National Roundtables Address Critical Issues Facing Palestinian Higher Education
Delegates in discussion during the first roundtable.

Palestinian educators have begun a series of national roundtables to address issues critical to the future of higher education in Palestine.  The nine roundtables, which began in September and will be held monthly through next May, draw together university faculty and staff, government representatives, and international experts to review international best practices in higher education and how to apply them to the local context. A major goal of the series is to promote the continuing professional development of current and future leaders of higher education in Palestine.

PFDP Chief of Party John W. Shumaker, addressing the second roundtable.

Represented at the roundtables are the West Bank’s 10 universities, the Palestinian Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MoEHE), and UNRWA. They will be joined by international experts selected to provide a global perspective on best practices in the issue areas. The USAID-funded Palestinian Faculty Development Program (PFDP), managed by AMIDEAST, developed the series and had hoped to include universities in Gaza as participants at the two-day sessions, but exit restrictions from Gaza made it impossible for them to attend.  Sessions will alternate between Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jericho.  

Each roundtable is expected to generate policy recommendations for the higher education system as a whole, as well as for each of the universities. The concluding report of each roundtable, as well records of discussions and recommendations, will be included in a final report to the MoEHE and USAID for future reference and guidance.

The roundtables come at an opportune time for the Palestinian university system, which is young by world standards and poised for future growth in order to meet the need for more capacity in higher education. It wasn’t until 1973 that a Palestinian post-secondary institution attained official university status, while the Oslo Accords of 1993 and the transfer of education from Israel to the Palestinian National Authority provided the impetus required for sustained growth and development of higher education in Palestine. The system formally came into being with the Higher Education Law of 1998, and the newest universities were established as late as 2007.

Palestine’s 12 comprehensive universities currently enroll more than 108,000 students, up 25 percent since 2003. With a steady increase projected in the coming years, the MoEHE and the World Bank have identified capacity-development of faculty, administrators, and managers as a top strategic priority in order to increase the quality and effectiveness of Palestine’s higher education system.  All of PFDP’s programs since 2005—and now the new Roundtable Series—focus on that critical goal.
“Palestine is an example of a new system of higher education created to support the development of a new state and new economy, and to support the development of key components of civil society. The leaders of its rapidly developing higher education system can draw their own lessons and prescriptions from discussions of recent international developments, the changing vision and mission of colleges and universities worldwide, and issues of quality and accreditation in higher education,” said Dr. John W.  Shumaker, chief of party for PFDP.

His words are echoed by Dr. Maher Hashweh, dean of education at Birzeit University: “There is no single international model that fits our unique circumstances. But we can certainly draw inspiration from other systems as we try to elevate Palestine’s universities to greater international prominence.”

The roundtables are the latest of many initiatives undertaken by the USAID-funded PFDP since 2005 to promote reform in teaching and learning practices in Palestinian institutions of higher learning.  The PFDP, which also receives funding from the Open Society Institute (OSI) and is administered by AMIDEAST and the OSI, is partnering with Northwestern University, Portland State University, and Central European University in Budapest in hosting the roundtables.

At the first roundtable, held in September, participants reviewed the history of education around the world and examined several models of new universities recently created in the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, India, Korea, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Morocco. These examples led to an exchange of views on a master plan for a theoretical new “model university” in Palestine and its key components: its vision, mission, and core values; governance; academic programs and organization; teaching and learning; research; and community engagement.

The second workshop, held in October, addressed several aspects evaluation, ranging from institutional assessment and program evaluation to evaluation as a critical component of project design. Future topics will cover strategic planning, quality assurance and distance learning, community engagement in higher education, university teacher as reflexive practitioner, development of continuing education programs, critical issues in higher education, and leadership development in higher education.                

―  Appeared in AMIDEAST Impact Newsletter, September/October 2011