18 Sep 2013

The need for critical thinking as new opportunities in higher education arise

EAIE DialogueThe emerging forms of higher education resulting from the collapse of some authoritarian regimes in the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa) were discussed in depth during an EAIE dialogue at the recent EAIE Conference in Istanbul. With some 60% of the population in this region below the age of 25, education is critical in securing the future stability of the countries, and international education has a key role to play in achieving this.

New generation of students

To discuss all aspects of higher education in the Middle East and North Africa within a two-hour dialogue is quite a challenge. It means tackling both general political developments and specific educational issues in a region where the collapse of authoritarian regimes has created a radically new situation for everybody. That includes local and foreign universities faced with a new generation of students that is no longer discouraged by fatalism but driven by energy to change things, motivated by frustration about all the restricitions they are confronted with and the freedom they aspire to obtain. It was an observation made by all three dialogue speakers from the region: Michael Willis, specialist on Tunisia and Morocco from Oxford University, historian Khaled Fahmy from The American University in Cairo and Haifa Jamal Al-Lail, the president of Effat University in Saudi Arabia. The students in the MENA region are part of a giant ‘youth bubble’ with some 60 percent of the population below the age of 25. It is obvious that in such circumstances higher education will play a crucial role in social and economic development and the likelihood of political stability. Thus, there is probably no region in the world where education matters more than in the Arab world.

Huge regional differences

Within the region there are however huge differences, especially between the Gulf states and the North African countries. While countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia have plenty of money to spend on well equiped universities yet a relatively small local population, the situation in Tunisia and Egypt is just the reverse: there are many young natives but a limited educational infrastructure.  As Ahmad O. Hasnah of the Qatar Foundation for Education described in one of the preparatory conference papers: in the Gulf, lack of motivation is a major challenge because highly-paid jobs are relatively easy to obtain for students anyway. In North Africa, on the other hand, only few manage to get into university in the first place and once they have graduated they find out it’s very difficult to get a job because there is a mismatch between their skills and the demands of both the local and international job markets.

A need to broaden, not deepen, knowledge

Despite these various perspectives, there is also a common set of challenges all these countries face. According to Fahmy, the main problem facing all Arab universities is the absensce of what he called “the philosophy of liberal arts education”. Arab universities essentially focus on deepening rather than broadening knowledge, and do not combine teaching academics and instilling the values of intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, innovation, moral courage and responsibility in students. In practice, that means a reliance on a traditional methodology focusing largely on memorisation rather than on critical thinking and problem solving. As Hasnah pointedly formulated it: “Graduates of universities in the Middle East are all too often a copy of the same book”.

External assistance

As in the past, there is a whole range of foreign universities and institutions willing to assist the Arab colleagues in their difficult task to adapt to the new situation. Karen McBride of the Canadian Bureau for International Education stressed the efforts made by knowledgable outsiders in stimulating student exchange and the setting up of common reseach projects. Jordi Curell from the European Commission underlined that Brussels, unlike some critics claim, knows quite well what is happening on the ground and tries to integrate that information in the programmes for higher education it is developing with the countries of the region. Both had to admit that the visa policies of their governments is, to put it mildly, not always helpful in stimulating mobility among students and researchers.

The Turkish perspective

For all those working in the Turkish higher education system the sketch of old restrictions and new challenges in the Arab world sounded familiar. Only recently and only on a limited number of mainly private universities, traditional educational methods have been set aside. That now allows talented Turkish students to cooperate and compete with students from other countries where academic freedom and critical thinking have been part and parcel of higher education for centuries. Turkey has a long way to go in catching up with these global standards. In the Arab world, that journey has only just begun.

Joost Lagendijk, Columnist for Zaman and Today’s Zaman (Turkish dailies)