Paul Jeffrey assesses the mood in Gaza, where Al-Azhar University looks forward to peace, and in shocked Jerusalem
Gaza's two higher education institutes, the Islamic University and Al-Azhar University, were focal points of resistance during the Intifada years. Now, as Israeli troops begin to withdraw from areas of Arab population in the West Bank as part of the second phase of the Middle East Peace process, the residents of the Gaza Strip are already well into their second year of autonomy.
The new challenges facing them are plainly visible at Al-Azhar University.
Al-Azhar was founded in 1991 on the initiative of Yasser Arafat as a national university for Palestine. In order to avoid confrontation with the Israeli occupation authorities it was established as an affiliate of Cairo's famous Al-Azhar University, one of the oldest seats of learning in the world. While the two establishments continue to enjoy strong academic links, they are administratively separate entities.
More than 5,000 students from Gaza and the West Bank, one third of them women, study in Al-Azhar's seven faculties of pharmacy, agriculture, science, commerce, education, arts, and sharia law. Tuition fees are kept as low as possible with an undergraduate year in the faculty of arts costing $350 and science $550. The university shares the campus grounds but not buildings with the Islamic University which offers courses reflecting a more fundamentalist Islamic philosophy.
The office of university president Riyad El-khoudary is furnished sparsely. It reflects Professor El-khoudary's hands-on approach to his position. Preference is given to files and fax machines over pictures and pot plants. In conversation he is similarly pragmatic.
With one secretary and two messengers to assist him, and a total staff of just 75, there is very little opportunity for the president to delegate. A stream of problems and queries is brought to the president's attention as we talk, and no one is turned away without an answer.
The new Palestinian authority has made much of the need for European and other nations to make good on their promises of financial support. Asked what kind of assistance the university would welcome, Professor El-Khoudary, a geologist by training, considers his words carefully. "Apart from financial donations, there are a range of other ways in which people can help," he said. "In particular we would welcome donations of books in English as our library is very poorly stocked. Student and staff exchanges are also helpful, as are joint research projects."
Al-Azhar already has well established links with universities in Germany, France and the United States where several Fulbright scholarships have been made available. However, Professor El-Khoudary is keen to widen the network of cooperation to enable faculty members and postgraduate students to carry out research abroad. As at other Palestinian universities, there is enthusiasm for contact with universities outside the region, driven in part by isolation during the Israeli occupation.
The journey from the Erez crossing point where thousands of Palestinians cross the border each day to work in Israel, to the university site in Gaza City takes about 15 minutes by taxi. Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on earth. This, coupled with 30 years of negligible infrastructure investment, means that the priorities are water and electricity supply, health care, housing and waste management. The extent and immediacy of these problems dictates a domestic political agenda from which the university is not immune.
"This is a period of transition for both the Palestinian people and the university. We have to make a leap forward in higher education to meet the challenges of building a new state," said Professor El-khoudary. "The immediate need is for mechanics, technicians, engineers and others who can help to improve living conditions. We also need to train a new generation of accountants and economists."
This can be seen as a reaction to the unwillingness of the donor nations to provide extensive financial support to the Palestinian Authority until there is a dependable and answerable fiscal system in place. A population growth rate of 5 per cent per annum combined with greater accessibility to higher education is expected to create a steady rise in the demand for tertiary level education in Gaza. However, while Al-Azhar has plans to widen its curriculum, Professor El-khoudary also sees opportunities for the establishment of new tertiary level institutes offering courses based on the development of practical skills in electronics, computing and engineering.
"I would like to see the establishment of technical colleges to meet the demand for skilled workers. The demand for higher education will increase rapidly in the coming years and we have to grow quickly if we are to successfully meet future demand," he said.
Expansion plans at Al-Azhar include a building programme to provide more lecture and research space and a new faculty of technology. Increasing student numbers and widening the scope of subjects offered at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels will require more teaching staff. Professor El-khoudary hopes that some of the many Palestinian academics who have settled in Europe and the United States can be attracted back.
"They need to see that the social and economic situation is stable before they return, but I believe that they will come home once this has been achieved." Students at Al-Azhar are still revelling in the luxury of being able to study uninterrupted by closures, curfews and the other trappings of occupation. Very few high-school graduates can afford to attend university and those who do are quick to acknowledge the responsibility that goes with their circumstances.
One student commented: "We each have a responsibility to each other as well as to ourselves. I hope that I will be able to use my university education to help towards the building of a Palestinian state. There is so much that needs to be done."
The immediate cause for concern among a group of second-year science students was the closure of the crossing points that prevents Gazans from travelling to work in Israel and generating about one third of the Gaza strip's GNP. The border restrictions remain a serious problem and Professor El-khoudary pointed out that the various Palestinian universities find it difficult to coordinate their activities when movement between campuses can be restricted for days at a time.
While the rise in demand for a university education among the Palestinian population is unlikely to be affected by the politics of the final settlement, the ability of universities like Al-Azhar to meet that demand will be.