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Sunday, June 13, 2021

Supportive Innovation: A Model for Change in Arab Higher Education

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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.

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