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Arabs love 'American,' at least in higher education

July 27: Public opinion polls show that while Arab popular support for US foreign policy is at an all-time low, the popularity of American-style higher education in Arab society is at an all-time high.

Given the difficulties of obtaining student visas and the higher costs of education in the United States, many Arab students are seeking American-style higher education closer to home. These are the findings of the first in-depth and comprehensive study on the state of American higher education in the Arab world commissioned by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The establishment of new, private universities in the region continues to increase, yet questions remain: Do these universities adhere to the equivalent standards in the United States, and do they truly implement the American model of liberal higher education?

What distinguishes American-style higher education is its liberal nature, its emphasis on classroom interaction, teamwork, research, and its effort to create effective communicators and critical thinkers. The student becomes a partner in the educational experience while institutional support for faculty members encourages their professional development.

American-style universities throughout the Arab world fall into four categories: institutions of higher education; branches of Western institutions (international institutions with local connections); local institutions with international connections; local institutions where the language of instruction is English.

The American University of Beirut, the Lebanese American University and the American University in Cairo are three examples of true American-style universities. The American University of Sharjah will soon join this group. All are US-accredited, non-profit institutions focused on education.

Although these universities provide the best in American-style education, they lag behind for several reasons: the absence of faculty co-governance, local regulations on hiring locally, a workload that hampers faculty research and proper course preparation, and limited access to study trips or study-abroad programs.

The Qatar Foundation's ability to attract leading universities such as Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, Texas A&M and Virginia Commonwealth makes it a potential leader in regional education. This is the second category of institutions - international institutions with local connections. However, such institutions face the challenge of integrating local culture and laws without losing academic integrity.

The third category comprises local institutions having an international advisory connection with an American university in the US. However, successfully planting the seeds of quality education in these institutions - the majority of which are for-profit - depends on the extent of their commitment to quality and the depth of the affiliation with their Western counterpart.

The fourth category consists of public universities that teach both in English and Arabic, where there is always the need for reform and higher quality education. These institutions could benefit from outside affiliations to help them implement the American model more fully.

American-style universities are making remarkable strides in the Middle East. They all still face important challenges in faculty co-governance, the integration of Western ideas and local traditions, student focus, and university life. Yet the new for-profit, privately-owned universities in the region face far more challenges in these areas when compared to the non-profit universities of the first and second category.

For the region to establish American-style higher-education institutions that can meet the standards of US universities, the concepts of good governance and solid policies and procedures must be embraced. Good governance will lead to a positive university culture with a distinctive role for faculty co-governance, which in turn will impact faculty morale, turnover, tenure and evaluation, and clarity of procedures.

The educational quality of a university is an expression of its student focus. This means concentrating on the all-around development of students not just through academics, but also art, sports, travel, internship programs, student governance, quality of life and access to excellent facilities. It also means seeking quality faculty and low student-to-faculty ratios.

Presently, there is no Arab or regional American accreditation body to monitor and ensure the quality of institutions that claim to be based on the American model. At a minimum, a ranking authority should provide an annual ranking report of all universities and colleges in the Arab world that claim to be American.

American higher education in the Arab world is a positive expression of two positive forces - American impact on education in the Arab world and Arab eagerness to learn from the US despite the current political divide. American education has been a force of change and peace in the region since its inception with the American University of Beirut in 1866. If we are to build for the future between the two cultures, we cannot afford to ignore education. THE DAILY STAR
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Updated: 14 Oct, 2014
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