Arab scholars working in the West have a “duty” to assist with the development of the higher education sectors in their home countries, a leading professor said.
Sultan Abu-Orabi, the secretary general of the Association of Arab Universities, told Times Higher Education that scholars should return to the Middle East to undertake visiting professorships, co-author papers, attend conferences and supervise graduate students.
This would help to counter the impact of the “brain drain” which sees most Arab institutions lose the “cream of the cream” of their staff and student bodies to Europe and the US every year, said Professor Abu-Orabi, a former president of Jordan’s Yarmouk University.
Many students in disciplines such as medicine and engineering take their first and second degrees in the Middle East before leaving to undertake further study or pursue an academic career, meaning that institutions “don’t get something back”, he said.
“They have studied here in the region and now they are far away,” said Professor Abu-Orabi. “Therefore there is some duty on the shoulders of these people, that they should really put some effort in to help those in their home countries.”
Professor Abu-Orabi acknowledged that the political instability of the Middle East and the restraints on academic freedom in some countries did not encourage scholars to stay in the region.
Key challenges included the comparatively low level of public investment in research, particularly outside the Gulf states, at approximately 0.3 per cent to 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product, he said.
The Arab world made up about 6 per cent of the world’s population, but accounted for less than 0.5 per cent of its research output, according to Professor Abu-Orabi. Meanwhile, in the Arab world there were around 600 researchers per 1 million inhabitants, compared with as many as 10 times that in the US and Europe.
One solution was closer collaboration with European scholars, and also with researchers in the Gulf states, said Professor Abu-Orabi.
Meanwhile, many Arab universities need a stronger strategic vision to ensure that their educational standards were high enough and that their graduates met the expectations of employers, he added.
Professor Abu-Orabi also called on Western governments to do more to support Syrian academics and students who had been forced to flee the conflict in the country. He acknowledged that European universities had taken on some Syrian students but suggested that the priority was to increase financial support for refugees and their education in countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
“European countries should help the Syrian students and Syrian universities through the problems they are facing because a lot of Syrian students are without universities, they don’t have a job or money,” he said.
“There is a duty on the international community to help those students who go to schools and universities, otherwise they will be thrown on to the streets.”
Professor Abu-Orabi, a chemist with a PhD from the University of Michigan who has held visiting positions at the University of Salford and several German institutions, was speaking at the THE MENA Universities Summit, held in Qatar last month.