By Ursula Lindsey, Cairo.
number of universities in the Arab world has nearly tripled in the last
decade, yet a lack of information about institutional structure and
quality remains an impediment to reform, regional coordination, and the
kinds of international linkages Arab universities increasingly aspire to
The just-released report "Classifying Higher Education Institutions in
the Middle East and North Africa: A Pilot Study," based on a survey
carried out by the Institute of International Education and the Lebanese
Association for Educational Studies, with support from the Carnegie
Corporation, is an attempt to address this dearth of information, and to
lay the groundwork for a reliable regional classification system for
higher-education institutions. Yet its writers did not have an easy time
gathering the data they needed. The report is as much a plea for
greater accountability and transparency as it is a preliminary
categorization of universities across the Middle East and North Africa.
"We hope institutions in the region—the ones who responded and, most
importantly, the ones that didn't—will really look at this information
and start thinking about what types of institutional data they need to
start collecting in order to be recognized," says Rajika Bhandari,
deputy vice president of research and evaluation at the Institute of
International Education and one the report's authors.
The report surveys universities in Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar,
Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates. It notes the
extraordinary growth and variety of the higher-education sector in the
Middle East. The number of higher-education students in the region has
increased from 2.9 million in 1998-99 to 7.6 million in 2007-8. There
are 467 universities today, compared with 174 just a decade ago, and
more than 1,500 higher-education institutions, including community
colleges and technical institutes.
Institutional models vary widely across the region, and include
historic, religiously based universities, national universities, new
private institutions, and foreign branch campuses. The Persian Gulf
leads the region in terms of international engagement and the
availability of private higher education.
The report classifies universities by size, type of curriculum, language
of instruction, gender composition, international engagement, and other
variables. But few universities shared information about several key
indicators, such as their support for research, their teacher-student
ratio, their faculty qualifications and publications, and their
In some cases, institutions are simply not in the habit of gathering such information, say the authors of the report.
"One of the eye-opening things for us," says Ms. Bhandari, "was when we
went out to collect information, and administrators turned around and
said: You know, that's a really interesting question, and no one has
ever asked that question before."
Resistance to Evaluation
In other cases, the report notes, education ministries and universities
"were slow and/or reluctant to respond because they were distrustful of
an initiative that attempted to in any way classify, assess, or rank
their institutions ... there appears to be widespread concern that the
data will be used to expose or critique institutions in the Middle East
by trying to compare them with higher-quality institutions elsewhere,
especially in the U.S."
Another significant gap in the report is that Egypt—home to the region's
largest population and number of universities—was not surveyed, partly
because of the political upheaval there and partly because of the
Egyptian Ministry of Higher Education's reluctance to participate.
Having a regional higher-education classification would be useful and
encourage greater student mobility and regional coordination, says Rasha
Sharaf, director of the strategic planning unit at the Egyptian
ministry. But the ministry felt that "comparing Egypt with Lebanon or
Morocco is like comparing apples to oranges, because of the difference
in size and the many other differences between higher education in Egypt
and in other countries," she says.
"The idea of evaluation, generally, bothers people. It's not in the
culture," says Noureddin Mouaddib, president of the recently created
International University of Rabat. "But we're starting down that road."
Fewer than half of Moroccan universities responded to the survey. Mr.
Mouaddib said his university hadn't been contacted but that sharing the
kind of information requested would be "no problem" for the
research-oriented institution, which already regularly ranks itself
against other Moroccan universities.
The Case for Classification
A regional classification system would not only help governments in the
area understand their own higher-education sectors better, and figure
out where to focus their efforts for improvement, but could also
increase international partnerships.
"We put a lot of stock in academic rankings," says Melody Knutson,
regional director for North Africa and the Middle East at the University
of California's Universitywide Office of Education Abroad Programs. "It
would be great to at least have a classification that addressed what
percentage of faculty have Ph.D.'s, and from where."
Faculty and students at the University of California are interested in
immersive experiences at Arab universities, says Ms. Knutson. Cultural,
curricular, and administrative differences can often be solved, she
says, but "the problem is not knowing what the situation really
is"—whether students will be able to claim credit for the courses they
take abroad; whether they will be regularly assessed; what kinds of
foreign student services are really available.
Adnan El-Amine, a former professor of education at Lebanese University
and the report's other author, says further efforts at classification of
Arab universities should "prepare the ground more with universities and
with ministries of education to develop their openness, their data
production and collection."
"I hope with the Arab Spring our concept of the role of higher education
and the role of data will change," says Mr. El-Amine. "We can't make
any progress if we put the data in a drawer or treat is as a national
secret. Let people see the data and think and analyze and criticize."