Higher Education Reform in the Arab World


The youth-led revolutions that rocked the Arab world earlier this year have refocused attention on the region’s 100 million-strong youth demographic and its critical role in the transformation of existing political, economic, and social structures in the Middle East and North Africa.

Youth under the age of 25 represent an estimated and unprecedented 60 percent of the region’s population, and in many of the region’s countries, approximately 30 percent of the population is between the ages of 15 and 29. They have heightened expectations for themselves and their societies, but are constrained by the economic and political realities in which they live. The current demands of Arab youth for change are rooted in deep frustrations with the existing status quo—not least of which is the failure of the social contract for advancement that should be offered by higher education.

Despite more than a decade of dramatic expansion—in enrollment, female participation, numbers of institutions, and programs—higher education in the Arab world continues to fall far short of the needs of students, employers, and society at large. In most countries, the majority of students are enrolled in institutions that lack key human and physical resources for success and suffer from overcrowding and poor quality. Efforts to address these chronic problems have had only marginal success. High unemployment among university graduates is only one measure of the reality of an educational system that is not producing graduates with the skills needed to succeed in the modern global economy and economies that are not producing opportunities for massive numbers of new entrants.

Higher education has a critical role to play in the national and regional restructuring of Arab economic and political institutions that is currently underway. The long term success or failure of today’s reform initiatives will rest, to a large degree, on the ability of these societies to place higher education where it belongs—as the engine of social and economic progress. The new pressures for political change may provide a unique opportunity to break free from some of the obstacles that have held back meaningful educational changes in the past.

This working group, convened at the 2011 U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Washington, DC, brought together educators, specialists, and public sector officials from the United States and the Middle East to review the current state of higher education in the Arab world and consider the key challenges facing this critical sector of society. How are different actors in the diverse landscape of Arab higher education advancing or impeding the goals of improving educational outcomes? To what degree do regional partnerships and cooperative efforts offer opportunities to overcome local obstacles in specific areas? Finally, where has important progress been made and what policy responses and initiatives should be encouraged to improve the ability of Arab educational institutions to meet the challenges of this transformational period?