A Conversation with the Head of the Association of Arab Universities

AMMAN—An Al-Fanar Media editor met Sultan Abu-Orabi, secretary general of the Association of Arab Universities (AARU), in his office, after he came back from Egypt and before he traveled to Yemen. Books and papers were piled up on his desk and visitors were constantly arriving and leaving.
During five hours, and amid many emergency meetings and phone calls to Palestine, Dubai and London, the professor talked about higher education in the Arab region, its challenges and opportunities.
Abu-Orabi, was trained as an organic chemist and earned his doctorate from the University of Michigan, in the United States. He served as the president of two Jordanian public universities and a private one before being elected as the secretary general of the Association of Arab Universities, which has its headquarters in Jordan.
Abu-Orabi has participated in over 90 conferences at the national, regional and international levels throughout his career spanning twenty-six years. He was the editor in chief of several journals and has served on many international advisory boards. —Rasha Faek, Senior Editor

How could you describe the situation of the higher education in the Arab region today? What are the big challenges?
Before describing the current situation, I would like first to talk about the old history of education in our region. In 734, Zaytuna University [also a mosque] was established as a first university in the world in Tunisia, and then Fez University in Morocco was established in 859, Al-Azhar University in Cairo in 970 and Mustansiriya University in Baghdad in 984. Arabs also established several universities in Cordoba in 10th and 11th centuries. [Historians debate over these dates, and especially about where the first university in the world was established.] In those times, Europeans used to come and study at Arab universities until the 16th century when the situation turned upside down and the Arab region witnessed a sharp decline in education while Europeans started advancing. The new history of education started again with orientalists coming again to the region in the 18th century. In 1866, the American University opened its door in Beirut as the first modern university in the region. Until 1953, we had only 14 universities in the whole region and most of them were private. Today, we have around 600 universities in the region, around 11 million students and more than 200,000 professors. But we face many challenges and obstacles, the main three are: The quality of higher-education outputs, the weakness of research and the migration [out of the region] of teachers, academics and recently even students.

Arab governments generally spend a lot of money on education, but the quality still seems to be lacking. Why is that?
First, we cannot ignore that our universities graduate millions of students every year who are working in Arab and international markets. Also, we are witnessing a significant increase in the university students’ numbers each year, which require great efforts to ensure the quality of education. Therefore, the Association of Arab Universities established an Arab council for quality assurance and accreditation, which is one of the most important institutions that work with the Arab universities. We have already published six references and guides for quality. The association doesn’t have the authority to ensure universities’ commitment, but we are counting on spreading culture and raising awareness to get better education systems.

Arab universities also suffer from a weak interest in research, how can research be encouraged more?
Unfortunately, our universities are more interested in teaching—which is of course good—and pay a little attention to research, which is one of the reasons that our universities are mostly out of international rankings that give priority to research. Just over 5 percent of the global population lives in the region, but it produces only 0.5 percent of the world’s scientific research. Also, the number of Arab researchers is nearly 500 researchers per million people, but the advanced industrial countries have about 6,000 researchers per million people. Moreover, patents are very few in the region.
Our real problem lies in funding. We do not spend enough money on research. Of course, there are so many other reasons behind this such as the dearth of strategic plans for research.
To address this, last year the association established a pan-Arab scientific research fund to focus on areas pertinent to the entire region, including energy, water and healthcare. And we recently met the general secretary of the Arab League who has promised to consider the fund’s support in the upcoming Arab summit.

Where do Arab universities stand in relation to what was once called the Arab spring? Should students be allowed to discuss politics and their desire for more political freedom on campus?
We all know that Arab youth have participated in the Arab spring due to the deterioration of economic and social conditions. Around three million students graduate annually from our universities, but most of them can’t find a job. We need to develop our programs and teaching methods. Universities should find ways to engage students more in their environments and governments should create new job opportunities. We can’t prevent students from asking for better life conditions and expressing their opinions and needs—but peacefully. We have to respect their opinions and keep them far from violent confrontations.

How would you describe the situation of Arab women in higher education? How can universities help women more?
According to the latest statistics, in most Arab countries the proportion of female students in universities is higher than the proportion of male students. But when we come to the labor market and jobs, we find the ratio is reversed. The proportion of women in the faculty does not exceed 25 to 35 percent overall in most of Arab countries. Arab women have shown efficiency and seriousness in work and all what they need is more support and opportunities.

Al-Fanar Media has visited several universities in the region during 2013. There seems to be little connection or cooperation between most of them. How can Arab universities start working together more?
In our time, networking is the single most powerful tactic to accelerate and sustain success. It can’t be ignored anymore. AARU’s objectives are to enhance cooperation and communication among Arab universities and to coordinate their efforts with a view to raising the quality of higher education. We have already established different councils and associations at different administrative and academic and scientific levels to ensure universities’ involvement and to exchange information and experience.

Tell us about your efforts to connect Arab universities to other ones outside the region. How is that going? What else do you want to do?
If we want to fill the gaps in our education system and be updated, we need to be connected. That is why we have held a number of conferences last year. We had one in Malaysia with Malaysian universities. We had also held the first Arab-Euro university conference on higher education in Spain. The conference considered specific themes in Arab-European collaboration and compare recent higher education developments in both regions, including internationalization. This year, we are going to have the second Arab-Euro university conference here in Amman [in May]. Also, we are going to have similar ones in Turkey [in April] and Germany [date not yet determined] in addition to our continuing cooperation with European Union [A reference to the Tempus project]. The main topics to be discussed will be higher-education development trends in the world and enhanced higher education collaboration between the Western and the Arab worlds.

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

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