U.S.-Islamic World Forum Considers Challenges Facing Arab Higher Education

As part of the U.S.-Islamic World Forum, which met in Washington, DC, in mid April, Safwan Masri, Director of Columbia University’s Middle East Center in Amman, and Katherine Wilkens, AMIDEAST Vice President for Communications, co-chaired a Working Group on Higher Education in the Arab World. The group brought together a distinguished group of educators, specialists, and public sector officials from the United States and the Middle East to review the current state of higher education in the region and consider the key challenges facing reform today. Discussions over the three-day conference, which was held April 12–14, 2011, focused on three key challenges: Quality, Governance, and Educational Outcomes for Development.

Despite more than a decade of dramatic expansion in institutions, programs, and student enrollment, higher education in the region continues to fall short of the needs of students, employers, and society. A high level of unemployment among university graduates is only one measure of the reality of a system that is not providing graduates with the skills they need to succeed. There was a strong consensus among the working group participants that higher education reform is central to the eventual success of the social, political, and economic transformation underway in the region today and must be made a priority. Major structural change is required to address the problems of accommodating the massive influx of students who seek to enter the tertiary system in many of these countries, and to address serious and persistent quality and equity problems. The group also underscored the central role of governments in securing quality assurance, accountability, academic freedom, and improved institutional autonomy — critical elements of a vibrant and successful higher education sector. There is a need to establish independent structures to institutionalize the engagement of a broader group of stakeholders in each country around this agenda. Such groups would provide a vital focal point for advocacy for needed reforms of the higher education sector.

The group’s recommendations will be published in a final report that will be released in June by the Brookings Institution.


―  Appeared in AMIDEAST Impact Newsletter, March/ April 2011