DENVER—Over 5,000 feet above sea level, ten thousand international educators from around the world converged at the Colorado Convention Center to get an overview on the international landscape of higher education.
The participants were gathered for the annual NAFSA: Association of International Educators 2016 conference, the largest annual event of its kind.
It was my second time at a Nafsa conference, but my enthusiasm was still strong to learn about the best practices, emerging trends, and new programs designed to attract students from all over the world and prepare them for their professions and to be global citizens.
In the large expo hall, banners from many countries fought with each other for prominence. Universities worked hard to attract students from all over the world through explanations about their academic programs. Elsewhere, the meeting rooms were filled with hundreds of workshops, educational sessions, networking opportunities, inspiring plenary speakers, and special events.
Amid all this buzz, branding, and discussion, which lasted for five days, I was wandering around looking for my fellow Arabs. Where is Arab education, I wondered. Where are Arab universities, educators, students?
Well, Arab students were there in spirit. They are among the international students who many universities are hunting for. But rarely if ever are there international academic programs focused on Arab youth. In addition, Western universities often confuse Arab students with Muslim students, which for me is a broad generalization ignoring the diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds of the populations in Arab countries. There were a couple of sessions analyzing the situation of Muslim students studying abroad, especially in the United States, where many academics believe Islamophobia has shaped public perceptions.
American local media play a big role in promoting stereotypes, said Alisha Stanton, a doctoral student at the University of Denver’s College of Education. “Universities should provide a space to learn more about Muslim beliefs and practices as a way of combating Islamophobia,” she said, in a session on Inclusion and Safe Spaces for Dialogue: Analysis of International Muslim Students in the United States. “They need to increase communication with [Muslim students] and increase cultural competency.”
In the corridors of the meeting, talks were less formal but still very serious. U.S. attendees believed that an election victory by the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, would deter international students from coming to their country, since Trump has said he wants to bar Muslims from entering the United States. The majority of the people I met preferred to avoid talking about the worst-case scenario. But a survey of roughly 40,000 international students from 118 countries and released during the conference found that 60 percent said they would be less likely to enroll in a U.S. college if Trump became president.
On another note, I heard very little discussion of the 61 million refugees around the world, many of whom are students, scholars, and academics. I heard little about helping young refugees integrate into the higher education systems of their host countries or about preparing to rebuild higher education in countries now torn by conflict.
But in one session, presenters from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), International Affairs Center for International Cooperation at Freie University in Germany and the Institute of International Education in New York talked about their efforts to help refugee students to complete their higher education. They discussed challenges related to language barriers, documentation and legal issues.
I found the discussion interesting. But I believe the biggest challenge is looking at young refugees as potential troublemakers rather than as investment opportunities. Unfortunately, refugees are not appealing in the for-profit marketplace for international students. They are still on the margins and will stay there as long as they are considered a burden rather than an opportunity.
I think universities and academic institutions need to rethink their social responsibility. Investing in refugees’ education will not only help them feed themselves but also help them contribute to local economies. Investing one euro in welcoming refugees can yield nearly two euros in economic benefits within five years, according to a new study on the impact newcomers have on host communities.
Just as refugees were generally missing from the discussions at NAFSA, representatives of Arab universities were generally missing from among the participants.
I was sad to see all of the big banners and flags for countries from around the world in the NAFSA expo hall, with just some small booths numbering less than the fingers on one hand for Arab universities. I am sure our universities are eager to become international, because they compete to be rated more highly in global university rankings every year. So, I can’t understand why Arab universities are standing at such a distance from an active international gathering, where many partnerships are forged.
I do appreciate the individual participation of some Arab universities at NAFSA, but—excuse me—I do not think it is effective enough. Such a large international meeting needs more cooperation with Arab universities and countries. I hope someday they gather under one banner and present themselves properly.
Regardless of the discouraging political reality, I believe that Arab universities can compete in attracting international students if they pay more attention to disciplines such as regional studies, humanities, literature and art, especially as the Arab world was a long-standing home to many of these disciplines. Arab history is rich with hundreds of thinkers and philosophers. For us to try to compete head-on in science and technology may not be realistic. Students around the world have a strong interest in learning Arabic, and for those international students who don’t want to learn Arabic, many of the region’s universities have adopted English as the language of instruction.
Opening avenues of cooperation between Arab institutions and Western ones, and establishing true partnerships, could create more real internationalization and help improve the quality of Arab education. That would do much more than the continuing slavish attention to the university rankings.
Let us try to rethink please.
* Rasha Faek, is the managing editor of Al-Fanar Media. You can follow her on Twitter @RashaFaek.
A collection of NAFSA 2016 photos: