The Palestinian academy: pressing concerns and future prospects

Matthew Reisz examines how scholars in the region cope with constraints as they continue to hope for a possible future independent state

March 26, 2015
Palestinian students at Al-Quds Open University graduation ceremony
Source: Alamy

The meeting with a group of academics from Bethlehem University had been scheduled to take place on campus, but the mood was tense. It was the day after Palestinian minister Ziad Abu Ain had died after an Israeli soldier fired tear gas during a protest. Describing this as a “barbaric act”, President Mahmoud Abbas had threatened to withdraw security cooperation with the Israelis. In the circumstances, the British Council, which organised Times Higher Education’s visit and transport, judged that it might not be prudent to arrive on campus in a conspicuous armoured car with diplomatic plates, so the meeting took place in a restaurant. By the end of lunch, a group of young men could be seen down the road throwing rocks against the nearby separation wall.

Politics is, of course, everywhere in Palestine. The grim realities everyone is familiar with from news bulletins – the checkpoints, the settlements, the segregated road networks, the administrative divisions of land, the endlessly deferred “peace process” – exert an influence on every aspect of life. Universities are certainly no exception.

If the approach to Al-Quds University’s main campus at Abu Dis is remarkably labyrinthine, along what seem like rough and dusty side roads, that is because it now operates very much in the shadow of the separation wall – initially routed to gobble up more than a third of the campus land, although this was later adjusted down. It is named after the Arabic name for Jerusalem and was officially founded in 1995, bringing together four established – but indebted – faculties to fulfil a long-term goal of creating a Palestinian university in Jerusalem. Abu Dis is considered by Palestinians (but not Israelis) to be part of East Jerusalem and therefore part of the capital of a future Palestinian state.

All this presents considerable challenges. “The university was born in debt and has expanded tremendously over the last two decades” to today’s student body of about 15,000, reflects Yousef Najajreh, dean of the Faculty of Pharmacy at Al-Quds. Its location has led to “continuous tensions with Israeli border police whose patrols pass close to the wall”, he adds. “Last year, in one semester, soldiers or border police attacked the university 28 times with rubber bullets, tear gas and ‘sound bombs’, causing injuries to students and staff. That created a hysterical response among the students – they jumped into the hedge one on top of each other. The stairs are so narrow people fell over each other when they tried to escape…We came to the conclusion that the Israeli government was targeting our university, which affected applications.”

There is also another, seemingly much more technical, problem which has a drastic impact on the university and its mission of creating trained professionals to serve the local community.

Al-Quds has a small campus for postgraduates and archaeology students within the Old City. Its dual location means that the authorities regard it as neither an Israeli university nor a foreign institution like others in the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians from East Jerusalem who want to study pharmacy or social work at nearby Al-Quds not only have to negotiate the often frustrating journey through checkpoints and the separation wall, they also find that their qualifications do not allow them to work near where they live, or even to seek the accreditation other “foreign” graduates can pursue. Despite lobbying and repeated legal claims, which have gone all the way up to the Israeli supreme court, this anomaly remains unresolved.

At the Palestine Technical University – Kadoorie in Tulkarm, originally established as an agricultural school in 1930, the president, Marwan Awartani, has a huge desk under a dramatic stained-glass ceiling that features bright red strands evocative of chromosomes. At the time of THE’s visit, he is receiving an enthusiastic group of students who have just taken part in the latest in a series of Horizons in Entrepreneurship forums that he introduced as a way to “bring in the most controversial people to engage in discussion”. (That day’s speaker was Munir Fasheh, founder of the Arab Education Forum, a non-governmental, not-for-profit organisation active in the field of community and youth work. Awartani describes Fasheh as “an educational activist who resigned from Harvard and came to work in the camps, because, after 10 years, he found no meaning in Harvard, so he toured the world talking about the real meaning of learning”.)

Yet despite these bold educational initiatives and students eager to lap them up, the institution also operates within constraints similar to those at Al-Quds. The construction of the separation wall snatched about a third of the university’s land – but left a firing range for the Israeli army within the campus. According to Awartani, soldiers not only shoot at the range but “walk around the library, sometimes the administration building, with arms and guns”. Even more distressing is the chemical factory the Israelis built next to the university, widely believed, as Awartani says, to be producing “carcinogens, pollution to the environment, to the trees, the waters”.

Even with these difficulties, he believes it is “a national duty” for his institution to offer “quality higher education at affordable fees in this marginalised area” of the north. The university is vocational in its orientation, specialising in fields such as engineering, applied agriculture, IT and business, and is one of the country’s few government universities (as opposed to those managed by boards of trustees which receive some public funding but are autonomous).

This means lower tuition fees and salaries only partly funded by the state, leaving nothing for operational costs, infrastructure development, buildings, research, laboratories and so on. While potential donors tend to imagine that the university has it easy because of government support, the reality is that “the government is almost bankrupt and the permanent financial crisis means they say they cannot give more”, Awartani explains. The result is “a constant struggle”, with much scrabbling around for funding from sources such as the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development and the Islamic Development Bank.

Since the key to a strong university is “qualified competent faculty” and the institution can’t afford to pay the salaries for good senior people, says Awartani, the only solution is to send people abroad on scholarships and get them to come back. He reports the positive effects of such schemes: “now the machine is working – and that is the most crucial investment of all, to guarantee a pipeline of good faculty”.

Outside the Palestine Polytechnic University – at the other, southern end of the West Bank – the Israeli army is checking students’ identification papers as they enter the campus. The university, founded as a non-profit in 1978, is located in notoriously volatile Hebron – where a small group of Jewish settlers live within an overwhelmingly Arab city. The Israeli authorities have often cited “security reasons” for opposing the creation of much-needed extra campuses.

Karim Tahboub, professor of mechanical engineering, quotes other examples of aggravation and interference. “All the students get checked at different checkpoints when they come to our universities. Sometimes they have to go and be interrogated by Israeli intelligence. They get arrested for a few days and are then released,” he says. “When we organise a conference and want to invite Palestinian or Arab professors from abroad, we need to have permission. Most of the time they delay until the end of the conference and then say ‘We allow the following to come and participate’ when it’s too late.”

So, within these severe constraints, how can Palestinian academics play a role in providing for the current needs of the country and in laying the foundations for a possible future independent state?

Al Quds University students during running class
Tensions with border police: the separation wall looms behind the campus of Al-Quds University

At Al-Quds University, Najajreh is keen to develop the research strength of Palestinian universities, not only with a view to improving educational quality and producing “innovation which can be reflected in the economy” but also for “diagnosing social, cultural, mental health, psychological problems. Somebody needs to study them and, if not the universities, who?” Najajreh suggests that “Palestinian academics don’t understand what role they should play in this society”, although he believes it is to “ask difficult questions”.

Yet he also points to a number of factors that make this very difficult. The most obvious is lack of funds from the Palestinian Authority, a “government” that is not really a government and that spends a substantial proportion of its budget on security. Many of the faculty have only a master’s degree, many from Arab states, which means that Najajreh is “not sure of their research ability”. He also says that 80 per cent of those in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects who go to the West for their PhDs end up staying there, even if provided with incentives to return. Meanwhile, low salaries and small increments often mean that research is not worth people’s while, since they can earn more by taking on additional teaching work outside their own institutions.

So how did the academics assembled in Bethlehem combine capacity building, political engagement and forging a better future in their teaching and research?

For Mazin Qumsiyeh, a professor at Bethlehem and Birzeit universities, and director of the Palestine Museum of Natural History, “everything we do here is a resistance, even living here, going to school. When my students come from Jerusalem, they have to cross checkpoints and it takes an hour or sometimes two. That’s resistance. Everything is a form of resistance.”

Born in Palestine but educated in the US, where he went on to chairs at Duke University and Yale, Qumsiyeh returned home in 2008 to set up a master’s degree in biotechnology at Bethlehem, the first of its kind in the Middle East. An activist who has written books on human rights and resistance, he has been “arrested many times over the past three years and questioned by other intelligence services, including the Jordanian, Syrian and the American Homeland Security. I must be doing something right,” he laughs.

Politics, teaching and research, for Qumsiyeh, are often inseparable. He has published a paper, for example, on “a decline in biodiversity in the Bethlehem region due to colonial settlement activity. We were the first and only laboratory which did work showing the genotoxic effect of Israeli industrial settlements on the health of the human population…It is surprising that the ministries do not use the scientific studies, published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, which demonstrate beyond doubt that Israeli industrial settlement causes human health catastrophe. I’m willing to devote my time and effort. All they need to do is accept my help, but they prefer to just talk.”

Hashem Shahin trod the difficult path from refugee camp to professorship and now works as an assistant professor in Bethlehem’s biology department.

He was born in the Dheisheh refugee camp located just south of Bethlehem and studied at a United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees school, before going on to a state school and Bethlehem University. He then became the first student to be accepted on a joint graduate scheme at Tel Aviv University, where he secured a master’s and a PhD, despite travel restrictions making it difficult for him to attend. A joint research project, which also involved the University of Washington, addressed the genetic causes of deafness, with Shahin concentrating on mutations found in certain Palestinian families. He has since gone on to investigate other phenotypes within the Palestinian population linked to conditions such as colour blindness.

Although they have good facilities, including material donated by the University of Washington (which they had difficulty getting into Palestine), Shahin is “still looking to raise money for the cream-of-the-crop equipment for genetic sequencing”. (Like many Palestinian academics, Shahin maintains friendly informal contacts with Israeli colleagues and even acts as a “troubleshooter” for those at Tel Aviv, but the regulations of the Palestinian Authority do not allow him to apply for grants that Israelis are also part of, or to take part in any formal collaborations with Israeli institutions.) In the meantime, he stresses, “We’re not shipping samples, we’re not doing FedEx science, I go myself to the universities in Washington or other places and use my summer vacation to do the experiments myself.”

Jamil Khader, dean of research, has recently moved to Bethlehem after building a successful career in the US. Although “the problem of mobility and access to resources and technological equipment” as well as financial pressures all impose constraints, he is committed to “promoting and supporting a thriving research culture across the board”.

Much emphasis, he admits, is often placed on “scientific research that can help an occupied nation like Palestine meet and overcome the difficult challenges it faces in its struggle for sustainable development”, and this can sometimes lead to claims that “the humanities are irrelevant”. Yet he utterly rejects this notion, arguing that “the humanities are essential for developing our knowledge of human culture and history, as well as shaping the character of responsible and engaged citizens who are equipped with the transnational literacy needed to promote freedom, justice and participatory democracy in the world today”.

Khader’s own research has focused on topics such as fantasy and vampire fiction and the work of Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian cultural theorist. Asked whether these are really relevant to the lives of most Palestinians, he emphatically defends their value: “What attracted me to popular culture and fantastic literature, as well as highbrow theory, is their subversive content and their thorough critique of different systems of oppression. First and foremost among them is colonial oppression.”

Research in the fantastic can help raise awareness about different modes of “othering”, he says, “the ways in which alien people and lands are represented by the colonising nations, as we see in the representation of Palestine and Palestinians in the foundational mythologies of Zionist ideology”.

“What is more, because of its unrealism,” he adds, “the fantastic adds another dimension that allows for exploring the unconscious desires, fears and traumatic experiences in the colonial context in ways that cannot be captured by other forms of realistic or historical narratives.”

It is in the nature of the Palestinian condition that people running universities today need to have a sort of double vision, firefighting the considerable day-to-day challenges but also planning for the very different world that will emerge if and when the occupation eventually comes to an end.

At Palestine Technical University, Awartani sees huge potential in his local area, citing the case of a village that has had at least three of its young people rise to stellar positions within American universities. Once Palestine is independent, he says, “the first thing I will do is to have expatriates come home for initial periods of time to contribute to building the university and building the nation through the university”.

“Just mimic Israel!” he adds. “Jewish scientists from all over the world come to the Technion [Israel Institute of Technology] or the Hebrew University [of Jerusalem] and contribute to building Israel through science, industry, research in all areas. Because we are not independent, we are not able to bring home our expatriates. Once we are independent, we can call on hundreds of them to serve – one semester, a sabbatical, a year, a summer. Expatriate knowledge and expertise could boost this place to international standards in no time.”

Al Quds University graduation ceremony
Against the odds: students at their graduation ceremony at Al-Quds University in June 2013

UK connections: scholarships, hostel stays and kew gardens

There are about 45 scholarships for Palestinians to come to universities in the UK each year.

The largest scheme is run by the British Council’s Higher Education Scholarships for Palestinians. Established in 2010, these are designed to give early career academics (already appointed or just graduating) a chance to obtain a master’s or PhD degree in the UK, as the options are limited in Palestine.

The British Council secures funding from a range of partners (and can provide English-language teaching). British universities waive tuition fees and students are expected to make a contribution by paying for flights and visas.

Eighteen British universities are now involved, four of them at PhD level. The scheme is overseen by Merna Kassis, scholarships/higher education coordinator at the British Council’s Palestine office, who issues a call for applications every January. Representatives of different Palestinian universities each put forward a list of 10 candidates, who have to agree to return to their institutions afterwards for two to three years. Each applies to five or six British universities and the selection is then made on academic merit. The September 2014 cohort consisted of 23 scholars, seven of them from Gaza.

Jumana Kaplanian completed a BA in social work at Bethlehem, which included a minor in psychology, but had always wanted to study psychology in greater depth. The HESPAL programme enabled her to fulfil her dream and embark on a master’s in psychology at Oxford Brookes University. The experience taught her “what it means to be independent, to test things by oneself, how to get out of difficulties”.

Kaplanian relished the internationalism of the student body (she was recently asked to be a bridesmaid at a wedding in Peru), the stress on critical thinking and producing knowledge, as opposed to just acquiring knowledge through “a spoon-feeding method”.

Taking part in a class discussion on prejudice, where Israel/Palestine came up for debate, gave her a welcome opportunity to “represent my country” and spurred a deeper interest in politics. She now hopes to find work in psychology at Bethlehem University.

Fahed Salahat also completed a HESPAL-funded degree in September. He secured a BSc in civil engineering at An-Najah National University in Nablus and became a teaching assistant, but was nominated for a master’s degree in civil engineering at the University of Birmingham. The experience proved transformational, both educationally and personally, since he decided to take on “a position of responsibility” in Birmingham and so became the elected student representative for his programme. Looking round at the built environment led him to ask: “How can I make my country look like that?”

Once back in Palestine, he reflects, “it started to annoy my family that I am no longer the same person, so I decided to get my own place”. He is now in Nablus working in industry, but hopes to return to academic work.

Another major resource for forging connections between British and Palestinian academics is the Kenyon Institute. This describes itself as “the home of British research and intellectual life in Israel/Palestine” and is funded by the British Academy. It has been on its current site in East Jerusalem since 1967. Since Palestinians without Israeli passports or relevant residence permits cannot attend events there, however, its mission involves extensive outreach to Ramallah, Hebron and other major centres in the West Bank.

“One of the biggest problems for Palestinian academics is their workload,” says Mandy Turner, the Kenyon’s director. “My desire is to boost early career scholars, many of whom studied abroad and have now come back…We can help build capacity by buying them out of administrative or teaching responsibilities.”

Turner is seeking funding for a collaborative project with at least three Palestinian researchers looking at changing class structures in the West Bank. She also sees it as part of her job to help such scholars obtain visas for attending international conferences and to provide mentoring in academic writing skills.

The institute incorporates a hostel and a library, allowing it to host a few long-term visiting research scholars from Britain, as well as those coming for shorter periods of time. (The current crop includes experts in everything from conflict resolution to Christian iconography, youth resistance movements to women’s poetry and song.) There is also a programme, funded by the British Council, to bring in eminent British academics to give lectures, often on themes loosely but not directly related to the situation in Palestine, which can open up interesting comparative perspectives. A professor of international law from Soas, University of London, for example, came to talk about transitional justice in African conflict zones.

As for the kind of academic-cum-political collaboration Palestinians might like, we can return to zoologist Mazin Qumsiyeh – a professor at both Bethlehem and Birzeit universities – who studies mammals, reptiles and scorpions.

As well as British academics willing to work on joint research projects addressing topics such as biodiversity, climate change and desertification, he would love to find “a Palestinian with a bachelor’s or master’s degree in botany and send him or her to Kew Gardens or Oxford. If we put our minds together, I am sure we can fund such a person to become the first and only Palestinian plant taxonomist to study biodiversity – wouldn’t that be a significant contribution? That’s a desperate need in Palestine, because if you know how to classify plants, you can look at the decline in the biodiversity of plants, as I looked at the decline in the biodiversity of vertebrates in the Bethlehem region.”

Matthew Reisz

Growth spurt: expansion follows 1990s birth of governing body

According to Palestine’s Accreditation and Quality Assurance Commission, higher education in Palestine expanded significantly after the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority in 1994, although several institutions can trace their origins further back.

There are now 15 four-year universities in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, as well as 16 university colleges and 18 community colleges. Of these, three are government universities, nine are not-for-profits and three are private for-profits.

As well as Al-Quds University, located on sites in and around Jerusalem, there is the distance-learning Al-Quds Open University, originally established in Jordan, which moved on to Palestinian soil in 1991. There are also universities in most of the major cities of the West Bank: the private Arab American University in Jenin; An-Najah National University in Nablus; Birzeit University near Ramallah; Bethlehem University; Hebron University and the Palestine Polytechnic University in Hebron; the Palestine Technical University – Kadoorie in Tulkarm. Gazan institutions include the University of Palestine, Al-Aqsa University, Al-Azhar University and the Islamic University of Gaza.

The academic year 2012-13 saw a total of 213,581 registered students across the whole sector, of which 59 per cent were female and 41 per cent male. Postgraduates formed only a tiny proportion of these.

Matthew Reisz

Gaza damage: £1.85m bill at campus after seven-week war

While it was not possible for Times Higher Education to visit Gaza, last summer’s ferocious fighting inflicted massive damage on the universities based there.

Sharif Alaydi, senior lecturer in the business administration department at Al-Azhar University, for example, cites estimates by the university’s engineering department that its main campus had suffered losses in glass, windows, aluminium, doors, ceilings, laboratories and equipment worth more than $1.5 million (£1 million). On the second, Almoghraqa campus, the almost completed King Hassan II Building for Environmental and Agricultural Sciences, due to open for the academic year of 2014-15, was largely destroyed.

On the third campus, reports Alaydi, “Israeli aggression destroyed the main building of the agriculture faculty, the artesian aquifer/wells building, the generator building, the main entrance of the faculty, the greenhouses and the infrastructure”. Total damage across all three campuses was estimated to come in at close to $2.75 million. Needless to say, this also made it exceptionally difficult for students to take up their places.

There were also notable indirect financial impacts on a university that Alaydi described as already starved of money because of “the lack of governmental subsidies, lack of resources and accumulated unpaid tuition fees”. With unemployment in Gaza “reaching alarmingly high levels”, he continues, “the recent incursion has further paralysed economic development, destroying much of the remaining productive resources, capital stock and employment opportunities”. This made it even harder for most students to pay tuition fees, while donors neglect essential reconstruction projects because of an understandable focus on “humanitarian assistance and relief of displaced people”.

Matthew Reisz


Article originally published as: Hopes, dreams and harsh realities (26 March 2015)

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