Classifying higher education institutions in the MENA region

By John O’Leary, executive member of the QS Global Academic Advisory Board


Universities in seven Arab countries have been classified as part of an international project that is intended to lead to a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of higher education across the Middle East and North Africa.

The Institute of International Education (IIE) and the Lebanese Association for Educational Studies launched their findings at last month’s World Innovation Summit on Education, in Qatar.

Research for the classification was carried out at the height of the Arab Spring, which restricted its scope. Egypt would have been the largest higher education system to be surveyed, but the researchers eventually settled for a classification of universities in Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates.

The draft report stressed the rapid development of higher education in the seven countries, where the number of students grew from 2.9 million in 1998-9 to 7.6 million in 2007-8. The number of universities had grown from 174 to 467 in a decade, supplemented by countless other higher education institutions, many of them privately owned. Dr Rajika Bhandari, deputy vice president of research and evaluation at the IIE, outlined some of the challenges. “It was difficult to get education ministries to cooperate, even before recent political events in the region,” she said. “There needs to be more complete data before we can say this is reliable and valid.” However, the research underlines the diversity of higher education provision in the region.

Universities are classified according to 11 different dimensions, from the student and faculty profiles to their cultural and religious orientation, and regional and international engagement. The report suggests growing use of English throughout the Middle East and North Africa. In the countries surveyed, 23 per cent of universities were using the language for administration, 36 per cent to teach the humanities and nearly 47 per cent to teach the sciences.

This trend reflects an increasingly international outlook. Some 35 per cent of universities had international offices, although 42 per cent were considered to have no or only a low level of international engagement.

The authors do not claim that their research is yet representative of the region as a whole. In particular, they found it difficult to extract complete data from private institutions, many of which were relatively new. Classifying Higher Educations in the Middle East and North Africa: a Pilot Study is available on the IIE website.   A full report is also available.

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