Higher education in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) is undergoing a period of rapid change and growth, which began well before the so-called Arab Spring. Student enrolment across the region has risen sharply and many countries have announced ambitious plans for expanding their academies. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have positioned themselves as higher education hubs; Saudi Arabia hopes to attract 50,000 graduates from the world's top 500 universities by 2020.
But despite these efforts to engage globally, there is no systematic and transparent higher education classification or framework that provides a solid foundation for the sort of partnerships and mobility schemes to which the region's institutions aspire. What is the profile of domestic and international students in Mena institutions? How do they select students and staff? What types of research facility are available?
Internationally, the significant variation among Arab institutions and the lack of a uniform classification for grouping comparable universities has consequences for the way overseas institutions understand and interpret transcripts and credentials issued by Mena universities. Globally, more than 20 countries have such systems in place: imagine the US system without the Carnegie classification, for example.
At the institutional level, the lack of an Arab classification system limits the prospects of networking, exchange, mobility and cooperation among similar institutions in the region and abroad. It also restricts the establishment of regional frameworks for quality assurance, as well as universities' ability to attract research funding from industry.
A recent pilot study conducted by the Institute of International Education in cooperation with the Lebanese Association for Educational Studies attempted to respond to this need by collecting data on more than 300 institutions in seven Mena countries.
While the survey was an important first step in developing a uniform higher education classification system for the region, the absence of consistent and reliable institutional data was a recurrent theme in our findings. Ministries of education and the institutions themselves were slow or reluctant to respond, either because the information about institutional characteristics had never been collected, or because they were wary of an initiative that attempted to classify, assess or rank universities in any way.
With support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, our study lays the groundwork for developing a comprehensive classification that could apply to all countries in the region. But this can happen only if ministries and institutions recognise that gathering reliable and valid institutional data is instrumental to raising quality. There are positive signs: recently, ministers of 57 Islamic states urged institutions in their countries to adopt reliable and transparent performance indicators as a way to promote innovation and world-class standards.
It remains to be seen what impact the Arab Spring will have on the region's universities as they help to rebuild their societies and reshape themselves to engage and educate a newly mobilised youth population whose political, economic and social reality has changed dramatically. How will these universities prepare tomorrow's leaders and the future workforce? How will they engage with the rest of the world to accomplish these goals? These are critical questions that heighten the fundamental need for solid institutional information.