Supportive Innovation: A Model for Change in Arab Higher Education

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

Editor’s Note: The following is an edited excerpt from Missions Impossible: Higher Education and Policymaking in the Arab World, published by the American University in Cairo Press. The author is a political scientist and former president of the American University of Beirut. This is the first part of a two-part essay.

I began my academic involvement with the Middle East more than sixty years ago, in 1958, and made my first trip to Egypt in 1960. Much of my life since then has been spent in the region. I began a family there in Morocco in 1967 and have shamelessly abused the region’s justifiably renowned hospitality ever since. Countless Middle Easterners have shared their experience and wisdom with me with no expectation of a quid pro quo. There was, in fact, no way I could compensate them, individually or collectively, for their generosity. They know who they are. Not a few are no longer with us. This may be my last opportunity to salute them all. It is a grossly inadequate gesture.

In my academic career, I have been a student of politics and public policy in the Middle East since the early 1960s. Like many of my colleagues I lived in the academic environment without studying it. My fieldwork in several countries inevitably led me to local universities, but I went to them in search of expertise. I never studied them in their own right, which, in retrospect, seems embarrassingly short-sighted.

A premise of my new book, so widely held that I doubt it would arouse any dissent, is that Arab higher education has been and remains in a state of structural crisis. This has been documented at fairly high altitude since 2002 in various Arab Human Development Reports.

As I examine in the book, there may be nothing peculiarly ‘Arab’ about this crisis. I suspect that many developing countries that committed themselves to democratizing higher education find themselves in similar situations. Indeed, it came as something of a surprise to me that there are no problems in higher education unique to the Middle East and North Africa region or even to developing countries. The problems Arab universities face and the pathologies with which they grapple differ in degree but not in kind from those in other countries. Let me mention just a few here:

  • Crises in public financing of higher education, as real for the United States or the United Kingdom as for Egypt or Morocco.
  • The erosion of the academic profession, or what I call the myth of the full-time professor. Adjuncts in the United States have become the indispensable cogs of higher education just as the nominally ‘full-time’ professor in the Arab world has had to seek employment outside academia to make ends meet.
  • The tendency for universities to reinforce class privilege rather than overcome it is ubiquitous.
  • Dropout rates are a universal problem. Argentina has been a world leader in this respect.

However, to the extent that these problems have their roots in the political institutions of the region, there may be something peculiarly Arab about the problem. There are two broad levels that require examination. The first is national ‘strategy’ and goals, in the current instance, in the higher education sector. Strategies evolve, so we need to know where the sector has been in order to understand priorities for the future. The second level involves governance structures, including how leadership is selected and performance monitored (accountability), and the incentives that both principals and agents have to achieve any particular set of goals. Obviously, a big part of the governance picture is finances and resources. An equally big part is the effective degree of autonomy the institution enjoys.

It is safe to say that the ‘crisis’ has been created at both levels—national strategy and institutional governance—and to address it will require changes at both levels. Much of the policy literature mentioned above and to which we shall return is prescriptive. It says more about what should be done than how to do it, given the political context.

One way to understand what is possible is to select cases of successful reform, islands of excellence, or at least cases in which palpable progress is being made. For example, Cadi Ayyad University in Morocco or Suez Canal University in Egypt may have been able to make progress where their older and more illustrious sisters, like Mohammed V University or Cairo University, seem mired in inertial practices. The problem here is that outside the private sector there may be very few such success stories.

One way to understand what is possible is to select cases of successful reform, islands of excellence, or at least cases in which palpable progress is being made. … The problem here is that outside the private sector there may be very few such success stories.

We are joining an ongoing debate on the fundamental nature of education in society, who benefits from it, and who pays for it. One school of thought argues that education at all levels enhances the individual earnings of its products and that they should therefore pay for it out of taxes on their enhanced incomes. In this view, education is a private good that generates an income stream.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who see education as a right, the violation of which will harm society as a whole. Education is a public good that provides benefits for all of society (even to those who drop out of high school or never go to university). The benefits are the provision of actors fit to be responsible, informed citizens as well as trained participants in a dynamic workforce and a healthy economy. Given that many educational institutions enjoy tax-free status and benefit from public land, and given that taxpayers fund public higher education from which, in most societies, many adults do not benefit, the preponderant view seems to be that education is a public good.

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One final observation: The giant national universities will for many decades to come take on the heavy lifting of higher education in the Arab world. They educate in the hundreds of thousands, and their graduates often swamp the civil service and public enterprise sector. They are underfinanced (except in some of the petroleum-exporting states) but, at the same time, represent huge sunk investments that cannot be written off nor easily broken up into more manageable pieces. Is there any vision for the future either at the level of the principals or at the level of the agents? Are there ‘disruptive innovations’ on the horizon that might blow the old public ships out of the water?

If I enter into the logic of disruptive innovation, then policymakers and administrators are merely obstacles to be got round, not partners in change. My allies will be entrepreneurs who want to bring the disruptive innovation to market. Whatever my role, existing institutions are under threat and may not survive in their current form. Change that eliminates players is not reversible. That is why it is disruptive.

But what I ultimately wish to promote is supportive innovation. I recognize the possibility that current systems are beyond repair or may not be able to serve their basic purposes given the structure of existing markets. But it is hard to imagine a scenario in which I go to policymakers and espouse change that would undermine existing structures with all their mature patronage and power relations in exchange for something that by its disruptive nature is unpredictable and destabilizing.


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