Private Universities Thriving as Public Ones Weaken
This article is one in a three-part series that examines the growing role and impact of private universities in the region. The other articles are “Qatar’s Private Universities Are the Most Expensive in the Region” and “Are Private Universities Worth the Money?”
A single year at a private university in Lebanon can cost up to $14,000. In Saudi Arabia, that figure can climb to $25,000.
In Qatar, it can more than triple.
But cost isn’t stopping a rising number of students from heading to private universities, where they can find flexible admission criteria, smaller classes and fields of study not available to them in public education. (See related article Are Private Universities Worth the Money?)
As public universities sometimes fail to offer disciplinary diversity and buckle under the weight of an expanding student population, private education is playing a critical—but sometimes flawed—role in offering expanded educational opportunities.
Private education in the Arab world has exploded over the last several decades, said John Waterbury, a former president of the American University of Beirut, a nonprofit private institution. Waterbury, who has also been studying flagship public universities in the region, said that in countries such as Egypt and Lebanon with limited state funds, “public educational systems are in crisis, underfinanced and overwhelmed by numbers.” In general, they also offer poor-quality education, he added.
That sinking quality led governments to quietly abdicate their educational role and welcome the private sector: “The explosion of private education really represents the public authorities throwing up their hands in despair and frustration and saying, ‘Let somebody else try to do this,’” Waterbury said.
Now, a variety of private universities freckle the region, ranging from non-profit institutions offering western-style education to “fly-by-night” for-profit ones and universities with religious ties. While most students still flow into the public system, the number of private universities in many nations across the Arab world exceeds the number of public ones.
Among the holdouts, however, is Tunisia, where private education is limited, Waterbury said. Algeria has no private universities at all, due to a legal restriction. And Morocco still only has five private universities compared to 13 public institutions with high student enrollments.
But the rapid growth in some other countries has sometimes led to a regulatory backlash, as governments realize that they need to keep a watchful eye on private institutions. Questionable quality at some of Yemen’s 55 private learning institutions prompted the government’s Academic Accreditation and Quality Control Council to begin reviewing them in 2012 in an effort to develop quality standards. “Most private universities do not have professional academic teams and rely on public university professors,” said Ahmed Alwan, a member of the quality control council, which monitors public and private universities in Yemen. “Also, many of them use the same curriculum as public ones, so they offer the same programs with the same professors but with higher fees.”
In Iraq, despite the chaotic political background, the number of private higher learning institutions soared from 26 in 2010 to 45 this year. That increase “reflects the role played by these universities in accommodating the growing number of students,” said Farhan Omran, director of private education in Iraq’s education ministry.
Like elsewhere across the Arab world, the private universities give Iraqi students who score lower on a secondary-school exit exam a chance to enter fields from which they would otherwise be blocked. To study engineering at a private university in Iraq, a student needs to score an 82, far lower than the 94 percent required by a public institution, said Kassem Mahmoud, a professor at Baghdad’s Al Yarmouk University College.
Private universities also widen access for people who are both studying and working, since schedules are more flexible, Mahmoud said. “In general, Iraqi private universities are popular,” he added.
As Iraq continues to face violence in the wake of an extremist surge, private universities have another role: They make education accessible to those seeking classes closer to their homes, said Hazem Mohammed, a professor at Al-Mansour University College, a private institution. “Also, private universities are usually small,” he said, “and have good security—unlike public ones.”
Ayman Salam, a student at Dijlah University College in Iraq, said studying at a local private university was a good alternative to a public institution and to an even-more expensive option, studying abroad. “We enjoy less bureaucracy at private universities as there are fewer students,” he said.
The number of students flooding the public sector is a big issue in Egypt, where demand for higher education is high among its population of roughly 90 million. The country’s state institutions are crammed, with quite a few enrolling more than 100,000 students.
As in Iraq, private universities in Egypt offer smaller classes and allow lower-scoring students to study subjects that they can’t at public universities because of strong competition for places to study in those fields.
That has resulting economic advantages as it keeps some students from giving up on education altogether at home and going to study overseas, said Ali Shams El Din, president of the public Benha University, in Egypt. “They will stay in the country and keep the money in the country,” he said.
In Kuwait there are nine private universities for the country’s one public university. The private universities are educating about half of the university student population, according to Kuwait’s Ministry of Education.
Duha Hajri enrolled at the private American University of Kuwait because men and women are allowed to mingle and because the coursework is in English, which she prefers because she studied earlier at international schools. “Usually, students prefer private universities as there are more activities, more foreign qualified professors,” she added.
In Yemen, students in private universities can study disciplines such as interior design that —like in other countries regionally—they can’t find in public ones. For professors, the private institutions often offer financial advantages. “Personally, I moved to work at a private university to get a better income,” said Ali Charfi, a professor of English at a private university in Sanaa.
Private universities are the preferred alternative for some Arab families who do not want their daughters to go overseas without a male relative. “I joined a private one as I want to study pharmacology,” said Hoda Al-Yousuf, a second year student at Jordan’s Zarqa University. “It’s not cheap, but I don’t have another choice as I can’t travel alone to study abroad.”
Despite the advantages, academics say private universities can be plagued by uneven quality control. Students lament that they are often expensive.
While scholarships are often available, the issue of cost is upsetting for some who see other failures in the private system. Academic quality at private Kuwaiti universities is often lacking, said Shafeeq Ghabra, a political science professor at Kuwait University and the first president of the American University of Kuwait. “They are for-profit universities, which hinders their academic progress,” he said.
Profit goes into investor’s pockets when it should instead be put toward improving curricula, developing infrastructure, attracting more qualified professors and supporting scientific research, Ghabra said.
“Students are looking for certificates more than quality, as they need these certificates to get jobs later,” Ghabra said. “The certificate culture is a very common problem in the whole region.” This tendency plagues other developing countries, too: When the student’s focus is just on getting a degree and not the learning involved in getting the degree, plagiarism and other forms of cheating become rife and education quality diminishes.
In Jordan, the role of private universities should be parallel to—and supportive of—the role of the public system, said Fakher Daas, the coordinator of the National Campaign for Defending Students Rights, a student movement established in 2007. First and foremost, education is the responsibility of states, he said, and not a commodity that should be subject to the laws of supply and demand.
“Unfortunately in our region, private universities mean profit,” he said. “They do not play any real role in supporting scientific research and developing communities.”
Not all private universities strive for investors’ gain.
In the United Arab Emirates, where quality assurance is in place, their role is to help build the country’s knowledge economy, said Daniel Kratochvil, director of the Office of Planning and Performance at the University of Wollongong in Dubai.
Private tertiary institutions started sprouting there in the early 1990s, he said. Now, they are educating the country’s expatriate community, students coming from overseas and even Emiratis themselves, who can attend federal universities at no charge. “Private education is positive in the case of the UAE due to the strength of its regulatory frameworks,” Kratochvil said.
Regardless of quality or cost, the number of private universities—and the number of students attending them—is continuing to grow region-wide, said Waterbury. “This is a big shift we may be witnessing and it’s coming very fast,” he said.
Not only is demand high for decent education in countries with a crammed public system, but “people are willing to beg, borrow and steal to pay for their children’s education,” Waterbury said. “There is a huge market. There is a huge demand, and it’s very attractive to the private sector.”
* Sarah Lynch reported from Cairo, Rasha Faek reported from Amman.
* Contributing: Aisha Algaiar in Kuwait, Faisal Darem in Yemen and Mohamed Rabei in Baghdad.