Attitudes hold back region, inaugural MENA Universities Summit hears

At THE summit in Qatar, Gulf states hear that culture of entitlement must go

March 5, 2015

Universities in the Gulf states must overcome a culture of “entitlement” among wealthy students if they are to achieve their aspiration of becoming world-class institutions.

That is the view of Bahram Bekhradnia, president of the Higher Education Policy Institute, who told Times Higher Education’s inaugural MENA Universities Summit in Qatar that some students held “potentially quite insidious and damaging” views about what was expected of them.

He said that some young people felt an “entitlement to go to the university of their choice, regardless of their performance at school”, and expected to progress through their course and graduate “without necessarily putting in the effort required”.

“It seems to me to be essential that universities should apply appropriate standards both of admission and of progression and completion,” Mr Bekhradnia told those at the event on 24 February. “If they don’t, then there can be no hope of a university meeting the standards expected of a 21st-century world-class university.”

Mr Bekhradnia, who has advised the governments of eight Middle Eastern states on higher education, was echoing comments made by Sheikha Abdulla Al-Misnad, who hosted the conference as the president of Qatar University.

In 2013, she provoked controversy by describing how young Qataris believed that they had an “entitlement” to opportunities, rather than feeling that they had to “work hard” to earn them.

Mr Bekhradnia said the backlash against Professor Al-Misnad’s comments had been “shocking” and “revealed a serious disconnect between the expectations of young people and reality”.

Another key debate in the same session was on governance, with Mr Bekhradnia arguing that, while the levels of institutional freedom across the Middle East and Africa varied, top-down government control was “unlikely to lead to great universities”.

Ibrahim Al-Naimi, a former president of Qatar University who now holds the same post at the Community College of Qatar, said that states were entitled to act to safeguard the large financial resources that they were investing in higher education.

“The government is involved in governance because they are paying the money,” he said. “You cannot ask them to pay the money and stay away.”

But Rory Hume, the former provost of United Arab Emirates University, argued that academic staff had to be responsible for issues such as admissions, curricula and graduation.

“Pretty well all great universities in the world, whatever country they are in, have worked that out over time,” he said. “It’s difficult when the government is paying for it and wants particular outcomes…but it’s worth negotiating.”

In an address to the conference, Professor Al-Misnad said that recent decades had witnessed major advances in higher education across the region, particularly in the Gulf, with new foundations, increased enrolment – particularly among women – and the development of a stronger research culture. But there was still a long way to go, she warned.

“Many would argue that our education system is still not producing graduates with the skills needed to succeed in the modern global economy,” Professor Al-Misnad said.

The conference included the release of a ranking of the top 30 MENA universities for research impact, ahead of the publication of a full THE ranking for the region next year. Delegates from 21 countries attended the event, held on 23 and 24 February 2015.

Work together: cross-border collaborations are key to raising research quality, Alice Gast says

Universities should do more to reward international collaboration between scholars if they want to see better research produced, the president of Imperial College London said.

Speaking at the Times Higher Education MENA Universities Summit, Alice Gast highlighted data that indicate that international collaboration is increasing and that papers produced from such partnerships tend to have more impact.

She drew attention to the US National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2014, which contains an analysis of citation indices showing that the proportion of academic articles with authors from different countries rose from 16 per cent to 25 per cent between 1997 and 2012.

Professor Gast also referred to work by Jonathan Adams, chief scientist at the technology company Digital Science, whose paper in Nature, “Collaborations: the fourth age of research”, shows that international collaborative articles are cited more frequently. According to Dr Adams’ article, papers with at least one UK author and at least one overseas collaborator had a relative average citation impact score that was 0.52 higher than those produced by domestic researchers. This gap had increased from 0.42 in 2001, and a similar picture has emerged in the US.

Professor Gast said international collaboration enabled academics of the highest calibre to work together, and allowed their research to benefit from a “hybrid vigour” that can bring together perspectives from different cultures and backgrounds.

The world’s problems were “too large for us to solve in isolation any more”, she said, arguing that these challenges demanded “team efforts, and bigger teams”.

But collaboration was “not rewarded very strongly” by universities, with decisions on issues such as promotion and pay being based on “individual accomplishments”, she said.

“Being able to measure contributions to collaborations is very important, and I think we need to make sure that our systems are promoting that type of work, and allowing our young academics to collaborate,” Professor Gast said.

Chris Havergal

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