Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Debate: Foreign universities could be bad for the Gulf | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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File photo of the American University in Cairo.

It is indisputable that the Western world is well ahead of us in the field of education, especially in higher education. After all, we are talking about prestigious universities established centuries ago, from Harvard University in the United States and Oxford and Cambridge in Britain to the Sorbonne in France, as well as other reputable academic institutions. We are all aware that even the oldest of the universities in the Gulf were founded not more than a few decades ago.

Consequently, the Gulf nations decided to build academic partnerships in order to open Gulf branches of the largest and most famous Western universities. This is being done alongside educational exchanges designed to send Gulf students to Western universities to complete their university education or beyond. It is an immense effort, with thanks due to these host countries, and it is certainly beneficial for developing nations.

But we must stop to ask some important questions.

Is it right to refer to the Gulf branches of Western universities as entities identical to their parent universities, or should we see them as separate?

This is difficult to say for certain. Of course, they are not representative of the policies of the countries in which they were established, nor of the conditions upon which the two parties agreed. Perhaps some universities were launched in the Gulf for purely commercial reasons. We will not discuss, let alone evaluate, this here because such universities, quite simply, already contain the seeds of failure. But let us assume that these Gulf universities were established in good faith and have fulfilled all of the conditions necessary to be academic beacons of their eponymous parent universities. Are the Gulf branches equivalent to their respective parent universities in terms of performance and output? This is the bottom line.

From a theoretical angle, it is difficult to say for sure whether it is within the capacity of the Gulf branches of Western universities to be analogous to their parent universities. A university requires an academic cadre of a superior level, and this is difficult to realize in a Gulf branch because highly qualified academics could find work in the parent institution itself. Thus, no matter what the incentives offered to these academics, it will be hard to attract the necessary core group of qualified faculty members to the Gulf branches. I believe they are able to draw in qualified academics, but they will not in any way have the same credentials as their counterparts at the parent universities.

As an example, let us assume for the sake of argument that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—which is one of the most distinguished academic institutions in the world—decided to set up a branch in the Gulf. Would someone really expect the faculty that work there to be on the same level of those employed by the original MIT? I reckon that no one would answer “yes” here. I think this example sums up the whole situation.

So, let us say that the establishment of branches of prestigious Western universities in Gulf nations is a good and useful idea, but we cannot possibly be so optimistic as to believe they will be comparable, or even semi-comparable, to their parent universities.

And yet, it is our duty to be optimistic—perhaps some of these branches will become distinguished institutions, if they are developed in a highly professional manner. Or perhaps they will have successful experiences like that of their Arab predecessors, the American University in Cairo and the American University of Beirut.

As for the degrees awarded by Western universities in the Gulf, a diploma from any of these universities—especially those established with as challenging an academic curriculum as possible—will be far better than those from Arab universities. But the frightening concern remains that some of those seeking only financial profit will take advantage of such developments for commercial gain. Then, the target of a student of Western universities in the Gulf will simply be to obtain a degree stamped with the seal of a global university, without attaining real knowledge.

We are referring to a true academic disaster, and of course we hope this does not happen. However, let us be optimistic about a bright future instead.

The counterpoint to this article can be read here.