By Wagdy Sawahel.
Despite dramatic growth since the 1990s in the number of private
institutions, which make up about 45% of all Arab universities and have a
market size of US$1.2 billion in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab
Emirates alone, these institutions continue to have little impact on the
development of higher education systems in the Arab world.
is due to limited capacity, lack of academic credibility, absence of
quality control and performance standards, and the perceived threat to
Arab cultural identity that branches of Western universities represent.
Educational reform is urgently needed to reach minimum levels of quality
and produce students who meet national needs.
The status of private universities
Private universities in the Arab world emerged as a result of the
inability of most public universities to meet the demand for higher
education, in terms of both student numbers and academic quality. Public
universities are heavily subsidised and run at a considerable
financial loss. They are intensely overcrowded and cannot absorb the
high demand for places, estimated at about 6.2 million in 2010. The
problems of Arab public universities were outlined in the 2009 report Challenges Facing the Privatisation of Higher Education in the Arab World
. As a result, since the early 1990s, 14 out of 22 Arab countries have
officially opted for privatising higher education and started licencing
private universities, which have been set up by either local investors
or foreign universities.
Two-thirds (around 70) of the new universities founded in the Arab
states since 1993 are private, and at least 50 of them are branches of
Western, mostly American, universities, according to another 2009
report, The Politics of Higher Education in the Middle East: Problems and prospects
. For example, Jordan has at least 12 private universities and Lebanon has
only one public university and 28 private institutions. Syria has
licensed some 20 private universities since 2001, 14 of which are up and
running. Tunisia had the highest increase in the number of
universities, up from 22 in 2003 to 44 in 2008, including 31 private
Manar Sabry, a higher education expert at State University of New York in Buffalo, US, and the author of the report Funding Policy and Higher Education in Arab Countries
said Arab nations were the last to establish private universities.
However, the number of private universities is increasing: of 152 new
universities established in Arab countries from 2003-08, 115 were
private - about 4.4 times the figure for 1993.
Nevertheless, private universities have little impact on higher
education in the Arab world. Regardless of their increased numbers,
Sabry told University World News
, the public sector remains
dominant in the provision of higher education "with the private sector
still playing a small role in most countries in the region, as private
universities are usually small and offer limited disciplines".
Market- or state-driven private universities?
A 2010 report, Universities in the Arab East: A crisis of privatisation and internationalisation
indicated that besides private for-profit universities, the Arab world
has two types of universities: public or national universities, which
absorb the overwhelming majority of students; and private non-profit
universities, which attract the upper-middle class. Some private
institutions historically belonged to missions, such as the
American University of Beirut in Lebanon and the American University in
Cairo. And some public universities have created private programmes,
leading to the creation of what are in effect semi-private universities.
While private non-profit universities in Lebanon date from the 19th
century, Jordan opened its first private for-profit university in 1990,
followed by Egypt, Syria and the Gulf region.
In Saudi Arabia
the private higher education sector, although still small in size, is
growing at an annual rate of more than 35% compared to the public
sector, which is expanding at only 10%, according to an October 2011
study, GCC Insight Report: Investment opportunities in K-12 and
higher education in the United Arab Emirates and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
prepared by the Parthenon Group, a strategic advisor to the global
education industry. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have
adopted a model of
offshore campuses of foreign universities in remote educational cities.
Since 2003, Qatar's Education City
has welcomed at least eight universities (six American and two Australian). A 2009 study, The Politics of Higher Education in the Middle East: Problems and prospects
, indicated that in Qatar funding is mainly governmental, through the Qatar Foundation
which covers the bulk of the construction costs for branches of foreign
universities. But in the UAE, Dubai International Academic City, or DIAC
is following a market-driven approach, where branches of foreign
universities are covering their own costs in what is designed as a
According to a May 2011 report, The Higher Education Landscape in Dubai 2010
published by Dubai's Knowledge and Human Development Authority, DIAC
currently hosts 32 institutions from 13 countries including the US, UK,
Canada, Australia, India, France, Singapore, Belgium, Russia, Pakistan,
Iran, Lebanon and the UAE. It has 20,000 students from more than 100
nationalities on some 300 higher education programmes. The Parthenon Group's study pointed out that Western-branded higher
education institutions in the UAE are growing at 18% per annum.
DIAC is hosting 58% of the foreign branch universities in the Arab world, according to the Guide to Universities in the Arab Countries
issued by the Beirut-based UNESCO Regional Bureau for Education in the
Arab States. According to the UNESCO document, which covered 22
countries in the Arab
world, the UAE hosts the most foreign universities. Of the 15.4% of the
universities based there, 6.4% operate under DIAC. Among the Arab
states of the Gulf, DIAC and the Dubai Knowledge Village host 23% of the
total number of universities.
Foreign university-based private institutions
The higher education community has expressed divergent views concerning
the significance of establishing foreign branches of international
universities in the Arab world. Sabry indicated that the inability of some governments to improve the
quality of their public higher education institutions due to management
difficulties led them to partner with foreign universities to fill the
But Hilmi Salem, an international consultant in higher education, told University World News
"This is just a transplant process for setting up revenue and
profit-orientated fully fledged foreign branch campuses in the national
education system, leading to the production of a foreign brain-washed
generation as well as a new form of mental colonisation."
Salem continued: "Some of the off-shore campuses of foreign universities
in the oil-rich Gulf states are running out of cash as they struggle to
attract enough students and develop a viable business model."
According to an October report
on the website of international business services company High Street Partners, titled Universities Re-thinking Global Expansion
George Mason University left the UAE two years ago, before its
inaugural class could graduate, and Michigan State University, failing
to recruit even a quarter of its planned student numbers, pulled out of
Dubai after just two years in business.
"Answers to several questions remain to be seen, especially regarding
who is evaluating foreign branches: the local authorities or overseas
quality assurance and accrediting agencies? Who will control admission
fees, how will foreigners be admitted, and how they will be managed?,"
asked Hilmi Salem.
"And who will control a highly complex set of foreign university
practices and relationships, and how will the cultural identity of these
universities interact with the local cultural identity and the meeting
of societal needs?"
Salem's views echoed a statement made in a paper, "The Impact of Globalisation on Higher Education and Research in the Arab States"
, presented at a 2007 seminar held in Morocco.
"These private universities were not created following the models of
Western countries. Instead, they were established in haste to try to
solve a social problem rather than to improve higher education research
activities and the quality of education. They were not well planned and
could be compared to fast-food stands in the crowded streets of Western
cities, whose role is to provide food to appease hunger," argued part of
On the other hand, a UAE economic expert was quoted as saying to Gulf News
"I believe those who criticised the move have extremely exaggerated the
issue, with no consideration of the scientific and developmental role
that can be played by the branches of these universities. We must take
into consideration that some of these universities are prestigious ones
with rich contributions to human development for more than 200 years."
Problems facing Arab private universities
The main problem with the establishment of private universities in Arab
countries is that they are mostly for-profit and many have been
established without adequate planning, clear policy or regulations,
funds or even qualified staff, according to Manar Sabry.
He said that in most Arab countries, private university programmes were
duplicating the public model. They neither offered innovative nor were
they responsive to the needs of the job market. The lack of clearly implemented policy and regulations produced low
quality private universities, and had frustrated private providers.
Politics and cumbersome approval processes by regulatory committees
often restricted the establishment of new universities and discouraged
As a result, the establishment of private universities in Arab countries
has not, in most cases, led to improving education quality, Sabry
argued. With one public university and 28 private universities licenced through
the government but operating independently, Lebanon could be considered
an extreme example of the crisis of Arab university privatisation, which
was highlighted in the Muhanna Foundation's November 2010 study Private Universities in Lebanon: Performance indicators, accountability and value-for-money
The report highlighted several challenges, especially with regard to
producing adequately qualified human capital responding to the needs of
the labour market and the sector's quality assurance and brand standing
in the region.
"Several countries have passed to us their complaints over the quality
of graduate and doctoral education received by Lebanese students," the
local Daily Star quoted
Education Ministry Director General Ahmad Jamal as saying at a June 2011 workshop.
Hilmi Salem argued that given problems associated with branches of
foreign universities, "private universities built by wealthy Arab
businessmen, individuals or national organisations must be encouraged,
without scarifying quality and performance standards".
But Sabry warned that heavy regulations could demolish the private
sector completely. Instead, there should be a functional legislative
framework that would ensure transparency and accountability -
legislation to offer the basis for rights and responsibilities, he
The strategy to achieve reform must include establishing quality
assurance mechanisms to evaluate and accredit programmes and degrees
offered by educational providers, Sabry argued. Although some countries
had established a national system for quality assurance, the infancy of
these systems limited their effectiveness. Besides encouraging and supporting non-profit private universities and
academically elite universities, more use should be made of
international benchmarks, Sabry added.
In addition to improving quality in private universities built by local
investors, Salem called for building regional world-class universities
and expanding partnerships with the world's best universities in the
form of student and faculty exchanges, collaborative research, joint
degrees and twinning programmes as well as help in setting up regional
* Wagdy Sawahel is a higher education and scientific research advisor and the general coordinator of the Science Development Network, as well as the director of the Virtual Incubator for Science-based Business. He was a guest on the Aljazeera programme "Foreign Universities in the Arab World"