What lessons can Palestinian universities take from British higher education and adapt to their very different circumstances?
That was among the key questions during a visit to the UK organised by the British Council last month that sought to offer leadership development to senior figures from West Bank and Gaza institutions.
In an initial presentation at Universities UK in London, Mirvat Bulbul, vice-president for planning and development at Birzeit University, pointed to some of the key challenges.
While “most [Palestinian] HEIs depend on student tuition fees to cover 60 to 70 per cent of their operation budgets”, she explained, “the economic and political situation has made it impossible to raise tuition fees even to keep up with inflation”.
Other difficulties included “the quality of school education”, “the hardship imposed by occupation” and about 35,000 new students graduating each year on to a market where the youth unemployment rate was the highest in the region and got worse by level of educational attainment.
In order to make progress, Dr Bulbul told Times Higher Education, Palestinian institutions needed to embrace “internationalisation” and “entrepreneurship”, although these inevitably had rather different meanings from what they might have elsewhere. While higher education was crucial, she explained, “we are a very closed country. We do not have mobility. You cannot get new faculty in or get students out. To inject anything from outside is very hard.”
Keen to create graduates who can “actually go out and build the economy”, Dr Bulbul wanted to “integrate entrepreneurship” into the curriculum and move beyond a traditional educational model in which universities create “a bubble of just teaching through lectures”; community outreach programmes needed to be linked more closely with learning and research.
Having spent time in Britain in the 1980s, she was well aware of how the former polytechnics had managed to change and reinvent themselves. Despite the very different circumstances, British institutions could provide some useful models.
Nazmi Al-Masri, vice-president for external affairs at the Islamic University in Gaza, was also “looking for closer collaboration” with British institutions so as to “increase quality, particularly in relation to entrepreneurship, and graduate students with skills for the global labour market”.
Along with developing further online courses, lectures and seminars, he hoped to boost the numbers of Gazan students coming to the UK on scholarships and to try to introduce co-supervision and co-examination of master’s students. Yet actions they had taken to reduce the budget deficit, including 10 per cent salary cuts, greatly restricted the university’s room to manoeuvre, he said.
Irene Hazou, vice-president for international affairs at Bethlehem University, said that they “look[ed] to England a lot for educational programmes” and pointed to existing collaborations in areas such as teacher training, curriculum development and drama and education.
Last September, the executive council at BU introduced a new goal of “equipping students for global citizenship” by “bridging the skills gap between educational offerings and the labour market” and “developing entrepreneurial education across the curriculum”.
Describing the situation on the ground as “unstable and unpredictable but not unsafe”, Dr Hazou urged more British academics to come out to Palestine for short visits.