A frequent lament about higher education in the Middle East and the North African region is that little data exist to understand it. In an attempt to remedy that, I administered a survey in English and French to universities across the region. The results give a snapshot of the landscape of higher education throughout the region—a landscape with sometimes surprising features.
Despite rapidly expanding higher-education systems, a majority of the institutions surveyed said they are now monitoring learning outcomes—whether or not students are different as a result of having attended an institution. About half of the institutions also say they have systems in place to check quality.
I got permission from the European Universities Association to adapt their Trends in Higher Education Survey and administered the survey in the summer of 2015. Responses were received from heads of 30 institutions operating in nine countries. Sixty percent of those responding came from the Levant (Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine), 24 percent from the Maghreb (Algeria, Tunisia) and 16 percent from Gulf Cooperation Council countries (United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia).
The Trends Survey will also enhance benchmarking both inside and outside the region, as institutions can use the results for comparison’s sake.
The survey confirmed that Arab higher education has expanded a great deal in recent times. Sixty percent of the universities surveyed said they were established after 1970 and 40 percent since 1990. Two thirds of the universities have experienced increases in enrollment in last five years, with 42 percent having more than 10 percent increases. Most of universities expect student enrollment to keep increasing and even have strategies for attracting national and international students. The strong expansion in the recent past, and the expectation that expansion will continue, mean that university administrators should put policies, resources and infrastructure in place to cope with that expansion.
The past few decades have also witnessed national education reforms in the MENA region. The reforms have mostly emphasized learning and teaching, quality assurance, and implementation of learning outcomes. These reforms were quite similar to what was taking place in the European university context. Other developments in the MENA region that shaped higher education included communication technology, the economic crisis of 2008 and afterwards, and the growing competition in higher education. Neither rankings nor internationalization seemed to affect MENA universities as much as European universities, although it’s possible that within particular Arab countries or sub-regions, those topics may have been an issue.
The MENA region is beginning to recognize the importance of teaching. Two-thirds of institutions have a unit for developing pedagogy. Efforts to enhance teaching include providing optional training, developing teaching portfolios, and conducting research on teaching. Those activities are also accompanied with improvements in infrastructure, such as classrooms, and introduction of learning resources to meet the need for different teaching approaches. For a good number of institutions, these efforts are used just in some departments and not across the institution.
Unexpectedly, the survey found that institutions are regularly evaluating academic staff, looking at their performance in both teaching and research and checking student evaluations. Eighty percent of universities report checking learning outcomes for some or all of their courses, which in turn is changing teaching methods and improving teaching quality.
Universities are meeting both regional and global competition by adopting strategies to attract new students, and in this respect they offer a lot to prospective students—academic advice, open-house days, outreach programs, etc. Similarly, enrolled students are more often provided with needed support, services, and courses than they were in the past.
Institutional governance is gaining importance in higher education in MENA. Students sometimes participate in governance, mostly by serving on committees. Students are asked about their university experience and their plans after graduation.
Given the new emphasis on the employability of university graduates, some institutions are tracking the employment status of their graduates, especially those who have recently received a bachelor’s degree. Typically the institutions are just sampling some graduates who have graduated from some faculties. Universities are offering career guidance, internships, recruitment events and employer presentations to improve their graduates’ employability. Data from graduate tracking, however, are not often being used to update institutional strategy or to enhance the quality of teaching.
Only a quarter of institutions surveyed provide online learning, although many institutions are contemplating offering it. Some institutions viewed e-learning as improving the quality of instruction, but others said it would be too time consuming, expensive, and rigid. The most frequent other technology offerings universities mentioned were: providing access to computers, online library access, wi-fi, a student portal, social media, and institutional e-mail accounts.
About sixty percent of institutions had an internationalization strategy, mostly as part of a broader strategy. The international strategies are chiefly oriented toward Asia, Europe, and the MENA region itself. Institutions have taken measures to enhance internationalization through degree programs taught in English, participation in international networks, and strategic partnerships with foreign institutions. Student exchanges and international internships are offered, but less frequently. Institutions cited several challenges to more substantial internationalization, including legislative constraints, concern about maintaining the quality of programs, and sustainability of funding.
Nearly half of the institutions have an integrated institutional quality-assurance policy and processes in place, while others have it at only at a departmental level. Around 20 percent still do not have a system or a policy. Half of the institutions have undergone mandatory or non-mandatory evaluation in the last five years.
With globalization, credit recognition takes on major importance. Most of the universities have institutional guidelines for recognition, and it is mostly handled through a central office. National qualification frameworks, another emerging theme in higher education, are not available, though they would be useful to assure the quality of education, enhance international mobility, and promote transparency and comparability between degrees and across sectors.
The Results of Trends Survey confirmed that the region has made strong progress in enhancing teaching, quality assurance, and developing strategies for attracting and supporting enrolled students. More progress is clearly needed. Challenges remain in the areas of governance, meeting increased demand, graduate employability, internationalization, and the efficient use of technology. The survey’s results also provide a baseline on these important issues, with more detail available by region and by country.