THE MENA Summit: Call for liberal arts revival in Arab world

Broader-based education addresses concerns over graduate skills, conference hears

February 4, 2016
Middle Eastern science students
Source: Reuters
People skills: graduates of technical courses need to be 'human beings' too

A preoccupation with technical skills means many Middle Eastern graduates lack broader knowledge and understanding, according to university leaders who called for a re-imagination of liberal arts in the Islamic world.

Robert Whelan, the former president of the University of Wollongong in Dubai, told the Times Higher Education MENA Universities Summit that the content of some science and engineering courses offered in the region had become “narrower and narrower”, to the extent that there was no space for training in areas such as ethics and humanities.

Asmaa Shaei Alshuaifan, dean of quality assurance and academic accreditation at Saudi Arabia’s Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University, said that students’ demands focused on vocational skills that they believed would be useful in the job market.

But Ali bin Saud Al-Bimani, vice-chancellor of Sultan Qaboos University in Oman, said that graduates of technical courses needed to be “human beings” too.

“I have engineers, doctors and nurses [who] know their jobs but they don’t know how to deal with people,” Dr Al-Bimani said.

A key problem, Dr Al-Bimani said, was that funders would not allow courses to be extended to allow for a liberal arts-style education, and students did not want to stay longer either.

Dr Asmaa Alshuaifan told the event at United Arab Emirates University that institutions should not give in to this pressure.

Many scientists in the Western world had faced no disadvantage whatsoever from having followed a broader-based programme, she said.

At the Times Higher Education MENA Universities Summit, reporter Chris Havergal spoke to Ali bin Saud Al-Bimani, president of Sultan Qaboos University in Oman, about the challenges facing institutions in the region.

“Values are very important in this region…in this turmoil of economic and social change,” Dr Asmaa Alshuaifan said. “We need students to understand that you don’t have to ‘use’ everything that you learn.”

Hassan Rashid Al-Derham, president of Qatar University, agreed. Academic programmes, he said, should produce a “self-rounded” student who, on graduation, would “join the society in a very productive way”.

However, Dr Asmaa Alshuaifan said that the Middle East could not simply import a liberal arts model from the West.

“This is a very tricky subject [where] no one formula can fit for all,” Dr Asmaa Alshuaifan said. “[You would need] a conference by itself in how to infuse ethics and how to infuse our own Islamic identity into our programmes, even if it is Western-influenced.”

Panellists agreed that no one university could solve the problem by itself, and Dr Al-Derham suggested that national universities such as his should take a lead.

“We need to develop new programmes [and] new pedagogies for these programmes that can answer the current challenges that we are facing in our societies,” he said. “[The question is] how we can preserve our Islamic identities and at the same time [be] open communities.

“This is the heart of the challenge and the national universities should be the custodians for meeting such a challenge.”

Dr Al-Derham said that at Qatar University the problem was not as pronounced in technical programmes, since curricula were often adapted from Western models. Instead, he said it was in areas such as humanities, social sciences and Islamic studies where the need for broader-based education was more pressing.

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