Many of the Arab nations have been blessed with vast reserves of oil and natural gas that became the dominant engines of the economic change that occurred during the past century. That, of course, is the good news.
The bad news is that oil and natural gas still constitute the commercial foundation of much of the Arab world. All attempts to achieve economic diversity have failed.
If oil and natural gas were excluded from the various economies of what we define as the Arab world, with its 300 million inhabitants, their cumulative gross domestic product would amount to less than that of Finland, a country with a population of little over 5 million. With the exception of a few isolated pockets, it has failed miserably at catching up with the economic growth seen in most other corners of the world. If it is to turn this around, reforming the educational system should be one of the starting points.
Arab universities have consistently produced graduates who have difficulty finding a place in the increasingly global economy. A recent study compiled by the International Ranking Experts Group and the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington found only one Arab university in the list of 3,000 world universities - and that was at the bottom. In contrast, some Israeli institutions are among the top 200 on the list.
There seems to be a virtual wall between Arab universities and the real world. The college culture does not encourage individuality and fresh ideas. The curriculum structure is rigid and sheltered. There is an urgent need to overhaul the system.
In my visits to many Arab universities, I have found that enrolment is viewed as a right rather than a privilege to be earned. Some Arab governments pay monthly salaries for all students enrolled in tuition-free state universities - regardless of their financial needs, their area of specialisation or their academic performance. Hard sciences and mathematics are weak and rank poorly by international standards. The vast majority of Arab universities teach their students what to think instead of how to think. Unless that mentality changes fast, there is little prospect of progress on the horizon.
In a recent interview, Hisham Ghassib, president of Princess Sumaya University for Technology in Jordan, elaborated the need for change in Arab universities. Society's focus should be on promoting free thinking, Ghassib said, whereas the current system graduates students who are "submissive to all the powers of society".
Additionally, many graduates have very little prospect of using their college training in future careers. For example, each year tens of thousands of students graduate from universities with degrees in sharia (Islamic law) or Arabic literature. The vast majority of them will be unemployed, underemployed or end up working in the swelling government sector - further contributing to already bloated and inefficient governments.
It is worth keeping in mind that an unemployable college graduate is an unhappy and frustrated person - that is, a prime candidate for recruitment to extremist causes.
Institutions of higher education should consider the needs of the private-sector labour market and adjust their curricula accordingly.
Programmes that are not likely to yield net benefits should be downsized or limited.
Fine universities are ultimately a central element to the health of any culture. Lebanon has long benefited from having the American University of Beirut. Founded by missionaries in 1866 as a private non-sectarian liberal arts college, the AUB became a beacon of change in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East. Its commitment to critical thinking and well-rounded liberal arts education was and remains integral to its mission. But sadly, the AUB is one of the few exceptions in the Arab world.
Arab countries currently do not connect higher education with thought for the future. There is virtually no relationship between the anticipated needs of the private sector and the work of educators. If they wish to provide a real service, Arab universities should focus on market-oriented majors. As it is, the large universities in the Arab world tend to be run by governments, so perhaps allowing the private sector to launch private colleges and universities would be a step in the right direction.
Effective Arab universities will train the future business leaders, managers, engineers and scientists who will move the region to diversify its economy and help it catch up economically with the rest of the world.
Thus far, performance has been dismal. An urgent overhaul is needed. The oil will not last indefinitely.
Raja Kamal is associate dean for resource development at the Harris School for Public Policy Studies at the University of Chicago in the US. This article originally appeared in Arabic on Misbahalhurriyya.org, a classical liberal website of the Cato Institute in the US.
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