Higher education collaboration between Europe and the Arab world

Higher education collaboration between Europe and the Arab world

For those with an interest in cooperation with the Arab countries, an important event took place at the end of May: the first Euro-Arab conference on higher education, hosted by the University of Barcelona. The Arab region is often overlooked for the benefit of countries further away from Europe and it is a region that we, for many reasons, hesitate to approach even though its vicinity to Europe should invite to the contrary.

The conference hosted around 220 participants in total including representatives from 19 Arab countries and 19 European countries. The main organisers were the European University Association (EUA) and the Association of Arab Universities (AARU). Student protests greeted the participants on arrival. The students were not protesting against the conference but against the current state of Spanish higher education, privatisation and the reduced funding that they are facing, highlighting some of the difficulties faced by Spain at the moment.

The conference, however, proceeded without any disruptions. Princess Sumaya of Jordan was the keynote speaker and her forceful speech touched upon the old culture of education that once was in the Arab world, suggesting that now is the time to bring that culture back. She is a strong patron of education both in humanities and science and her support for this initiative was very clear. Her openness and candour touched the audience very deeply and she got the strongest applause of the whole conference.

Xavier Prats Monné, Deputy Director General of the Directorate General for Education and Culture at the European Union, addressed the conference in his presentation, also stating his support for the initiative. He also announced that in the new EU mobility programme there would be opportunities for funding and that the Commission is interested in following the developments in the cooperation between Europe and the Arab region.

Greater collaboration within the Arab world

Since it was the first conference, the content touched upon many areas including descriptions of the current developments and future possibilities in the areas of internationalisation, comparability of educational systems, research, doctorial education and employability. The situation in the Arab world is very interesting and the conference clearly showed that there is a need for countries in this region to start working closer together, something that today can be very difficult since it is often easier to visit Europe than to visit the country next door. There is a common language which should make communication easier, but there is still some way to go before reaching that level.

The Bologna process was discussed in several sessions and is seen as a good example of how countries can cooperate to create a common ground. There is an interest to try to find a similar model that could help in approaching the university systems in the Arab region as well as support recognition of education from other institutions. The model is also seen as a facilitator for international cooperation. I strongly believe that many of the Bologna tools could be helpful in this process and that European countries and Arab countries can find many areas of mutual interest in this area. Increased cooperation with universities in this region could help drive this process of change that is much needed.

Strategic internationalisation

There is a large interest to develop international cooperation and while some would stress the importance of a framework similar to the Erasmus programmes, it was also very clear that the strategic importance of internationalisation cannot be ignored and by choosing strategic partners, many objectives and goals can be achieved. The discussion also touched upon the use of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) and its value. There was an agreement among participants that one should not sign an MoU  if there was a doubt as to how each particular MoU would contribute to setting goals of the institution and its internationalisation. However, at the end of the conference, over 30 of the participating universities signed an MoU with the host, University of Barcelona, leaving me wondering if all of them are going to lead to useful international cooperation at the end of the day.

Even though discussions remained on a very general level, there is no doubt that the conference was successful as a starting activity for many more to come. At the closing, some areas were identified that will be addressed in future conferences between these regions such as quality assurance, employability, researched based learning, joint and double degrees, and also international strategies and management of internationalisation. There will be a second conference in 2014 in one of the Arab countries and the aim is to build it around a theme, thus ensuring greater participation.

In Europe we have had the tendency to look beyond our next-door neighbours in the Arab world for international cooperation. It is important that we revise that tendency and start building the bridges across the Mediterranean. In many ways, we are closer than we think, but there are also big differences. Well, in internationalisation we build on differences and as Europeans we know the value of diversity. The doors are open.