Originally posted July 2010

American-style universities in the Middle East help students acquire the skills currently needed for expanding the private sector. A graduate of an Arab curriculum will have difficulty entering the private sector in most countries in the region. Globalization has established English as the language of communication, research, writing, and business. Entire fields, from communication, marketing, and economics to the hard sciences are changing at a rate with which Arabic cannot keep pace. An English-based curriculum is needed in all fields of study in the Middle East, as Western methodologies, findings, and overall approach dominate learning and research.[1]

The new American-style universities in the region are a response to the widespread awareness of the need to adapt to prevailing global standards. Such institutions open the eyes of students to international developments, expose them to new methods of thinking, and help them learn to understand and accept others. As one student said after graduating from the American University of Kuwait (AUK), “I come from a traditional conservative family and found myself dealing with so many people from different backgrounds and with teachers from different countries. It changed me for the better and taught me the meaning of accepting differences.”

Institutions dedicated to this path must be student centered in order to evolve, mature, and succeed at achieving their goals. They must dedicate their resources to the profession of teaching and to developing a “complete” student — that is, one intellectually, socially, psychologically, and globally aware. Meeting such a goal may sound simple, but it is actually among the hardest for universities. To be successful, faculty members must feel secure in fulfilling their classroom duties while also focusing on research. It requires that students be challenged and ultimately excel. The university system thus must foster an academic culture responsive to teacher and student needs.

Meaningful interaction between faculty and students can often be complicated at new private universities in the Arab world. These schools sometimes experience sudden changes in administration and shifts in mission that affect what transpires in the classroom. Activities beyond the purview of students as well as those in the classroom are central to a student-centered approach. For some poor countries, such as Yemen, problems in the education system stem from a lack of money and resources. For wealthier states, such as Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the relative newness and underdevelopment of their university systems have hampered the ability to focus on student needs. Some of the other problems they face include weak administration, poor recruiting strategies and practices, heavy teaching loads, too much emphasis on profit, ineffective faculty representation, and instability among staff. Addressing such challenges is basic to the next stage of evolution for Western-style universities in the region.

Challenges for Faculty and Students

Many new universities in the Arab world overburden their faculty. Even in classes with 15 to 20 students, workloads prevent teachers from getting students involved in research and extracurricular activities. The faculty of new American-style universities are often contractually obligated to do administrative work in addition to teaching. They are made to teach as many courses as possible, but do not have the security of tenure; they are also usually asked to sit on an overwhelming number of committees. The average teacher at a Western-style university in the Arab world must prepare for four courses per semester. The teaching load at many US colleges is two courses per semester, while an average of three courses per semester at Arab public universities. Part of the problem is that many universities have not hired research and teaching assistants for faculty. These issues lead to burn out and low morale among faculty. The scant use of tenure among the new American-style universities and the old ones undermines the establishment of a stable faculty. Contractual abuse on the part of university administrations is not uncommon. Instability in the region makes the hiring of instructors from abroad a challenge at times.

Universities should encourage research relevant to the region, including teaching and methods of instruction; applied research in these two areas alone is essential. Instructors must be given the budget, time, and resources to conduct research and attend conferences. Without such support, faculty members are disadvantaged because they cannot compete professionally or keep pace with their counterparts elsewhere. The retention of quality professors and attracting new, promising ones depends heavily on the institutional environment. Generally speaking, making money drives most of the private, American-style universities. There is no separation of ownership, administration, and operation of the university. Faculty have little or no say in governance.

The newly opened universities have essentially become colleges for the privileged. Access to private colleges and universities in general is limited to those with a higher economic status, as profit-based universities have limited scholarship opportunities and do not offer student loans; in some countries, including Bahrain, Kuwait, and the UAE, the state provides some assistance. In most cases, only the rich are able to study at these institutions, creating a social class in itself. Leaving knowledge acquisition entirely to the privileged classes in developing countries risks reducing the spread of knowledge and depriving disadvantaged social groups of its benefits and economic opportunity.[2]

The establishment of scholarships and financial aid to offset the high cost of college education is necessary to promote representation of all social layers of society among students. In addition, more state funding and scholarships can be created through support from corporations and fundraising to offer talented, less fortunate students an opportunity to participate in higher education. Kuwait provides scholarships for students in the new colleges there, but universities need to develop fundraising strategies so that the greater part of society has access to the university system.

University students want a quality education; a large percentage of them take their studies and learning seriously. Regardless, another segment of students, those not as fully committed, expect to earn a university degree with only limited effort. This is a sizable group whose attitude is encouraged by the current culture. They will attempt to use personal contacts to obtain special benefits or consideration; they expect arbitrary enforcement of admission standards to work in their favor and to bargain for grades or benefit from grade inflation. All this only serves to lower university standards and undermine the integrity of the institution. In the process, it creates problems for dedicated faculty, who slowly lose their ability (and perhaps desire) to teach and make a difference. There are cases in which university administrators and board members have interfered in ways that have undermined the very institution they are working to build. Such actions negatively affect the morale of dedicated students. As one highly achieving student said, “I get an A and so does the guy next to me who made no effort whatsoever.”

Integrity, due process, faculty empowerment, and fairness and consistency in decision making must be bulwarks of institutional credibility. My experience at AUK from 2003-2006 proves that such is possible; culture need not stop a university from implementing, encouraging, and enforcing high standards. The result of not doing so is to undermine both the creation of a culture of achievement and a desire to learn in students. In cases where students feel that they have been wronged, there must be a process for appeal.

At AUK from 2003 to 2006, the university had to observe Kuwaiti segregation laws passed a decade ago. Men and women could attend the same school, but they were not allowed to take classes together, sit next to each other in coffee shops, or work together in the library — even if they were relatives. I could not in good faith enforce such a law, which I thought was detrimental to creating a positive learning environment. Although other universities accepted the law, in reality each had difficulty enforcing it. Students did not want to segregate themselves, and their parents did not want such an arrangement either, but Islamist members of Parliament and the University Council continued to press the issue. In the end, we applied segregation in some classes but kept 50% of them co-ed while not enforcing segregation in the University public space, coffee shops, and library. This approach worked, at least during my tenure.

In Kuwait, jobs require men and women to work together; the coffee shops next to every university are public spaces where students meet to study together. Strict gender segregation in universities would create estrangement among students and lead them to seek out space outside the university environment. Creating a student-centered environment means listening to students. This can be done through student government and meeting with them in open, town hall-style meetings where they can air their opinions, ideas, and concerns.

Most degrees in the new American-style institutions are technical, science-related, or business-oriented. Degrees in the arts and humanities tend to be limited to mass communication, education, and languages. Few universities offer degrees in fine arts, history, or the social sciences or have established study abroad programs; the latter is true even among the more established schools, although study abroad is an important part of American higher education. Studying in a foreign country can inspire independence and self-confidence and offers the obvious benefit of seeing the world from a different perspective.

Students at American-style universities face the challenge of learning to think for themselves rather than being told what to think or simply accepting the opinion of a professor. The students from public Arab schools are accustomed to learning passively, through lectures and memorization. They also think that their opinion might be held against them and thus prefer professors who merely lecture to them rather than attempt to liberate their minds. It will require great effort on the part of faculty at American-style institutions to draw these students out and into independent thought. Students need to be made aware that decision-making skills, opinions, and a critical mind are indispensable assets. Although some universities have been able to create pockets of skills and critical thinking among students, there is still a long way to go in laying the groundwork for a real liberal arts experience.[3]

More work needs to be done on developing hybrid student-oriented educational models.[4] The focus should be on adapting the American approach to fit local culture and traditions. This means that research should be focused on business models and problem-solving that address local needs. Universities must continually review their strategies and policies to accommodate more modern approaches and integrate new technologies into education.

To Profit or Not to Profit?

The relation between business, profit, and academics has in some places led to a lowering of standards and hampered the ability of new universities to be student centered. This is not the case at the American University of Beirut (AUB), the American University in Cairo (AUC), The Lebanese-American University (LAU), the American University of Sharjah, and the Qatar Foundation, which are run on a non-profit basis. They are either able to raise sufficient funds (AUC, AUB, LAU) or have secure, government backing (AUS and the Qatar Foundation)

It is not clear that there is a “correct” or definitive financial model, profit or non-profit, for universities in the Arab world. Examining this issue raises a number of questions: What is the proper balance between seeking a return on investment and reinvestment in the university? What about the allocation of funds for services for students, enhancing the quality of education, and growth? Investors, after all, want a return on their contribution or they will not support education.

A possible solution is that licenses for new universities in the Arab world only be offered to non-profit foundations or owners who view maintaining them as a corporate social responsibility. A university must be run with a certain element of altruism in order to earn the respect of the community, which it is supposed to serve; it is also necessary to develop an active alumni community and raise funds. Without such an approach, for-profit institutions will be at a fundraising disadvantage and remain heavily dependent on high tuition for growth. With the commercialization of education — some universities are even listed on the stock market —universities will be forced to lower their standards to attract (wealthy) students. One remedy is to impose restrictions on existing for-profit universities regarding the amount of return and reinvestment, governance, and issues affecting standards. Otherwise, for-profit universities will add to the decline of education in the region.

Vision and Academic Freedom

Institutions must develop a vision to guide them into the future. As the foundation of the institution, a university’s mission — and how it perceives and carries it out — is of great importance. As stakeholders, all members of the university — faculty, staff, students, and governors — must be involved in the process of discussing and finalizing its mission and vision. Town hall meetings and other public gatherings can contribute to the type of university the collective governing body would like to nourish. Fair and effective governance must include faculty and administration voices.

Another major challenge is the issue of academic freedom. Higher education remains highly centralized, with the government controlling curriculums, admissions, and recruitment. Despite the diverse and wealthy cultures of the region, a lack of appreciation or fear of academic exploration and freedom endangers knowledge and its educational benefits. Curtailment of academic freedom extends from banning classroom and library materials to blocking internet sites to limiting student interaction and activities because of government laws, school policies, and student or faculty complaints. Some professors self-censor because they are afraid of offending someone.

When I was President of AUK, a faculty member expressed interest in an excellent textbook. There was, however, one problem: It contained an article by Salman Rushdie. She was afraid that ordering it would cause problems. I told her to purchase the book, but added that “if anything happens I will take full responsibility and will defend your position publicly on the grounds of academic freedom and the importance of students being exposed to all opinions.” We received the book and nothing happened.

In some universities in the region, presidents restrain faculty for fear of a backlash from society or the state. Such an approach harms the students. Censorship by default undermines a student-centered approach to education. It also penalizes students vis-à-vis those in university programs elsewhere. To learn, students need to be exposed to new thoughts and ideas. In addition, faculty who are not citizens of the countries in which they work feel added pressure to be on the safe side. Some are not encouraged to teach all that they know in art or literature or philosophy; instead, they must be accommodating of the social, political, and religious environment. The result is to compromise knowledge.


In the Arab world, the university lags in its ability to lead and provide a model for quality education. Creating and maintaining a student-centered environment requires that these educational institutions dedicate resources to the profession of teaching with the aim of developing students intellectually, socially, psychologically, and educationally. Students must be challenged to excel in order to think critically, learn problem solving, write effectively, express themselves, and become life-long learners. This necessitates a sound university system and a strong academic culture responsive to teaching needs. All of these elements remain a challenge in the Arab world.



[1]1. Shafeeq Ghabra and Margreet Arnold: “Studying the American Way: An Assessment of American-Style Higher Education in Arab Countries,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy (June 2007).


[2]. Arab Human Development Report 2003 (New York: United Nations Development Program, Regional Bureau for Arab States, 2003), p. 39.


[3]. Raja Kamal, “Oil won’t last; invest in Arab education,” Daily Star Egypt, January 8, 2007, p. 1.


[4]. “Independent Universities in the Muslim World: A New Approach,” Hollings Center for International Dialogue, Washington, DC (2005), p. 8, http://0303ffd.netsolhost.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/12-2005_Indepe….


The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.