The Arab world needs to focus in the coming years on higher education quality and entrepreneurship education to bridge the gap between education supply and labour market demand, as well as tackling graduate unemployment, which was a factor driving the 2011 uprisings, according to a draft Arab research strategy.
The strategy was to be presented at a conference of Arab higher education and science ministers in Abu Dhabi in early December. But ministers unanimously agreed to postpone reviewing the strategy because they wanted more time to study the details, the Emirates News Agency reported.
However research presented at the Abu Dhabi conference gave some strong indications of the challenges Arab higher education ministers face if universities are to help their economies to compete with industrialised nations.
Low spending on science
According to the research, problems in higher education systems in the Arab world include reluctance to change and innovate, poor organisational frameworks, traditional management systems, financial dependence on governments, and lack of autonomy and academic freedom for universities.
The studies reveal that there are 470 universities and educational institutions catering to 400 million people in the Arab world, roughly translating into 1.2 institutions for every million people.
There are about nine million students, 10% of whom are in postgraduate studies. Four out of five undergraduate students are enrolled in humanities, with just one in five enrolled in scientific programmes.
Although there are 550 scientific centres across the Arab world including those in universities, scientific publications are scarce and Arab states spend a meagre 0.04% on scientific research compared to 3% to 5% of gross domestic product spent by industrialised nations.
Roadmap for reform
In an effort to revamp Arab higher education and research systems, the strategy calls for the promotion of international collaboration and partnerships with global universities, building human capacity and skills, improving management skills and abilities, identifying successful Arab experiences in higher education and sharing expertise.
In addition, more systematic attention should be paid to the outcomes of higher education and greater emphasis should be placed on accountability and incentive systems to improve service delivery, the strategy says. There should also be greater stress on entrepreneurship education in universities in order to produce employable graduates.
According to Said Oukil, an Algerian professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Saudi Arabia and author of the June 2011 report Arab Countries Can Perform Better with Clear Emphasis on Innovation, Entrepreneurship and an Evolving Culture, Arab universities need to become more entrepreneurial.
This would have a positive impact on job creation, exploitation of ideas and innovation and would therefore promote social stability and economic progress.
"However, the state of entrepreneurship education in Arab universities is poor and far behind that not only in Western countries but also in emerging and newly developed countries," Oukil said. Even though some Arab universities have institutionalised such teaching, most either have not or are doing so at a slow pace.
He said future as well as present Arab business leaders and entrepreneurs needed to be trained particularly in how to convert ideas, technologies and innovations into successful commercialised outputs.
"Thus, Arab universities need to start introducing specific courses, then move towards creating majors and schools or centres for entrepreneurship coupled with innovation," Oukil said.
Promoting citizenship education and academic freedom
But Hilmi Salem, director-general of applied sciences and engineering research centres at the Palestine Technical University, said the strategy lacked an implementation plan and monitoring system.
It also failed to identify the role that higher education institutions must play in building social cohesion after political changes, he said. Universities should prepare students to become active, informed and responsible citizens.
"This could be done by incorporating local and global citizenship education courses into the curriculum, organising training programmes and holding workshops and conferences about the topic," Salem said.
He recommended that Arab universities should make use of online education resources such as Teaching Citizenship in Higher Education. He said a directory for experts and researchers, a guide to specialised international institutions and a database for best practices should be established.
This view was supported by Egyptian higher education expert Manar Sabry, of the State University of New York in Buffalo, United States. "The revolutions throughout the region imply a need to improve the relevance of university education to the job market," she said.
This would require strong governance, greater accountability, quality assurance and the ability to respond to changes in job markets nationally and internationally.
"Also, the Arab revolutions have drawn attention to the poor state of academic freedom and there is evidence from both Egypt and Tunisia, where revolutions are considered successful, that more academic freedom is a priority for reform," she said.
Tension over this issue has been highlighted by the case of Manouba University in Tunisia, where protests have taken place to allow females wearing the niqab (face cover) into lecture halls, whereas previously the old regime had banned the less controversial hijab (head cover) on campuses.
As a result, the NGO Human Rights Watch issued a report last month titled Tunisia: Fundamentalists disrupting college campuses, which called on the Tunisian authorities to protect individual and academic freedoms from acts of violence and other threats by religiously motivated groups acting on university campuses.
"While it is important to learn from other countries' experiences, it is more important to choose the policies that can be applicable to Arab countries," Sabry said. "We should note that the status of Arab countries varies widely and thus one policy fits all is not realistic."