It’s arguable whether extremism can ever be controlled by force. Let’s hope that individuals will always be in a position to make their own life choices. And in theory, that’s where higher education excels, in encouraging and developing free thought, with the perspective and balance to make more positive kinds of choices.
With that in mind, universities in the Middle East should, in theory, have a critical part to play in trying to build stability and common ground. They should be doing their bit when it comes to bridging the culture gap between traditional and contemporary attitudes and thinking.
They can certainly instil a greater sense of purpose and create clear pathways to the opportunities ahead, and for its populations of young people in particular. Hope is where education can be used as a game-changer.
From my time working in the region, I’ve seen the strengthening of the higher education system in some countries in terms of individual institutions. There’s evidence of greater research capacity being built to explore country-specific issues in relation to the West, and development of the quality of academics.
We are seeing a real push in terms of regionally significant research being funded; the Qatar Foundation, through the Qatar National Research Fund, is leading this and making a difference, locally, regionally and internationally. I’ve been a beneficiary of the funding, and have found that there’s the same rigour in peer review and it has all the balances and checks I’m accustomed to with the UK research councils or European funding. But better processes and standards of academic education are not happening fast enough – and are not enough by themselves.
British universities can’t help the region by just bringing a small, privileged proportion of students to the UK, or by trying to export its curricula and values by flying in faculty or part-time local staff. The best form of partnerships will see us work with Middle Eastern universities on skills for employability, so we can develop the next generation of scientists, business leaders and politicians. We should be making use of the lessons that we’ve learned from the experiences of recent years in changing the focus of degree studies, building in more of a connection between study and work and enterprise opportunities. What the region needs is far more talented, employable graduates with bright careers ahead of them.
There needs to be less emphasis on academic profile (when a degree is no longer enough) and more on individual development and being ready to work in supporting economic growth.
Across pretty much all UK universities, employability skills are now a given, but in the Middle East they remain a significant differentiator, with the chance to establish leaders and role models to demonstrate what’s achievable. Similarly, we have experiences to share around the approaches and challenges involved with widening participation.
Times need to change, and we can influence and even accelerate this change through a mission-driven approach of developing meaningful and sustainable partnerships that have a societal impact.
Zahir Irani is dean of college (business, arts and social sciences) at Brunel University London.
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