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ALECSO Leader Urges Arab Universities to Teach Skills for the Future

Some Arab universities are creating “an army of the unemployed” by teaching subjects that have no future, says Mohamed Ould Amar, director-general of the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation (ALECSO).

More than half a century after its establishment, ALECSO faces this and other challenges in Arab higher education, like being competitive in scientific research and specialties like artificial intelligence.

The Tunisia-based organisation aims to increase Arab governments’ spending on research and developing artificial intelligence strategies as priorities, Ould Amar said in an interview with Al-Fanar Media.

Ould Amar, who is a professor of economics at the University of Nouakchott, in Mauritania, said the organisation wants to unify school curricula across the Arab world.

“ALECSO has achieved a lot in translation and publishing,” he said. “It has issued several dictionaries and helped about 6,000 students graduate from its Khartoum International Institute for the Arabic Language.”

The Khartoum institute is one of several subsidiaries of ALECSO that are playing a major role in translation, authorship and research. Others are the Arab Centre for Arabization, Translation, Authorship and Publishing, in Damascus; the Arabization Coordination Bureau, in Rabat; and the Institute of  Arab Research and Studies and the Institute of Arabic Manuscripts, both in Cairo.

Unification of Arab Curricula

Ould Amar said ALECSO had faced economic and political difficulties in recent years as Arab countries’ financial contributions declined, but it has begun to recover. It has an annual budget of $11 million, he added.

“Some Arab universities are teaching subjects that will disappear. This means we are failing to foresee the future and continuing to produce an army of the unemployed.

Mohamed Ould Amar

However, Ould Amar said ALECSO had not yet managed to unify curricula across the Arab world because of different standards and internal problems in various countries.

“They say uniting scientific research and spending in the Arab world is a necessity so that the region becomes an environment attractive to Arab creators and inventors, instead of being one that exports its talent,” he said. “It is possible to achieve this goal, but only by raising the spending on scientific research.”

Teaching Arabic to Non-Native Speakers

The organisation has a cooperation programme with the Islamic Development Bank to teach Arabic to non-native speakers. Ould Amar said ALECSO wanted to establish a unified system similar to the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL).

“The establishment of a unified system for assessing the Arabic language proficiency of non-native speakers is the beginning of cooperation between Arab and Western universities in teaching Arabic and granting certificates to graduates,” he said.

The organisation is also trying to conclude agreements to support Arabic language schools in Western countries through partnership programmes, and to help Arab emigrants stay connected to their mother tongue.

As part of its efforts to support refugees, ALECSO provided kits to help train teachers in refugee camps in Jordan. The organisation wants to replicate this effort elsewhere with the help of the Arab League. Ould Amar said economic and political shocks were the main obstacles to progress in higher education in the Arab world.

Arab Spending on Scientific Research

Ould Amar also wants to see a unified ranking system for Arab universities. “Such a ranking should be better than others because it will take into account the specificity of Arab universities,” he said. “The main idea is to encourage scientific research and improve the international rankings of Arab universities.”

Regarding Arab spending on scientific research, Ould Amar mentioned the recent recommendations of the Conference of Arab Ministers of Higher Education and Scientific Research, which met in Algeria in December. It called for increasing financing to encourage scientific research and for more cooperation among countries, so each can benefit from shared experiences instead of working alone.

“The establishment of a unified system for assessing the Arabic language proficiency of non-native speakers is the beginning of cooperation between Arab and Western universities in teaching Arabic.”

Mohamed Ould Amar  

“Each Arab country begins its experiment separately, while other countries take advanced steps in scientific research,” Ould Amar said.

ALECSO’s role at this point is to raise awareness and encourage such efforts though awards and support.

Most Arab countries do not contribute enough to higher education, Ould Amar said. He believes that Arab scientific societies should give greater importance to communication technology. He also called  for a wholesale review of Arab educational curricula “in order to produce a competitive citizen.”

Losses from Distance Learning

Ould Amar said the shift to distance learning caused by the Covid-19 pandemic had resulted in a great loss in education. He suggested assessing that loss and its causes.

He also called for exploring the skills that must be taught to students today in order to keep pace with the rapid changes in the workforce.

“Some Arab universities are teaching subjects that will disappear,” he said. “This means we are failing to foresee the future and continuing to produce an army of the unemployed.”

He added: “We have to review the quality of the disciplines” we teach and think about the “curricula we need to create to keep pace with successive developments.”

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Ould Amar praised the strategies adopted by the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt regarding artificial intelligence.

“Artificial intelligence should be an integral part of Arab universities’ curricula through specialised colleges,” he said. “Some jobs, and scientific laboratories, will disappear in the future. This requires reviewing jobs, subjects, and the type of laboratories we need in our studies and research.”

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