The Urgent Need to Protect and Rebuild Arab Higher Education

Higher education in the Arab world has increasingly found itself caught in the crossfire of spreading regional conflicts. The severe toll that regional conflicts have taken on higher education is further compounded by a failure to appreciate the strategic role of the sector in stabilizing and promoting the recovery of war-torn communities and states. This situation is deeply troubling.

In a recent Policy Briefing for the Brookings Doha Center titled “Houses of Wisdom Matter: The Responsibility to Protect and Rebuild Higher Education in the Arab World”, we argue that higher education, when properly supported, acts as a catalyst for the recovery of war-torn countries in the Arab world, not only by supplying the skills and knowledge needed to reconstruct shattered economic and physical infrastructure, but also by supporting the restoration of collapsed governance and fostering social cohesion.

The Arab world generated some of the world’s earliest institutions of higher learning, with universities such as al-Zitounah, in Tunis, and al-Qarawiyyin, in Fes, appearing centuries before Bologna, the first European university. As the region finally emerged from the shadows of Ottoman and Western imperial control, universities became a cornerstone of the Middle East’s post-colonial projects. Regimes such as that of Nasser in Egypt sought to produce well-educated graduates to staff the newly-founded arms of the state. In Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, universities helped advance powerful ideologies and political movements, such as pan-Arabism, socialism and Islamism, by offering the political space for debating new ideas, and providing the intellectual leadership for civil society.

Over the past few years, higher education across the Arab world has found itself in increasingly dire straits. A rapid increase in student numbers across the region from the 1980s up until the present, combined with insufficient investment in infrastructure, left classrooms overcrowded and understaffed, with universities churning out graduates ill-equipped for the realities of the region’s job market. Despite some efforts at broad reform, mainly in wealthier Arab nations with oil revenues to spare, it was only the political opening provided by the Arab Spring that generated real optimism for a brighter future for Arab higher education. Now, though, this optimism has been dashed, with institutions of higher learning caught in the crossfire of social upheaval and civil wars alike. The region has witnessed deadly crackdowns on Egyptian student protestors, the bombing of campuses in Syria and Gaza, and the closing of institutions in Yemen, Libya and Iraq.

Unfortunately, these institutions are often an unrecognized casualty of war, with international responses to conflict prioritizing immediate humanitarian aid or primary education. The list of institutions affected is long: the bombing of the Islamic University in Gaza by Israeli forces in 2008, and again in 2014; numerous Libyan campuses looted during fighting in 2011; crippling attacks on university facilities, faculties and students in Iraq’s Mosul and Tikrit Universities; damage dealt to Iman University in Sana’a and Southern Yemen’s Hodeidah University by Houthi forces and Saudi-led air strikes, respectively.

That damage poses a critical challenge for policymakers concerned about the rebuilding of conflict-affected countries in the Middle East. Universities educate, train and often provide refuge to the vital and swelling 18 to25 year old age groupin the region. Protection of these institutions in times of conflict is vital. However troubled Arab institutions of higher learning are, they represent an immense storehouse of human capital, and the best shot at revitalizing a regional economy now known more for falling behind than leading the way.

Key steps can be taken to protect higher education in the short term, recognizing the innate resilience of academic communities. Stronger legal protections and greater institutional ties in a network of solidarity among the world’s institutions can improve the international resilience of academic networks, deterring any attempt to target these institutions. Likewise, more “hard security” measures should aim to protect the physical infrastructure of universities, although such measures should avoid creating “Academic Fortresses” cut off from their surrounding societies. Efforts have also been underway to temporarily “rescue” endangered scholars who represent some of the brightest minds that the region has produced, by keeping them out of harm’s way for a limited time. Yet for these rescue initiatives to protect and foster a critical mass of scholars it is high time that a truly regional architecture of protection is created that can mobilize key actors and sources of funding.

Protection is not enough, however. Higher education must become an integral part of efforts to resolve conflicts and reconstruct shattered societies. As noted, higher education offers a home—intellectual and often physical—to young populations in the region who are often ripe for disillusionment or radicalization. Education provides a peaceful means for young people to channel their frustrations into productive action, on the local and national stage. Campuses also provide a natural arena for efforts to promote reconciliation and social cohesion in countries struggling with the legacies of decades of division, conflict, and fragmentation.

Additionally, even if political solutions can be found for the thorny conflicts facing the region, countries like Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya will face the daunting task of trying to catch up on years or even decades of development. They will have to generate new opportunities and jobs even as they try to restore the shattered infrastructure of yesterday. They will therefore need qualified graduates to lead reconstruction and redevelopment efforts, rather than see these opportunities siphoned off by neighboring nations or expatriates from donor countries.

Over the long term, investing in higher education throughout the Middle East represents a transformative opportunity. While the ambitious goal of creating flourishing knowledge economies in the region’s conflict-wracked countries may seem idealistic, high-quality universities can and should emerge as incubators for the production and commercialization of innovative research that could stimulate skilled job creation, support diversification, and stem the brain drain of the most talented. Moreover, creating a regionally owned knowledge infrastructure will be vital to generating regional solutions to complex and interconnected developmental challenges.

Finally, it is crucial to recognize that the protection and rebuilding of higher education in the Arab world must be achieved through both a regional and a global support system. At the regional level, cooperation between higher-education institutions and the pooling of resources to address the fallout of conflict can offer an invaluable lifeline to beleaguered universities and colleges in their time of need. At the global level, higher-education institutions have the potential, if they act collectively, to contribute to the safeguarding of Arab higher education and the rebuilding of quality higher education capable of leading the transition from protracted conflict to sustainable peace.

To foster the emergence of such a global architecture, the York Accord was held at the University of York on 17th July 2015. (See a related commentary “In the Wake of War, What About Universities.”) The global meeting brought together key individuals involved in the protection and rebuilding of higher education. Those in attendance comprised current and former higher-education leaders of conflict-affected societies including Liberia, Iraqi Kurdistan, Kenya, and Jordan as well as academics and officials from institutions of higher education in Europe, North America, Africa, and Asia. Participants engaged in dialogue and reached a broad consensus on the articles of the York Accord, a set of core principles to inform the responsibility of the international community to protect and rebuild higher education during and in the aftermath of conflict.

We hope that the York Accord will create global norms that will help to weave higher education in the Arab world into an international network of mutual support.

Sultan Barakat is director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and chairman and founding director of the Post-war Reconstruction and Development Unit at the University of York. Sansom Milton is research fellow at the Post-war Reconstruction and Development Unit at the University of York.


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