2 Books Explore the Tricky Issue of Reform in Arab Higher Education

In a pair of recent volumes, Adnan Badran, a Jordanian scientist, academic and politician, has gathered a series of experts’ views that present a comprehensive diagnosis of the state of higher education in the Arab region, including recommendations for reform.

The two books, Major Challenges Facing Higher Education in the Arab World: Quality Assurance and Relevance (Springer, 2019) and Universities in Arab Countries: An Urgent Need for Change (Springer, 2018), are highly recommended to anyone with a serious interest in Arab higher education. In them, Badran and co-editors Elias Baydoun and John R. Hillman have pulled together chapters written by a wide range of authoritative individuals from government and academia. Badran, who has served as prime minister of Jordan, is president of the Arab Academy of Sciences and is chancellor of the University of Petra, also contributes to both books.

The earlier volume provides an overview of the current state of universities in the Arab world, and how they have the potential to transform society to raise the quality of life and stimulate wealth. In the new book, the authors focus on the quality and social relevance of Arab higher education.

“It is our view,” the editors write in the introduction to the new volume, Major Challenges, “that rectifying the Arab problems can only come from a wholesale improvement in the quality and relevance of education in general, and higher education specifically to provide graduates and postgraduates to drive the necessary advances in economic and social development.”

Achieving this goal of “wholesale improvement” will involve reform of the governance of higher education institutions, argues John Waterbury, former president of the American University of Beirut. Waterbury advocates enhanced autonomy for institutions of higher education, but notes the obstacles in the way of achieving it. Reforms in higher education in Arab countries, he writes, only happen as the unavoidable response to crisis. Governments are reluctant to reform universities because “any moves towards institutional autonomy, it’s feared, will set precedents for the rest of civil society.”

Insights on Syria

There are chapters on conditions in specific countries—Jordan, Lebanon and the Maghreb countries are examined in detail. But a chapter on higher education in post-conflict Syria stands out from the rest for the insight it offers into the politics of Syrian higher education.

The chapter, titled “Higher-Education Relevance in Post-War Syria,” is written by Hani Mourtada, who has served as Syrian minister of higher education, dean of the University of Damascus medical school and president of the University of Damascus. Still a regime loyalist, Mourtada makes sincere recommendations for reforms that serve the needs of the country in a post-war period, but with the tacit acceptance of continued Ba’ath party rule headed by Bashar al-Assad.

Mourtada was appointed minister of higher education in 2003, the first holder of the post who was not a Ba’ath party member. In the early part of Bashar al-Assad’s presidency, Mourtada’s appointment represented hope for genuine reform of higher education. As president of Damascus University from 2000 he discreetly resisted Ba’ath party pressure in making academic appointments.

In his chapter in the book, Mourtada argues that “a dynamic, relevant and quality-assured higher-education system in Syria is a powerful tool for the success of the reconstruction process.”

He sees Syria’s universities as drivers of social progress.

“If reconstruction is to be meaningful then universities have to be involved in conducting studies, doing research, and preparing graduates in all disciplines, not only to alleviate the pain of post-war conditions, but also to suggest approaches, plans, and vision that would prevent, or at least reduce, the possibility of future conflicts,” he writes.

In the first days of a post-war period, universities should focus on “engineering and health disciplines in a way that would respond to emergent issues such as post-traumatic stress syndrome, mental conditions related to conflict, the burgeoning number of disabled people (amputees, the visually-impaired, etc.) in the medical field; the restoration of ruins and recycling of war debris, and the development and exploitation of new technologies in energy production in the engineering disciplines.”

But later, institutions should “reform the content of teaching material in such degrees as history and philosophy, which often tend to aggrandize a sense of a ‘pure past’ that stands as a stark contrast to the gloomy predicament of the present.”

Conflict-Resolution Studies

Mourtada argues that courses in conflict resolution should be offered to students in all disciplines—a proposal that acknowledges other recent scholarship on higher education. (See a related article, “How Universities Help Nations Rebuild After War.”)

Referring to Sansom Milton’s 2018 book Higher Education and Post-Conflict Recovery, Mourtada writes that Milton—a senior research fellow at the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, in Qatar—recommends “the introduction into higher education programs of new areas of study such as conflict resolution at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. In the case of post-conflict Syria, the introduction of conflict resolution degrees and curricula is vital. This is despite the dangers of raising sensitivities and being met with hostility by some stakeholders.”

The proposals are humane, but the approach is cautious. Following the official line of the Assad government, Mourtada does not refer to the Syrian conflict as a civil war, and he sells his idea of teaching conflict resolution as a measure to prevent the spread of Islamist extremism, “even among doctors and engineers.”

In an interview with the author Alan George—quoted in George’s 2003 book Syria: Neither Bread nor Freedom—given when he was still president of the University of Damascus, Mourtada frankly discussed the power the ruling Ba’ath party exercised in university life. Although its grip loosened in Bashar Assad’s early days, the party had its own branch at the university, and its officials had final say on decisions. “If it wants to change something, it can,” Mourtada said then.

That was a long time ago, but what the Irish nationalist leader Gerry Adams said of the Irish Republican Army in 1995 surely applies to the Ba’ath party in 2019: They haven’t gone away, you know.


One Comment

  1. There is a good reason why the education in general is so poor in the Middle East. It has nothing to do with capability and everything to do with the political system. All are absolute monarchies. As such they very consciously use pedagogies which restrict creative thinking and self expression. This would upset the apple cart. Dictators and their ministers do not want a bunch of free thinkers running around This would be end of the status quo. The tragedy is this robs youth of the single most important skill in the 4th industrial revolution – the ability to connect disparate dots to solve complex problems. Democracy is required for Middle Eastern countries to compete on the world stage or exercise any hope of surviving a post-oil world.

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