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Report Explores How to Improve Arab-European Educational Exchanges

Editor’ note: Al-Fanar Media is a strategic partner of the Mediterranean Universities Union.

Misperceptions, political instability, language barriers and a lack of skills and strategies for international cooperation are among the obstacles to increasing the scale of higher-education exchanges between countries north and south of the Mediterranean, according to a study published in June by the Union for the Mediterranean.

The study, commissioned by Union for the Mediterranean and conducted by the Union of Mediterranean Universities, surveyed students, faculty members and administrators from universities in 10 countries—Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Palestine and Tunisia—with a focus on mobility flows to and from each country.

The report, titled “The Internationalisation of Higher Education in the Mediterranean: Current and Prospective Trends,” cites the lack of reciprocity as a major problem. While European universities are willing to welcome students and academics from the South Mediterranean, they are reluctant to reciprocate for many reasons, including Islamophobia and their misperceptions of the region.

“There is always a perception of insecurity and instability in MENA and the belief that on the other side of the Mediterranean you have extremism, even if that is not always true,” observes Marco Di Donato, a UNIMED researcher and co-author of the report.

“Even parents are scared to send their children to universities there,” he added, “and it is very difficult to make them recognize that these countries have opportunities and possibilities.”

Bureaucratic Hurdles

Government policies and relations between states also can facilitate or obstruct the internationalization of education in the Mediterranean region.

The report cited the visa restrictions and complex administrative processes for long-term residency that South Mediterranean students must go through to access European universities as a main hindrance to mobility. This, compounded with the problem of academic credit and quality recognition, has begun to encourage these students to seek opportunities in other parts of the world.

“Even parents are scared to send their children to universities there, and it is very difficult to make them recognize that these countries have opportunities and possibilities.”

Marco Di Donato
A UNIMED researcher and a co-author of the report

“Countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, India and Malaysia are taking advantage of that situation by increasing their cooperation with South Med countries,” Di Donato said. “Although Europe is still perceived as the main partner and most important higher education arena for all South Mediterranean countries’ students, teachers and administrative staff, it is slowly losing ground to the other actors that are jumping in.”

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On the other hand, the report cites examples of supportive government policies in countries such as in Egypt, where foreign universities are allowed to establish a presence, thus encouraging internationalization at home. In Algeria, the Ministry of Higher Education’s support of partnership programs and scholarships have increased both inward and outward mobility. Consequently, increasing numbers of Sub-Saharan students are enrolling in Algerian universities and more Algerian students go abroad, especially to France due to historical ties and language affinity.

The Language Barrier

The report also cited poor research quality, the language barrier and lack of appropriate structures, human resources and leadership engagement in Southern Mediterranean institutions as other hurdles to increasing the internationalization of education in the Euro-Mediterranean region.

South Mediterranean universities are mainly perceived as teaching institutions with feeble research capacity, and few offer complete degrees that are taught in English, which makes them even less attractive for European cooperation.

“That is why these institutions should make the work and the research they conduct more visible in order to raise the interest of others,” said Martina Zipoli, a project manager with UNIMED and another of the report’s authors. “The language barrier is an issue since most of the research is available in Arabic and seldom translated,” she added. “It stays as a knowledge base for Arab countries, but not for the Europeans.”

“That is why these institutions should make the work and the research they conduct more visible in order to raise the interest of others.”

Martina Zipoli  
A project manager with UNIMED and a co-author of the report

The lack of skill of some administrative staff is also sometimes a hindrance, Zipoli said. “You might have experts with great ideas, but if you don’t have the structure to support cross-border exchange they would remain isolated.”

For many reasons, working with South Mediterranean universities is not perceived as a priority for European counterparts, which are more interested in cooperation with other regions, including Southeast Asia, China, the Anglo-Saxon world and Spanish-speaking countries, Zipoli added.

The report lists a number of recommendations, including facilitating administrative procedures, easing visa restrictions, improving the academic credit and qualification recognition systems, encouraging more cooperation agreements between universities, creating digital platforms for the exchange of research results and improving English language skills.

Other recommendations include combating Islamophobia and stereotypes toward the region, improving the quality of research and teaching, devising a comprehensive internationalization strategy as a governance tool for universities, improving publication policies to give more visibility to scholarship produced by South Mediterranean researchers, and enhancing capacity building for South Mediterranean administrative staff and researchers.

The report stresses that there is significant room for improvement and for “unpacked opportunities” in a young region full of dynamism and thirst for cooperation, such as the South Mediterranean.

Efforts should be made to reverse the perspective, strengthen reciprocity, and overcome distrust and misperception in order to improve mutual knowledge and pave the way for two-direction cooperation and collaboration, it says.

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