Restore shaken public confidence in higher education, summit told

American University in Cairo president says institutions must work to close disparities in income, language and digital literacy levels

November 13, 2023
Ahmad Dallal

Public confidence in higher education is “shaken” and universities must help restore confidence, a conference has heard.

Ahmad Dallal, president of the American University in Cairo, said leaders must innovate and cultivate a culture of lifelong learning at their institutions.

He told delegates at the Times Higher Education MENA Summit that the landscape of higher education must change to address the “perilous times” that the world is experiencing.

Delivering the opening keynote address of the conference in Abu Dhabi, Dr Dallal said that despite technological advancements, disparities in income, language and digital literacy levels remain “utterly stark”.

“The public’s faith in higher education institutions to provide them with the knowledge and skills they need to lead healthy, productive lives and secure meaningful employment, especially among less privileged groups, is shaken,” he said.

He called on leaders to respond to the problem so that the declared mission of universities can resonate with communities – which must involve critical reflection.

A liberal arts education is a solid basis for the well-being of both individuals and societies, but it must not be “rigid or static”, Dr Dallal said.

“Higher education institutions must equip students with the cognitive skills and volitional attitudes to adapt to an ever-changing and interconnected job market,” he said.

“And we must cultivate a culture of experimentation, care, tolerance, inclusiveness, collaboration and lifelong learning.”

Speaking at the summit, which is co-hosted by NYU Abu Dhabi, Dr Dallal emphasised the importance of lifelong learning, describing it as a pressing responsibility of higher education globally.

“Just a few decades back, continuing education was a luxury, an add-on to the primary mission of the university, perhaps a way of diversifying revenue streams,” he noted.

However, at a time when graduates change careers more frequently, he said the central mission of the sector must include training the workforce post-graduation, to ensure that universities are serving the needs of societies.

Doing this would help rebuild universities into “flexible and porous hubs for innovation and collaboration”.

Also speaking at the opening address, Mariët Westermann, vice-chancellor of NYU Abu Dhabi, highlighted the diversity of nations represented in the room.

“That’s important because it’s a sign of how what is happening in higher education across the region – and has been happening for the last 15 years or so – is a real acceleration in how both the quantity and quality of higher education is having an effect and resonance out there in the world.”

She added that the entire Middle East and North African region was benefiting from key investments that are being made in higher education.

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