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Tue 29 Sep 2009 12:15 PM

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University Challenge

The mediocrity of Middle Eastern higher education is a failure that must be addressed, argues Rob Corder.

The job of stabilising the global financial system is done, leaving governments around the world with the unenviable task of paying for the banking bail outs while trying to stimulate their economies out of recession.

Broadly speaking, the actions in the GCC were in step with the rest of the world. Governments and central banks made it clear that they would not allow financial institutions to fail, and huge amounts of extra money are being pumped into the economy in the form of public works projects to improve healthcare, education, services and infrastructure.

The UAE, for example, increased its 2009 budget by a whopping 21 percent over 2008. Saudi Arabia committed to increase spending by 7 percent this year in its budget that was approved at the peak of the financial crisis in December.

As a result, the International Monetary Fund predicts that the Middle East region will grow at 2 percent this year, down from 6.3 percent in 2007 and 5.2 percent in 2008, but considerably better than Western nations such as the United States, which it predicts will shrink by 2.6 percent this year, or the Eurozone, which is expected to shrink by 4.8 percent.

The region has also become the lender of last resort for the West. It is estimated that the GCC has amassed over one trillion dollars worth of US assets, largely in the form of government treasuries.

The figures suggest that the Middle East has little to learn from the West, but that would be a false conclusion. Oil wealth masks fundamental challenges that GCC nations must address, and taking lessons from America is a certain path to improvement, particularly in the critical area of education.

Silicon Valley did not become the hottest centre for technological innovation because California came up with a snappy name for a business park.

Two of the top three universities in the world: Stanford and Berkeley, plus Caltech at number six on the list, feed the likes of Apple, Adobe, Hewlett-Packard, Google, eBay, Oracle and Yahoo.

On the East coast, Harvard, Princeton and MIT provide the brain power that drives Wall Street and Washington DC. Seven out of the top ten universities in the 2008 Academic Ranking of World Universities list were from the United States.

The only universities in the top 200 from the Middle East are all Israeli. Not a single institute from the GCC appeared on the list, despite all six member countries appearing in the top 40 wealthiest countries in the world table.

The Academic Ranking of World Universities is based on a slightly unusual methodology. It ignores measures such as the number of people graduating with first class degrees, but concentrates instead on the faculty.

It ranks universities by several indicators of academic or research performance, including alumni and staff winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals, highly cited researchers, articles published in Nature and Science, articles indexed in major citation indices, and the number of gongs of this type divided by the number of academic staff.

This makes it even more disappointing that the Middle East has failed to make it onto the list. While it might take decades for a new university to build up a world-leading record for student success, it ought to be much easier and faster to build up a faculty of academic prize winners. Enormous research grants should do the trick in the short term.

If GCC Olympic associations can spend money on importing medal-winning athletic talent, why can’t education leaders do the same thing for medal-winning academics?

This might, at first, seem like a marketing gimmick for a Gulf university, but that would be to ignore its longer-term benefits. Gulf universities competing for talent with Princeton, MIT and Cambridge, by funding the research studies of the world’s brightest academics, would improve the universities, improve the teaching, and feed both the results of leading research, and the highly educated graduates out into the local market.

Imagine the impact of the 21st century’s Einstein in permanent residence in the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. Why wouldn’t SABIC, Aramco or the government of Saudi Arabia pay for that?

In time, the Middle East should re-establish itself as the cradle of global learning, not just in Islamic doctrine, but in physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, mathematics, literature, agriculture, engineering, art, finance, business and much more.

Ahmed Zewail, who was born in 1946 near Alexandria, Egypt, went to university in his home country, and even taught at the University of Alexandria, He won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1999, but now resides at Caltech in California.

Zewail’s emigration to America is a stark illustration of the failure of Middle Eastern governments to retain and attract the brightest academics.

As the region emerges from recession with massive holdings in US financial assets, it must now turn its purchasing power to academia, and set out a long term strategy to attract the world’s brightest minds to its universities.

Developing at least a few of the world’s greatest universities over the coming decade might not be simple, but it is a challenge that the Middle East must not duck.

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Doug 11 years ago

It won't happen. It's the mentality here. To be a Nobel prize winner or a leading academic or get a good science paper published, you have to do some work. Aspiration here simply isn't high enough. Ask any GCC national of university age what they want to be and they'll all say something along the lines of 'a manager'. Being a success in the Gulf means putting yourself in a position where you tell other people what to do. This is why business courses here are so popular, and until there is a dramatic culture shift away from a Gradgrind-eque Utilitarian facts education at the primary and secondary level, and a greater understanding that you don't have to sit behind a desk in an office to be a success. This region used to be a hotbed of learning and science - 600 years ago - but now there are no real entrepreneurs or scientists or acadamics - it's all just businessmen who are very good at selling things made by other people in other countries.

Sam the sham 11 years ago

Doug is correct. It's the work ethic, or rather the lack of it in some parts of the Middle East. Compare it to the US, China or Japan where hard work is rewarded. They combine high academic standards with lots of entrepreneurship and sheer hard work to make them the economic powerhouse they are.

DaNgErBoY 11 years ago

I fully agree with the other comments here but also think that the standards of other international universities here produce. i attended 6 months of a notable australian university here in 2003 and was completely shocked as to the standard and level of teaching there. it was like being in high school again.the facilities were not that of a learning environment and the focus seemed to be on 'get as many students in for profit' and not actually engaging with the students to improve the ridiculous grade levels students were achieving. so, yes if these international universities cannot set the bar in the region then how can local universities do the same when they probably look for guidance from the same international universities? i subsequently left and moved back overseas again and did my degree at the proper campus in australia where i received the education i had set out to receive. i do hope that the region takes note of the situation and as Doug put it, bring the region back to the academic achievements that have come from the region again.

Gregory Allen 11 years ago

Conservative societies are often super-sensitive. One cannot be this way and be creative because there is often the risk of offending someone. This is doubly so in regards to medicine. An example of what I'm saying is what my wife just volunteered for. At a hospital attached to a famous University here, my wife volunteered for medical tests. She wanted to help people with her health condition so that they wouldn't suffer as she had. The examination was very invasive and she filled out forms that were very descriptive and personal. But to help others she endured. The university did a study thanks to people like her and they are now able to better treat patients. In the Arab world, no woman would have been allowed to partake in this study. One needs to be completely openminded and mature in order to perservere.

Wissam 11 years ago

Whatever is spent to bring lusty names, gargantuan buildings and architecture, the best professors from all around, there is one thing still missing: it is the students and society that define the level of the university, and not vice versa