Gulf states go in search of a future that has power to preserve the past

March 23, 2001

The Gulf states are in search of a university system that keeps pace with their prosperity and populations but does not destroy their Arab heritage, a Unesco conference in Oman heard last week.

The University in the 21st Century was told by Koichiro Matsuura, director general of Unesco, that: "The Arab region is as vulnerable to the challenges of poverty, exclusion, disease, insecurity, civil strife and environmental degradation as other regions, but it has the advantage of shared cultural values, views and language."

This unity was evident in a call for regional cooperation on research and a viability study into setting up a pan-Arab accreditation body. The recommendations follow the founding this January of the Arab Open University, which is linked to the United Kingdom's OU.

The 150 leading educationists from the Muslim world and the West were more divided over the benefits of new technology, globalisation and privatisation in helping satisfy demand from an estimated 6.2 million Arab students eligible for university.

Critical issues included the advantages and disadvantages of private universities, e-learning, quality assessment and the use of English as a language of instruction as a way to provide many more Arab youth with the chance to go to university.

The Gulf states are concerned about how academic standards are to be maintained if there is a big shift towards the private sector.

Lord Dearing struck a chord with many Arab delegates when he said that universities needed to develop the human being at degree level and the specialist thereafter. This was not just to turn out adaptable students for a rapidly changing job market, but to encourage them and the university to become "champions of conscience and civic virtues".

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