Universities in the Middle East and North Africa have been told to stop “apologising” for their relative youth and to capitalise on it instead, by “leapfrogging” the educational approaches of the past.
Lisa Anderson, who stepped down as president of the American University in Cairo at the end of last year, told the Times Higher Education MENA Universities Summit that there was no need for recently-founded institutions in the region to feel “bashful” alongside the US and European academy.
“Everybody is… apologetic about being a young university,” Professor Anderson said. “Enjoy it: it’s an advantage.
“You don’t have all this ‘legacy stuff’ you have to change; you can start right, you can start now.”
Professor Anderson, previously the James T. Shotwell professor of international relations at Columbia University, said that the campuses of many historic universities were “as much a burden as an advantage”, with institutions facing the difficult task of modernising or replacing their facilities.
In contrast, newer institutions could be founded with modern technology and teaching methods at their heart, the event at United Arab Emirates University heard.
Professor Anderson highlighted the concept of “leapfrogging”, in which developing countries accelerate their progress by skipping inferior technologies and approaches.
“There is a lot of literature in economic development about leapfrogging and I think it is a complicated question but I actually think, in education, leapfrogging is something that is happening, whether you anticipate it or not,” she said. “There are a lot of…experiments in education that were done over the last 30 or 40 years in the US and Europe that failed and you don’t need to do that.
“There is a great advantage in the youthful capacity to simply say we don’t have to go through some of the things that people did before: you don’t have to build the libraries of the past, you don’t have to build the labs of the past, you don’t have to even think about new models of learning and new models of teaching.”
The comments, made in response to discussion about the challenges faced by institutions in the Middle East and North Africa, came during a debate about the contribution of higher education to the development of regional economies.
Jill Derby, vice-chair of the board at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, highlighted the impact that the private, not-for-profit institution had had in Kurdistan. Most public universities in the region had traditionally educated civil servants so the English language skills and IT competency of AUIS graduates had proved invaluable for companies now investing in Kurdistan, she said.
“Without the opportunity that these private universities provide, there just wouldn’t be the workforce that would meet the skillset that is needed,” Dr Derby told the event.
But Sultan Abu-Orabi, secretary general of the Association of Arab Universities, highlighted that continuing instability in countries such as Syria meant that engaging in research and economic development was a far-flung dream for many academics.
“There are a lot of struggles nowadays in the Arab region,” he said. “Sometimes when you talk about… research with them they will say ‘we have more priorities, we have to teach our children before going into research'.”