Higher education institutions and practices in the Arab region witnessed dramatic transformations, as they responded to the increased demand spawned by tremendous gains in educational attainment over the second half of the twentieth century throughout the region. Many of these transformations are not unique to the Arab region but rather reflect global trends and particularly neo-liberal economic approaches that are changing the contours of university education around the world. Among these are: new forms of privatization; increased cost of higher education; the casualization of academic labor; and increasing pressures to respond to “economic efficiency” and acquire “relevant” labor market skills in curricular planning and degree granting, which has implications for faculty hiring and other aspects of university administration.

In the past two decades, the Arab region has witnessed a mushrooming of private universities and the emergence of global and satellite universities as well as branch campuses of foreign universities, particularly in the Gulf States. The growth of this sector has also led to a flurry of accreditation initiatives and concerns about quality and global rankings.

The political and economic challenges of the Arab region pose particular conundrums for its higher education systems. Among the most pressing issues are those concerning autonomy, governance, and academic freedom, all of which have become important matters of contestation among various stakeholders since the Arab Spring uprisings starting in late 2010 and their aftermath.

It has become conventional wisdom that the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt in winter/spring 2010–2011 were to a large extent generated by young, educated youth facing a bleak economic future. The common discourse about both countries has been around the ‘failed promise’ of higher education and the unmet expectations of youth. Of course, the causes (and results) of the Arab Spring are complex and varied, and Arab universities are themselves enmeshed in broader economic and political contexts, all of which have had a hand in the unfolding of events since 2010. In large part, universities in the region have long been characterized by state dominance and limited meaningful representation and participation for faculty in the governance of universities. Indeed, in an era of dramatic political changes, demands for greater participation in governance procedures have emerged front and center in various countries of the region, most notably in Egypt and Tunisia. That said, the post-revolutionary attention to higher education in Tunisia and Egypt has been uneven, reflecting the competing agendas and power bases in the two countries. The courses of the uprisings beginning in 2010/2011 have taken many twists and turns and there is increasing divergence in the experiences of Tunisia and Egypt. However, in all the countries experiencing protest, dissent, and conflict, university campuses are playing significant roles.

Much more research is needed to document and understand the ways in which universities function as institutions, interact with their contexts, and act as spaces and producers of political activism and social movements. The research projects behind this website explored various aspects of this range of issues, as will be detailed below.

Two overview papers by Fida Adely (“Changing Conceptualizations of the Role of the University”) and Asya El-Meehy (“Higher Education Policies and Welfare Regimes”) explore the dynamics of state/university relations with a focus on Egypt and Tunisia, and a comparison of the two countries in the wake of their uprisings. Iman Farag explores processes of privatization across the region (“The Privatization of Higher Education in the Arab World: Overview and Research Questions” in English and French) while Cynthia Miller-Idriss and Elizabeth Hanauer describe the transnationalization of higher education and the significant place of the Arab region in these processes (“Transnational higher education: offshore campuses in the Middle East”). Country overview papers can be found here: Yazan Al-Saadi – “Overview of Kuwait’s Educational Landscape”; Aref Alsoufi – “Overview of Lebanon’s Educational Landscape”; and Iman Farag – “Overview of National Educational Landscape – Egypt” in Arabic.


Governance and Autonomy

The eroding autonomy of universities is a clear pattern across the region and is especially poignant in Egypt. Here autonomy refers to the ability of each university to manage its resources and internal affairs, including academic and administrative changes and developments, without undue outside interference or oversight. It also refers to the ability of the university, as well as of the academic community as a whole, to protect academic rights including the freedom of speech, to practice their professions with minimum interference, and to set their own agendas for teaching, research, convening, and publication.

University governance refers to the structures and processes of decision making and for distributing resources within the university, as well as faculty and student participation in these structures and resources. University governance throughout the region has been marked by a lack of transparency and participation, whether for faculty or for students. Most case studies undertaken in the SSRC projects pointed to weak or non-existent forums for faculty and student representation and decision making, with a few important exceptions.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that in the countries witnessing revolutions and regime change, the demands for reform in higher education have focused largely on issues of representation for both students and faculty, as well as a greater role for faculty in electing heads of departments, deans, and university presidents. This is particularly the case at the larger public universities such as Cairo University and the University of Tunis. Although in both Egypt and Tunisia, gains were made in terms of representation (which was then reversed in the case of Egypt), little progress was made in terms of greater financial transparency and the removal of the old guard of university officials and administrators.

Adnan El-Amine provides an overview of legal structures governing Arab universities (“Academic freedom and autonomy of public universities according to the laws of higher education in the Arab countries” in Arabic) with a particular focus on autonomy and academic freedom while case studies of particular universities can be found in the papers of Mohamad Sukariyah (“Beirut Arab University: A Case Study”), Marlene Nasr (“Governance case study: Saint Joseph University” in English and French), Nefissa Dessouky (“University of Cairo, between the walls of the university and between Sarayat” in Arabic), Danielle Cantini (“October 6 University – The First Egyptian Private University”), Yasmine Ahmed (“The ‘International’ Experience: A Discourse Analysis of Egypt’s Emergent Private Higher Education”), and Ola Galal and Yasmine Ahmed (“Protest Forms and University Governance: The Case of the American University in Cairo, 2008–2012”).  Rahma Bourqia presents a thoughtful analysis of Moroccan universities in two papers: “The Moroccan University – Challenges and prospects” and “Towards a sociology of the Moroccan university” in English and French.


Social Inequality in Higher Education

There is a substantial literature on the relationship between social inequality and higher education with a special focus on “equity and access.” This literature examines the implications of prevailing systems of higher education for the access and success of disadvantaged students. Disadvantage refers to socioeconomic status but includes other characteristics that might marginalize individuals and communities and close off possibilities of higher education such as gender, ethnicity, race, and so on. From another perspective, who has access to which kind of education (which institutions, but also which disciplines and professions) is also largely determined by prevailing modes of social inequality.

As countries in the Arab region move away from a welfare model of social justice through education to a complex mix of privatization, globalization, and entrepreneurship in higher education, what are the implications for the most disadvantaged youth of society? Specific topics that are relevant include new models of higher education funding, admissions procedures, financial aid and fellowship programs, transparency and accountability of higher education governance systems, employment and transitions to job markets, college peer cultures and networking, and student mobility (or lack thereof). Given the relationship between the transformations of the university and higher education with social inequality, research should focus on models and tools that may exist or are being developed to promote equity through education in a neo-liberal economy.

The university (and access to higher education) has long been used as a resource by the state, both as an economic/development tool and a political one. In this regard it is important to map the “distribution” of this resource across the national landscape, especially the differences between metropolitan and provincial locations (see the HEAR map). This raises the question of metropolitan/provincial inequalities, which have been seen as an important triggering factor of the Arab Spring, especially in Tunisia, and the role of higher education in ameliorating or exacerbating such inequalities. The paper by Hanan Nazier explores the returns from education across the different governorates of Egypt (“Higher Education Externalities in Egyptian Labor Markets”).

Broader structural issues also need to be addressed in order to understand the context of higher education. The K-12 experience continues to be the strongest determinant of who gets access to higher education. What students study if they get to university is largely determined by socioeconomic status. Lack of equality across the educational sector translates into inequality of access at the post-secondary level. The papers by Ragui Assaad and Caroline Krafft (“Social Background and Attitudes of Higher Education Students and Graduates in Egypt”); Ragui Assaad (“Equality for All? Egypt’s Free Public Higher Education Policy Breeds Inequality of Opportunity” in English and Arabic); Moushira Elgeziri and Ray Langsten (“Equity and Decision Making in the Transition to University Education in Egypt”); and Hanan Nazier (“Higher Education Externalities in Egyptian Labor Markets”) explore these dynamics in the case of Egypt.

Furthermore, concerns about high rates of unemployment among university graduates in the region persist. Indeed this reality is often cited as one of the triggers for the uprisings and protests of the Arab Spring. Although high unemployment among degree-holders is typically explained with reference to the quality of university education and the choice of majors, employability after graduation is also a function of class, geography, and resources. For example, majors are largely determined by results on the national system of school leaving exams in many Arab countries, and the results in turn are linked to the quality of secondary education and the resources available to pay for private schools, private lessons, and tutoring, as has been documented in the case of Egypt. In addition, students with financial means can buy their way into certain specializations through parallel public systems as is the case in Jordan (see Fida Adely’s paper, “Student Rights, Advocacy, and the Cost of Higher Education in Jordan: The Case of the National Campaign for Defending Students’ Rights—Thabahtoona). Similarly, at Cairo University students can pay higher tuition to enroll into parallel foreign language tracks with smaller classes and better resources (see Engi Gamil Eldin’s paper, “Cost-Sharing Policies as a Means of Bettering Students’ Learning Conditions and Creating Competition Opportunities in Egypt’s Public Universities”).


Labor Issues on Campus

An emerging interest from the research undertaken is that of labor on campus. This is critical for understanding developments in the higher education sector in the Arab world. In terms of academic laborers, it is increasingly difficult to speak of their status as workers in one vein. Reflecting the increased privatization and globalization of the higher education sector, the status of faculty, their ability to organize politically and to express their views freely varies tremendously depending on the university where they are employed (see Ola Galal and Yasmine Ahmed’s paper, “Protest Forms and University Governance: The Case of the American University in Cairo, 2008–2012”). For example, new private universities, such as the 6th of October University in Egypt, rely almost entirely on faculty with short-term contracts with important implications for issues of governance, academic freedom, and rights to political association in and around campus (see Daniele Cantini’s paper, “October 6 University – The First Egyptian Private University”). In the Egyptian context researchers also referenced the low salaries of junior academics as an increasing problem, forcing academic staff to take multiple jobs in and outside the academy to the detriment of their ability to perform their jobs.  The temporary or part-time status of faculty at universities was also raised as a concern by researchers in Lebanon (see Marlene Nasr’s paper, “Governance case study: Saint Joseph University” in English and French). Andre Mazawi (2002) has charted similar processes in his study of faculty at a selection of universities in the Gulf (see bibliography).

The demoralization of university faculty is of course not unique to the region but rather is tied to a global trend of privatization, corporatization, and liberal policies. Recent reports in the United States report that close to 74% of academic jobs are found now in adjunct or terminal positions and often at near poverty wages. In an edited volume on the academic profession around the globe, Philip Altbach argues that the academic profession in the West—with a system of tenure guaranteeing some degree of academic freedom—is being eroded or never really existed in parts of the world where the university system is fairly new (Altbach, The Decline of the Guru: The Academic Profession in Developing and Middle-Income Countries, 2003).

Analytically speaking, trends in the nature of academic jobs and the relationship of faculty to universities raise new issues with respect to governance and autonomy, as well as posing new equity challenges, pointing to a research agenda that must examine issues of access and equity among academic laborers within and across universities.

Another significant development in the arena of labor on university campuses in the past two years has been the organizing by laborers, specifically non-academic staff, for better working conditions. In at least one case, AUC, this involved alliances with student groups (see Ola Galal and Yasmine Ahmed’s paper, “Protest Forms and University Governance: The Case of the American University in Cairo, 2008–2012”). Such cross-group alliances on campus are an important development in the post-Arab Spring era.

In addition, with respect to labor organizing, the professoriate has long been unionized in Tunisia, and academics participated in the revolution there as members of unions. Labor unions continue to play a central role in developments on university campuses in Tunisia. Initiatives to organize labor—academic and non-academic—and labor issues will continue to be a concern throughout the region both because of the changing face of universities and the difficult economic circumstances that both non-academic and (increasingly) academic staff face.


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