An African Perspective on Arab Universities

A great many international education conferences look at universities through a European or North American lens.  But many of the sessions at the British Council’s Going Global conference here had a fresh perspective. With, more African and Arab representation at the meeting than is usual at most global education conferences, some different conversations resulted. Many of them were relevant to Arab universities.

Here are some highlights of the ideas presented:

  • In some countries it might be best, speakers argued, if students develop in the context of their own cultures instead of striving for the oft-cited goal of becoming “global citizens.”
  • Internationalization is too often a process where the rich get richer, with the premium institutions connecting to each other and amplifying the inequality in the way research money and the best faculty members and students get distributed. One sharp-tongued commentator said that there are two views of internationalization.  “The rosy one is a lie,” he added.
  • Rankings may tear nations down instead of building them up. Developing countries seeking to have globally top-ranked institutions can pour all of their scarce resources into a single institution in the hopes it will become well ranked. That can strip resources from other universities that educate a broad spectrum of the population.

No matter how much academics gripe about university rankings, they usually pack the conference sessions where they are discussed.  Much of the debate at the Going Global session on rankings centered on teaching. Universities that take badly prepared students and do a good job teaching them, or universities that take in many students rather than focusing on an elite few, will always be punished in the rankings, speakers said. While that argument is also heard in the United Kingdom or the United States, its meaning is magnified for African and Arab universities dealing with thousands of students who need remedial help.  “Rankings are inevitable, like TripAdvisor,” said Ellen Hazelkorn, director of the Higher Education Policy Research Institute at the Dublin Institute of Technology. “But they have very little meaning for students.”

In addition, rankings can stifle national discussions about the nature of academic excellence, speakers said. “We are not adequately debating what we want out of our institutions,” said Blade Nzimande, the minister for higher education and training in South Africa.

Even the basic premise that study abroad is always a positive force was re-examined. “Do we need to send students abroad, or do we need to make sure they experience the diversity in their own backyards,” said an administrator from the University of Cape Town. Other African academics, including Felix Maringe of the University of Witwatersrand, advocated developing local leadership models instead of importing ones from abroad. In South Africa, he said, it is important to develop leadership models in the context of understanding the nation’s widespread poverty, the stubborn legacy of apartheid, and cultural traditions such as initiation ceremonies that for some men can mean the end of formal education.

In many countries, the MOOC frenzy has come and gone.  But that frenzy has not arrived in Africa. “There’s not that many people on the continent who can access the technology for the duration of a MOOC for them to make a difference,” said Catherine Ngugi, the project director of Open Educational Resources Africa, in Kenya.

I didn’t buy every argument I heard, and I realize this meeting was not the first one to put some developing-country spin on international higher education. But I enjoyed the chance to hear get some new insights on often-discussed ideas.

David Wheeler, the editor of Al-Fanar Media.

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