THE MENA Summit: global lessons need local context

Higher education is booming in parts of the world without a long history of university research and teaching – but development must be sustainable

February 8, 2016
UAE fort

Al Jahili fort is an intricate mud and straw structure in central Al Ain, second city of the emirate of Abu Dhabi.

Surrounded by modern buildings, and with a bouncy castle sitting incongruously nearby, the fort looks positively ancient.

In fact it was built in 1891, but by the standards of the United Arab Emirates - home to the boom city of Dubai - that's about as historic as it gets.

Inside is an exhibition of photographs taken by the 20th Century British explorer Wilfred Thesiger, from among the thousands that he took while living a nomadic life in Arabia.

They include shots of the fort itself in 1940, and a sign explains that Thesiger was known as 'Mubarak bin London', Arabic for "Blessed of London".

This British interloper was loved because he came and lived the life of the Bedu people in particular, who he photographed and wrote about in his 1959 book Arabian Sands.

He immersed himself in the local culture; he adapted and blended in. The exhibition even has remnants of his robes and camel bridles - this was not the modus operandi of most British adventurers of the time.

Wilfred Thesiger and Musallim bin Al Kamam, Dubai
Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

A few miles away, on the no-expense-spared campus of United Arab Emirates University, delegates from across the region met last week at the THE Mena Universities Summit.

Topics discussed at the event, which was attended by senior higher education leaders from across the region, included the opportunities presented to young university systems, a call for the revival of liberal arts education in the Arab world, the role of for-profit higher education in developing capacity, and the importance of the academic voice in an era of centralised governance.

Another broad theme was the extent to which the region has looked to developed higher education systems internationally to help build its capacity, both in teaching and research. 

This includes the long established American universities in the region, the branch campuses that have proliferated more recently, the researchers who have been recruited from abroad, the structures and curriculums imported, and more.

So have these contributions - the leadership experience that expatriates have brought, the pedagogic approaches and research expertise injected - been “blessed” ones? It was a question that cropped up in one form or another several times, and ultimately the answer must be 'yes'. 

This is a region that is developing, and seeking to evolve economically in particular, at such a pace that drawing on the expertise of the most established higher education systems makes absolute sense. The local capacity and expertise simply isn't there to do this without external assistance.

But as several speakers made clear, there is always a need for experience to be imported and applied with regard to local context, and as delegates made clear, that has to include an infusion of local culture and ethics for the graft to take hold in a sustainable way.

Among the valuable contributions to be made from outside is inculcating an understanding  - through example as well as direct involvement - that freedom is at the heart of teaching and research.

As one speaker put it, scholarly inquiry is at its most powerful when it is "optimised for nothing".

Focus too hard on pre-professional training, on specific workforce needs, on applied research, and the transition to true knowledge economies in the region will be far harder to achieve. 

This is a part of the world that is in a hurry, but even Dubai wasn't built in a day, and changing an economic, social and academic culture takes time too.

Bringing in systems and people to help it develop is a sensible approach, but it’s also important to follow Thesiger's lead and adapt to the local context.

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