Area”, chaired by the University of Barcelona.
In January 2013, the University of Barcelona launched a new project called “Linking-Med-Gulf”, supported by the European Union’s Erasmus Mundus project, aimed at fostering European cooperation with the Middle East and the Gulf region.
“We’re trying to strengthen the links not just with the Middle East, but with the Gulf region,” said Zeinab Mazouz, representing the University of Barcelona and the chair of the panel at EAIE. “We cover areas like quality assurance, different synergies and cooperation between higher education institutions and the industries, as well as trying to promote employability of Erasmus Mundus graduates.”
On September 19, the University of Barcelona program hosted a focus group workshop in Tunisia.
In May, the University of Barcelona held the first Arab-European conference on education, which hosted 80 rectors and faculty members from the Arab world and 90 attendees from the European side. The second such conference will be held in Jordan in June 2014.
“We have so many projects between universities in Europe and universities in the MENA area,” said Abu-Orabi in his remarks. “We have to learn from each other.”