Adam Hedengren
Last updated: 17 September, 2012

Western universities expand in the region

The American School for Girls in Beirut was founded in 1835 by a group of Presbyterian missionaries with the objective to stimulate education for women in the region. In 1994, the same institution, having transformed itself during the years, changed its name to the Lebanese American University (LAU). This makes it the oldest of the American institutes of higher learning in the Middle East, followed by its cousins the American University of Beirut (AUB) and the American University in Cairo (AUC). They all adhere to the same principle of providing both natives and Americans with a US-style education with core concepts and values such as freedom of speech, respect for others, innovation and diversity.

While loosing some of their appeal after the 9/11 attacks, these institutions have seen a resurgence of American applicants. But the Middle East is still lagging behind in terms of foreign exchange students – roughly 1 percent of study abroad students from the US end up in the Middle East – even though the trend is once again positive. So perhaps more important is the mission to offer Arab students the opportunity to obtain a decent education according to the American model. Indigenous institutions face major challenges in providing an educational environment that efficiently competes with those of Europe, Asia or the US.

Perhaps the biggest concern has been the lack of sufficient links between colleges and the private sector. Arab countries traditionally have a vast civil service and a bureaucratic state apparatus that restrains dynamism on the employment market. Consequently, many university graduates face unemployment months or even years after graduation, a situation that is very much at the heart of the ongoing youth revolutions across the Arab world.

Now, it is important to mark out the gap between state and private universities. For example, the three major American universities in Lebanon and Egypt have an impressive pool of successful alumni, whereas on average roughly one in every three university graduates are unemployed in Tunisia and Egypt. Certainly, this poses tremendous problems, especially in a region with the world’s highest youth unemployment rate and where 60 percent of the population is under 30.

Still, interest from foreign students seems to be on the rise, and they often come here for two reasons; they seek to gain more understanding about the region, including learning Arabic, and they want to put a unique mark on their CV. Lauritz, a Norwegian who has studied at Damascus University for a full year, managed to do both. “I learned a lot about the political situation in both Syria and Lebanon. As a student of political science, I noticed how important it is to spend time in a country and not just study it from abroad.”

During the popular protests against the ruling Assad family, he had his previous experience of Syrian society to thank for being able to grasp the events that took place; “I cannot imagine comprehending the feeling of tension and uncertainty during the uprising in the same way that I did if I had not been in Syria for some time before it erupted.”

The major concern for foreign exchange students at Damascus University was the education itself. “It can be argued that the course did not exactly grab the students’ attention – there was a strict emphasis on following the prescribed curriculum”, said UK national William. And that is certainly a problem in countries such as Syria, where teachers are obliged to follow the norms that are set out for them by the government. Now, most students that have studied in such environments still feel that their visits were worthwhile. Lauritz, who recently obtained an internship at Lebanese newspaper the Daily Star, felt that his time in Syria helped him in terms of getting employment in the region; “it gave me a better knowledge about job opportunities in the area. I did not know much about the media in Syria and Lebanon before I moved there. It also helps to have stayed for a while because the employer realizes that you know the region a bit.” 

At elite schools such as AUB, faculty tries very hard to establish that pivotal connection between students and corporations, and in 2010 the university’s annual job fair attracted about 155 firms, offering 247 job vacancies. “Studying at AUB introduces you to elements of Lebanon which are difficult to access in most other situations – you are thrust in along what is almost certainly the young elite of Lebanese society. Because the language of instruction is English, the ability to talk to whomever you so desire removes a big barrier which may be encountered in much of the rest of the Arabic speaking world, ” says a former graduate student at the school, who wish to remain anonymous, about the environment there.

But he remains skeptical about the overall gain, comparing the situation to a double-edged sword. “This ease of access also comes with difficulties in practicing language skills, and also it removes from you much of the distance that you have concerning judgment of the political process of the country. If many of your peers accept the status quo as ideal, or at least unchangeable, it is tough to apply a more critical judgment to the situation.”

There has been a lot of talk about the increasing number of western universities setting up branch campuses in the region. The long list include names such as NYU Abu Dhabi, Northwestern in Qatar, Carnegie Mellon in Qatar, Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi, Weill Cornell Medical College, Texas A&M University and many more.

According to Winfred Thompson, the former president of the American University of Sharjah, not a day went by without a phone call from a western university wanting to establish a branch in the UAE. “This development is good because the number of viable institutions in the region is small, but the need is very great”, Thompson said at a conference at Carnegie Council in 2007. He warned, however, what these prospective schools need to realize is that it must be a long-term commitment, and if they expect to receive substantial financial gains, well then they are in for a long ride. 

The Gulf is creating modern education oases to meeting the demands from western universities. In 2004, Dubai opened Dubai Knowledge Village (DKV) with the aim to provide the region with an education of international standards. The Qatar Foundation is taking similar steps, offering free-zone areas for universities to set up branches. Qatar Foundation has attracted a large number of institutes to its Education City, ranging from HEC Paris to Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Many of the branch universities tend to focus on specific research areas; Northwestern in Qatar is dedicated to journalism and communication whereas Texas A&M University in Qatar foster their students to become experts in environmental issues. Such approaches could be a way to make the most out of relatively small, but often state-of-the-art facilities. And as revolutions have spread across the Middle East, the “need” Winfred Thompson talked about has perhaps become even greater.