Academic research is “in crisis” in much of the Middle East and North Africa as growing security concerns compound problems of nepotism and poor infrastructure, a study says.
Interviews with scholars in 14 Arab countries found that many of them felt they lacked the basic safety that they needed to conduct research and engage in intellectual pursuits in the wake of the Arab Spring and the rise of Islamist extremism.
Sana Almansour, associate professor of education at Saudi Arabia’s Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University, and Ken Kempner, professor emeritus of education and international studies at Southern Oregon University, write in the as-yet-unpublished paper that conditions in Syria are now particularly “insecure and dangerous”.
Syrian academics told the researchers that roadblocks and checkpoints around Damascus made it hard for them to get to their universities and that, if they did get there, they were “terrorised” by students loyal to the regime of Bashar al-Assad and government-supported militia.
One Syrian researcher summed it up most chillingly, saying: “We wash preparing for shahada [death] before we leave home, we don’t know whether we’ll be able to return or not.”
Academics from Iraq, Palestine, Egypt, Libya and Yemen were also among those who said that they lacked the security and freedom to continue their work.
“There are killings and explosions every day; how can we do creative work when our psychological stability is missing?” asked one Iraqi professor.
Dr Almansour and Professor Kempner argue that deteriorating security has exacerbated long-standing concerns about the limited incentives to do research in the Middle East and North Africa, with most participants outside the oil-rich Gulf states complaining of low salaries.
One academic from Sudan admitted that her monthly salary was just $213 (£174), while many others described how they had to teach in multiple universities or take on other jobs, which left little time for research.
More than a quarter of the 74 researchers who participated in the study argued that nepotism in staff appointments was another disincentive to conducting research, because high-ranking positions were often filled on the basis of contacts and family relationships, not academic merit.
Participants also complained that their universities lacked the infrastructure required to support research, with two-thirds highlighting a lack of resources in particular. For academics in Syria, Iraq and Palestine, access to major international journals was a significant problem.
As a result, Dr Almansour and Professor Kempner say, research depends on “modest individual attempts”, which are “typically uncoordinated, unfunded, unsustainable and have little positive impact on the needs of society”.
The pair suggest that universities should take greater steps to ensure the safety of academics, such as by employing security guards in lecture theatres, requiring students to provide identification, and using metal detectors when necessary.
“Unless faculty feel safe they will spend as little time on campus as possible,” they conclude. “Research is highly unlikely under such unsafe conditions.”