Sari Hanafi: Universities in the Arab East: A Crisis of Privatization and Internationalization

Sari Hanafi: Universities in the Arab East: A Crisis of Privatization and Internationalization
Sari Hanafi, American University of Beirut [1]

There are three types of universities in the Arab East. The first type is the public university, which absorbs the overwhelming majority of the students. Being often a national university, it generally uses Arabic language curricula. According to the UN’s Arab Human Development Report (2003), political censorship and repression limits critical approaches, especially in public institutions. The democratization of education in Egypt and in Syria (where free education allows a large proportion of the population access to it), albeit very important in the post-independence era, has led to an increase in the quantity, not the quality of students. In addition to these two major factors which effect education, one should add: lack of proper faculty salary, poor libraries and teaching resources, old curricula, enormous logjams of students, and lack of financial resources for research and poor knowledge of foreign languages. These factors make the level of education in these universities problematic.

The second type of university is older, and some of them historically belonging to missions. As their tuition is very costly, they are private non-profit universities, which attract the upper middle class. These include Saint Josef University, the Lebanese American University (LAU) and American University of Beirut (AUB) in Lebanon, American University in Cairo (AUC). These universities teach exclusively in English or French and are ‘selective universities,’ or universities with a distinct linkage to social class.  These universities attract both (upper) middle class students as well as faculty from the same classes.  Pierre Bourdieu characterizes academia as a fundamentally conservative institution that reproduces and reinforces social class distinctions as a result of internalized faculty outlooks and expectations. This observation would only apply to the exclusive universities in the region (and not to the public university). Some of these universities have mission statements, which clearly state that their aim is to prepare students to serve the people of the region (e.g. AUB, AUC) while other mission statements aim to prepare students for work in the global market (e.g. LAU).

Finally, since the beginning of the 1990s, many countries in the region have opted for the privatization of education. While private non-profit universities in Lebanon date from the 19th century, Jordan opened its first private for-profit university in 1990, followed by Egypt, Syria and the Gulf Region.

These three types of universities do not necessary produce corresponding types of elites and knowledge, but they do indicate particular patterns of classification that will be addressed later.  Boundaries are occasionally blurred between these types of universities; for instance, some public universities have created private programs.

With the transformation of the relationships between Henry Etzkowitz and Loet Leydesdorff’s famous triple helix of university, industry and government, education is now being seen more as a private than a public good. Facing declining budgets and under intensified competition, private and public universities in the Arab East have responded with market solutions, standardization and corporatization. They have instituted joint ventures with private corporations and have been reinventing education as a commodity through distance learning. Mahmood Mamdani argued that whereas privatization (the entry of privately sponsored students) is compatible with a public university where priorities are publicly set, commercialization (financial and administrative autonomy for each faculty to design a market-responsive curriculum) inevitably leads to a situation where the market determines priorities in public universities. The primary objective is to turn  the university into an entrepreneurial organization that can foster a relationship with the productive sectors of the economy. Turning education in the Arab East into a means of industrial development together with the often backward looking gaze of these elitist institutions often frustrates social science scholars. Some of the public universities, like those in Syria, are often much better than the newly opened private universities. Mamdani warns that the commercialization of public universities leads to the subversion of public institutions for private purposes. While commercial universities have often attracted middle and upper middle classes, the quality of the higher education is also problematic, as they produce an élite that cannot compete in the global market.

There is a massive academic boom in higher education in the Arab World. One important pattern characterizing the current boom is a dual process of privatization amidst globalization. According to Vincent Romani, two-thirds (around 70) of the new universities founded in the Arab Middle East since 1993 are private, and more and more (at least 50) of them are branches of Western, mostly American, universities.

While offshore campuses (Qatar Education City, Dubai Campus) can protect the university from their conservative surrounding societies, this results in a tendency for the university to cut its ties with society. The parachuting of these structures does not encourage research output and the social sciences in these institutions are very marginal. For Vincent Romani it is highly unlikely that the influx of new higher education venues can proceed without engaging the conflict between nationalism and the necessary internationalism of the projects. On the level of language, national universities often teach social sciences in Arabic, while exclusive universities use French and/or English. Private universities use what Zughoul called ‘innovative accommodation’ with lecturers and students code-switching between Arabic and English (or French) in order to get their points across. Many researchers, especially in North Africa, have shown that code-switching is not only frequent, but almost instinctive, producing an effortless and seamless flow of language that accommodates the variable levels of student understanding.

These new trends in university development in the Arab region, driven by marketization and privatization, thus impact the language of instruction and elite formation, deserving closer scrutiny.

The UN’s Arab Human Development Report (2003) indicated how little Arab countries translate from, and to, other languages. The damage caused by the lack of translation effort has become quite obvious: mono language teaching (either in Arabic, French, or English) and disconnection from external cultural and scientific advances, has led to the isolation of younger generations of graduates  from international debate. Generally speaking, the language-divide corresponds to an unequal division of labor in which Arabic production is mainly local and of little relevance to international debates. These observations are based on a review of articles submitted to Idafat, the Arab Journal of Sociology and to al-mustaqbal al-arabi since early 2007. 

Although language is a highly symbolic marker of identity, multi lingual scholars have multi-layered identities which opens the door to more expansive research agendas and a commitment not only to local and regional contexts, but international ones too.  According to Sultana, the language of instruction cannot be chosen exclusively on the basis of political-cultural factors, which are related to identity formation on gaining political independence.  There is also a political-economic component, which involves recognizing problems related to the dearth of resources that limits the production of required textbooks, as well as problems determined by the marketing strategies of international publishers from core universities. Production in two languages, especially through translation, allows Arab scholars to be read by both the Arab public and an international audience. Recent experience from the region confirms this. Thus, there are different markets for different languages, making English very important as a teaching tool. However, there is no reason to have a syllabus devoid of references to Arabic publications.  A study of 30 syllabi of social science courses taught in Saint Josef University, LAU and AUB shows that it is extremely rare  to find Arabic references, even as secondary reading.

However, as many interviewees pointed out, compartmentalization of the language of scholars does not mean one cannot find a way of mixing English and Arab curricula and references. One can expect universities that teach in English to be a bridge connecting the local social science to the international arena, but they become globalized institutions only in the sense that they have access to global conventions and resources, but do not necessarily participate in the production of global science. Moreover, these universities contribute to the isolation of students and faculty from their society. George Soros and Joseph Stiglitz have recognized the pitfalls of globalization, specifically that internationalization of the higher education creates and/or magnifies inequalities and inequities that already exist in southern societies. This process has led to the homogenization of curricula. Knight and Yew suggest that the complexities involved in working in the field of internationalization require additional sets of knowledge, attitudes, skills, and understandings about the international, intercultural, and global dimensions of higher education.

In Lebanon, while there is segmentation of society on sectarian-nationalist lines, language lines have come to reinforce this division. Knowing a foreign language becomes a source of integration globally and isolation locally. These elite universities produce hybridity that is geared only towards production and leads to alienation from national society and marginality. Social scientists in Lebanon do not speak with each other because while the Lebanese University (public university) talks to the society, AUB, LAU and Saint Joseph, talk to the international world. The fora for encounters are rare.

In brief, increasing privatization and the commodification of knowledge have created hierarchies among universities and among different language speaking elites, and also compartmentalized scholars by language of interaction.

[1] This paper is part of a forthcoming article “University Systems in the Arab East: Publish Globally and Perish Locally vs. Publish Locally and Perish Globally” Current Sociology. Vol. 59, no 6.

Universities in Crisis, 30/03/10