'Education allows our people to make a living anywhere'

Palestinian universities are determined to expand despite limited resources. Matthew Reisz writes

March 22, 2012

Credit: Getty
A passion cultivated early on: 'there is very big demand for higher education. Palestinians are highly politicised and consider higher education to be a right, irrespective of employment opportunities'

"The Palestinian Authority is not in a position to support higher education in the way that is done elsewhere," says Lamis al-Alami, minister of education and higher education, during a recent visit to London.

"It's a donor-led government and country and there is hardly genuine economic development because of the presence of occupation."

She adds: "There is a very big demand for higher education. Palestinians are highly politicised and consider higher education to be a right, irrespective of employment opportunities.

"Since 1948, when they were driven out of their country, they have realised that their biggest asset is to have an education, so they can make a living wherever they go."

In the West Bank and Gaza, the participation rate in higher education for young people is now about 30 per cent and rising (with some 176,000 enrolled out of a total population of 4 million).

There are 11 universities in the West Bank and Gaza and about 43 institutions of higher education, if one includes university colleges (offering degrees) and technical colleges (offering two-year courses).

Although there are also profit-making private universities and universities run directly by the ministry, notes Khalil Hindi, president of Birzeit University in the West Bank: "Eighty per cent of the university sector consists of 'public' universities, which are not for profit and are kept at arm's length by the government, although eligible for government subsidies - which hardly ever materialise.

"So our major source of funding is fees. Theoretically we can set them at any level, but the society will not wear it - there is a culture that education should be free and [there is] a great deal of social resistance to any increases in fees, which means they are very depressed."

Anyone running a university in Palestine is likely to face challenges that would be highly unusual elsewhere.

Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem, previously told Times Higher Education about an occasion when Israeli officials suddenly turned up with plans to build a 20ft security fence straight across his football pitch.

Severely restricted movement both into and within the country has had a major impact on what is possible for higher education institutions.


"My university aspires to be a national university," explains Hindi, "in the sense of having students from all over the country, and including a representative cross-section of the community.

"But because of the roadblocks and checkpoints, and dismemberment of the country, we cannot realise this aspiration.

"The Israeli occupation authorities, which still control entry points to the country, refuse to give academics work permits of any kind. So we are restricted to recruiting faculty and staff from people who have local identity cards.

"If an academic with a British passport wants to come and work at my university, it would be well-nigh impossible. Some brave souls do it by coming in on tourist visas and going out every three months, but then the immigration authorities cotton on."

Importing material such as scientific equipment can be equally difficult. All these factors together, in Hindi's view, create pressures that are "not always a recipe for differentiation, quality and so on. There is more uniformity in the system than there ought to be."

Despite working within such tight constraints, both economic and political, al-Alami has developed a strategic plan focusing on four key areas: access to all levels of education; quality; improved governance and management; and the relevance of technical and higher education.

"How can we create partnerships, especially with industry?" she asks. "In teaching programmes we have really achieved a lot. But now we need to go beyond teaching universities and make them research-led universities.

"Doctoral degrees are an essential preliminary step so as to train the researchers."

To achieve these latter goals, al-Alami is seeking the help of foreign universities, not least in the UK, and she recently took part in a study tour organised by the British Council. This gave her, Hindi and the leaders of several other Palestinian universities the opportunity to visit a number of English institutions with a view to forging links and adopting good practice.

Participants took home lessons on building bridges with business and the particular value of work placements. Hindi, for example, wants to see Palestinian universities following British models in "demonstrating to the private sector, both local and multinational, that they have a vested interest in collaborating with us, that we can help them promote their businesses and offer serious support in areas such as software development, where we have a well-developed workforce capable of taking on far more than just humdrum tasks such as data entry".

He adds: "We also need to develop curricula that include work placement as an integral part, rather than as an add-on, and find ways of ensuring the quality of the work being done in industry, commerce or a bank, to ensure it is of a proper standard and that credit can be given."

Hindi had himself spent more than two decades as an academic in the UK, at London South Bank University, the University of Manchester and latterly, from 1998 to 2002, as professor of systems engineering at Brunel University.

The recent study tour left him "impressed by the [British] emphasis on providing students with skills needed in the marketplace, employability, work experience while studying. That sort of emphasis is sorely needed in the Palestinian higher education system."

In terms of current research collaborations, Birzeit is heading a large European research project devoted to the digitising of Arabic texts.

The university hopes to join forces with the University of Surrey, together with partners in Greece and Lebanon, to develop curricula in the field of renewable energy.

And it is part of a consortium - with An-Najah National University in Nablus, the universities in Gaza, the Lebanese University and the University of Oxford's department of politics - involved in a British Academy-sponsored programme titled Teaching Contemporary Palestinian Political History, which is designed to provide both online course materials and documentary resources for the study and teaching of the period between the Palestine Liberation Organization's founding in 1964 and the Oslo peace agreements in 1993.

This project is led by Karma Nabulsi, fellow in politics at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. Hindi remains keen to expand such "islands of cooperation" into genuine "institutional links" and "research partnerships", even if this requires a certain reversal of current trends.

Restore traffic to the UK

"In the 1980s," Hindi says, "Britain hosted large numbers of Palestinians through grants and scholarships to do their PhDs. These people are now coming up to retirement.

"We would like teaching to be done at least partly in English, for obvious reasons, and the problem is that the British involvement in providing scholarships in the past 20 years has ebbed, to be replaced by scholarships from Germany and France.

"We need to send more people to English-speaking countries, particularly Britain, so we can maintain a balance."

Al-Alami also stresses the need for "British universities to open up scholarships for Palestinians to come and do doctoral degrees so they can return home and start up our own programmes".


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