Higher education leaders in England, France and Italy often take pride in claiming that their country is the seat of the oldest university in the modern world.  Indeed, Oxford University was set up in 1167, the Sorbonne was created in 1160, and the University of Bologna began to operate in 1088.  But historians have established that, in reality, the oldest university still functioning in modern times is the Qarawyyin in Fes, Morocco, which started as an institution of learning as early as 859.  The Arab world can also take pride in the contribution of other prestigious universities, such as Ez-Zeituna in Tunis, Al-Nizamiyya in Iraq or Al Azhar in Cairo.  More recently, the University of Cairo was hailed as the lighthouse of the Arab intelligentsia for many decades during the twentieth century.

Today, however, the higher education systems of the Arab world face important challenges.  While most countries in the region have witnessed a rapid growth in the number of universities and seen a tremendous increase in student numbers, quality and relevance are sources of serious concern.  Lack of selection and insufficient budgetary resources have resulted, in many cases, in situations of over-crowding and inadequate facilities.  The University of Cairo has more than 250,000 students.  After a recent merger, the University of Rabat enrolls close to 100,000 students.  Many universities in the region operate with a traditional curriculum and outdated pedagogical practices, resulting in high dropout rates—sometimes half of an entire student generation—.  According to Al-Fanar Media, more than half of Jordanian universities recently failed a national proficiency exam held by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research.  Finding a job remains a difficult adventure for large numbers of graduates throughout the region.  In fact, graduate unemployment was one of the triggers of the Arab spring, most notably in Tunisia.

In short, the achievements of the Arab higher education systems do not seem to be on par with the economic weight and the long scholarly tradition of these countries.  Compared to the OECD countries and the emerging economies in South-East Asia, the Arab systems are way behind in terms of program quality and research output, they suffer from relatively high levels of graduate unemployment, and are characterized by inadequate governance arrangements.  Many public universities in the Arab region are driven by interest groups who are resistant to change, they suffer high levels of academic in-breeding, and are constrained by rigid and bureaucratic administrative systems.  Some universities are governed by large scientific councils with close to 100 members, which makes it difficult if not impossible to take innovative initiatives.

The Arab world represents 5.8% percent of the world population and produces 4.5% percent of the planet’s GDP, but its universities account for only 0.08% percent of the top 500 institutions in the Shanghai ranking.  The poor results of a large country like Egypt—the 15th most populated nation of the world—are striking in contrast to the impressive performance of a small country such as the Netherlands, which places four universities in the top 100 of the Shanghai ranking.  The tiny territory of Hong Kong has more universities in the Shanghai ranking as all Arab countries considered together.

At the same time, it is fair to acknowledge several positive developments in the region.  Saudi Arabia, in particular, stands out for the rapid progress of its top universities in recent years.  Four Saudi universities are present among the top 500 institutions in the Shanghai ranking, two of them appearing in the 150 to 200 group.  It is also the only Arab country included among the top fifty higher education systems ranked by the international consortium Universitas 21 in the annual assessment prepared on its behalf by the University of Melbourne.  Saudi Arabia was ranked number 28 in 2015, up two spots compared to 2014.  Also, in countries as diverse as Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco, a few private universities have emerged as centers of innovative curricular and pedagogical practices.  KAUST, the youngest public university established in Saudi Arabia, is on its way to becoming rapidly a scientific powerhouse.  But these outstanding examples remain the exception, not the rule.

If universities in the Arab world are to see better days, two key developments are necessary.  First, following the recent examples of a few Gulf States, each nation ought to formulate a comprehensive and audacious vision of the future role of higher education, and translate it into a strategic plan spelling out the concrete reforms, investments and actions needed to implement the vision.  Fostering an institutionally differentiated system, composed not only of research-intensive universities but also good quality teaching universities and community colleges with a professional focus, is important to offer relevant opportunities to the rapidly growing youth population of these countries, and to produce the range of professionals and technicians that the economy needs.  In that context, the Northern African and Middle Eastern countries whose public universities are starved for resources must significantly increase public investment in higher education and research.

Second, the higher education systems in the Arab world need to build their capacity to design and implement deep reforms in a consensual mode, in order to modernize governance structures and processes overall, allowing for increased institutional autonomy and full academic freedom.  To be successful, these reforms must be designed and implemented in a spirit of transparency and objectivity, on the basis of a realistic assessment of existing needs, gaps, strengths and weaknesses.  It would make such a difference if the Arab countries would start showing as much enthusiasm for the transformation and modernization of their higher education systems as for the results of their national soccer teams on their way to the next World Cup qualifier match!

First published by WISE ed.review.  Also available in Arabic.

Seen from an international perspective, the higher education systems of the Ibero-American countries present fascinating contrasts.  They can take pride in the very rapid enrollment increases in recent years and significant efforts to improve the quality of learning and research in a growing number of universities.  Several countries, especially in Latin America, demonstrate a high degree of institutional differentiation with a wide range of public and private universities and non-university tertiary institutions—from technical institutes to technology-focused universities, from small professional schools to large research universities.

Furthermore, the Latin American higher education systems boast some innovative aspects linked to policies to promote equity, the assessment of learning outcomes, and the monitoring of graduates in the labor market, something found in only a few countries worldwide.  Following the example of ICETEX in Colombia—the first student loan agency in the world— several countries now rely on this mechanism to improve opportunities for students from disadvantaged groups, most significantly in Brazil, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic.  Other initiatives to make high quality universities more inclusive are also worth mentioning, such as the affirmative action program at UNICAMP in Brazil, bridge schemes to bring talented low income high school graduates into public universities in Chile, and the Colombian private university, Uniminuto, established with the mission of offering a high quality education to students from the most marginalized urban and rural socioeconomic sectors.  Brazil and Colombia are among the few developing countries with a national assessment system to measure student learning outcomes.  Finally, Chile and Colombia have been pioneers in the development of labor market observatories—Mi Futuro and Graduados Colombia, respectively—to follow the professional trajectories of university graduates.

In spite of these positive features, the achievements of the Ibero-American higher education systems do not seem to be on par with the current economic heft or the long scholarly tradition of these countries.  Compared to the OECD countries and the emerging economies in South-East Asia, the Ibero-American systems are way behind in terms of program quality and research output, suffer from relatively lower levels of public funding, and are characterized by inadequate governance.

Research funding in Latin America ranges from 0.3 to 1 percent of GDP, while the Nordic countries invest between 3 and 4 percent of their GDP.  In terms of governance, universities in the Ibero-American region, especially the public ones, are subject to the influence of interest groups resistant to change, suffer high levels of academic in-breeding, and are constrained by rigid and bureaucratic administrative systems.  What are the concrete results of these differences?

Latin America represents 8.5 percent of the world population and produces 8.7 percent of the planet’s GDP, while its universities account for only 2.2 percent of the top 500 institutions in the Shanghai ranking, less than 1.5 percent of the top 400 in the Times Higher Education ranking, and 2.6 percent of the top 500 universities in the Leiden ranking that focuses on publications and their impact.  The poor performance of large countries such as Brazil and Mexico—the sixth and tenth economies of the world, respectively—is particularly striking in contrast with the impressive results of smaller countries like the Netherlands, that has four universities in the top 100 of the Shanghai ranking, or Israel with three universities. The tiny territory of Hong Kong places as many universities in the Shanghai ranking as the Brazilian giant!

In Europe, the two Ibero-American countries, Spain and Portugal, also fail to achieve good outcomes.  A recent study commissioned by the Spanish government and undertaken by a group of distinguished academics deplores the absence of Spanish universities of excellence and the low scientific production of the country.  Not one Spanish or Portuguese university appears among the top 200 in the Shanghai ranking, in contrast with large European countries such as the United Kingdom, France and Germany, and even smaller nations like Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland.

For the situation to change for the better in the Ibero-American countries, two key factors appear to be missing.  First, each of these countries needs to elaborate a comprehensive and audacious national vision of the future role of higher education, translating that vision into a strategic plan with adequate investment and spelling out the concrete reforms and actions needed for its implementation.

Second, Ibero-American nations need to build their capacity to design and implement deep and consensual reforms with significant increases in public spending for higher education and research while modernizing governance structures and administrative processes.  To be successful, these reforms must be designed and accepted as long-term state policies, rather than prepared and identified as the proposal of a specific government and limited by the typically short electoral horizon.  It would make such a difference if the Ibero-American countries would show as much enthusiasm for the transformation of their higher education system as for the results of their national soccer teams!

This blog entry was first published by Inside Higher Education on 11 January 2015

The sea is dangerous and its storms terrible, but these obstacles have never been sufficient reason to remain ashore.

Ferdinand Magellan (1520)

 For several decades, traditional human capital analysis challenged the need for public support of higher education on the grounds that graduates captured important private benefits—notably higher salaries and lower unemployment—that should not be subsidized by taxpayers.  Many multilateral and bilateral donor agencies, influenced by this argument, focused their support on basic education rather than investing in the expansion and improvement of higher education systems in developing countries.

In the 1990s, however, a growing body of research demonstrated the need to go beyond rate-of-return analysis to measure the value of higher education as an important pillar of sustainable development.  By focusing primarily on the private returns of government spending, rate-of-return analysis fails to capture broad social benefits accruing to society, that are important to recognize and measure.  These include research externalities, entrepreneurship, job creation, good economic and political governance, and the positive effects that a highly educated cadre of workers has on a nation’s health and social fabric.

Building on these findings, the path breaking 2000 report entitled Higher Education in Developing Countries: Peril and Promise called for scaling up investment in higher education and research, as a key pillar to equip developing countries with the knowledge and qualified manpower needed to fight poverty and accelerate economic growth.  Written by a distinguished group of independent experts with financial support from several donor agencies, the report had an important impact at three levels.  First, it helped turn around donor policies in favor of greater attention to higher education in partner countries.  Second, it unleashed many positive reform initiatives in the developing countries themselves.  Third it paved the way for increased South-South networking and collaborative activities.

Almost fifteen years later, the world of higher education has changed significantly.  Developing countries have seen tremendous enrollment growth, especially in the private sector.  In Europe, the Bologna process has led to the creation of a “higher education space” facilitating the circulation of students and academics.  Asian nations have been at the forefront of efforts to place higher education at the center of their economic development strategies.

Higher education finds itself at another crossroad today, as national systems seem to be pulled in several directions by a combination of factors bringing about both opportunities and challenges at the same time.  The forces exercising new pressures on higher education can be divided into three groups: crisis factors, stimulation factors, and rupture factors.

The crisis factors are the direct results of the economic and financial crisis that started in 2008.  Many governments have significantly cut their higher education budget while, at the same time, households have fewer resources to allocate to education expenditures.  Furthermore, in many countries, the slowing down of the economy has led to rising graduate unemployment.

Compounding these elements of crisis are rupture factors such as those pointed out in a 2013 report proposing the image of “an avalanche” to describe the radical changes affecting how higher education institutions will be conducting their teaching and research activities in the future.  Among these rupture factors are (i) technological innovations such as flipped classrooms and other strategies for more interactive learning, (ii) mass online open courses (MOOCS) reaching hundred of thousands of students all over the world, (iii) increased competition from for-profit and corporate universities that provide professional qualifications closely linked to labor market needs, and (iv) new accountability modalities like the global rankings, that allow for different kinds of comparisons of the performance of universities across all continents.

Finally, higher education institutions are exposed to stimulation factors in the few countries that, notwithstanding the financial crisis, have continued to give priority to the development of their knowledge economy by protecting their higher education budget.  Several governments have even launched “excellence initiatives” translating into a large influx of additional resources for their nation’s leading universities—for example China, Denmark, France, Germany, Russia and South Korea—, often under the influence of the global rankings.

How these three sets of factors play out in each country determines the new “perils” and “promises” likely to shape the development of higher education in the years to come.


This article was first published in the Bulletin (Issue 182, July 2014), the magazine of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU).


Guest blogger Laura Howard, EAIE vice-president

At the October 2013 Conference of the Americas on internationalization (CAIE), the audience listening to the plenary moderated by Francisco Marmolejo, Coordinator of Higher Education at the World Bank, was intrigued when Jamil Salmi, specialist in higher education, began his answer to the question of why Latin American universities are not well represented in rankings by talking about football.

So what is the connection?

Salmi pointed out that the world’s top football teams have international players. Many also have international coaches or managers (Ancelotti in Real Madrid, Mourinho in Chelsea), even in the case of the national selection of some countries (Capello as the England coach). In their search for the best players, and for the right trainer, they look beyond their own backyard.

In Latin American universities, however, it is seldom the case that a university is led by a rector/president from another country – in some cases it is even expressly prohibited by law. This reflects a mindset that does not include a global perspective and therefore does not consider international candidates. It asks for a change of attitude, the willingness to look beyond national borders in the search for quality and excellence, to find the person with the right skill set. And this need is not limited to Latin America. This is not to say, by any means, that excellent candidates cannot be found on home ground. However, a university that appoints a rector from another country is giving a clear signal that it is embracing internationalisation, going beyond the search for international students and academic staff right to the institution’s strategic centre, preparing itself internally for change. This comment brought to mind two thoughts:

The International Relations Office: the Messi and the Torres of the university

The first one concerns an issue that has been discussed by many EAIE members over the years. The International Relations Offices of our universities are often home to international staff, usually in a much higher percentage than in other areas of university administration and management. It would be interesting to explore and attempt to measure the specific contribution made by these professionals to the internationalisation process of their universities. They are the international players in our teams: the Messi and the Torres. And the added value they provide can serve as an example, as many of their skills would be transferrable to other aspects of university administration in an institution that embraces comprehensive internationalisation.

Mobility in football vs. higher education

The second concerns another advantage enjoyed by football teams – the ease with which international players can cross borders. Entry visas do not appear to be an issue when a team wants to sign up a new international player; they often enjoy special fiscal privileges and in some cases even citizenship to the country which wants them on their team is granted. Yet in the field of education, most higher education institutions struggle to get the necessary support for a coherent inter-ministerial policy which facilitates the entry of international students and staff – who as well as being a source of finance can contribute to the internationalisation process, and can help to improve the institution’s place in the rankings.

It seems that the internationalisation of football is of greater strategic importance in many countries than the internationalisation of higher education. Lots of food for thought. What is the situation in your country?

PS.  Update from Jamil Salmi: at the 2014 soccer world cup in Brazil, half of the 32 competing teams have a foreign coach…

PS2. This blog was first posted on the EAIE website on 28 October 2013.