Branching Out


American-Style Education Being Offered in Arab World

Arab popular support for U.S. foreign policy may be at an all-time low, but the popularity of American-style higher education in parts of the Middle East is at an all-time high—that’s according to Shafeeq Ghabra, former president of the American University of Kuwait and currently head of the Jusoor Arabiya Leadership and Consultancy Co. in Kuwait.

In June, Ghabra, with the assistance of Margreet Arnold, released an analysis of the American-style institutions of higher education being set up in the Arab world, looking at successes and challenges, and making recommendations for improvements.

Although Ghabra awarded a few of these hybrid institutions high grades, he said many are still struggling to find their footing, and he argues for renewed efforts in educational reform in the Arab world.

The Ghabra study found that 13 Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa have set up institutions of higher learning in the last two decades that look to Western models while building on Arab academic traditions, which date back to the Islamic renaissance 11 centuries ago.

“Arab parents and students are more eager than ever to seek out American-style university education, which is widely believed to open doors to a successful, productive, and prosperous future,” the Ghabra team wrote in the report, which was released through the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Washington think tank founded in 1985 by Martin Indyk, a U.S. diplomat who served as ambassador to Israel.

According to Ghabra, higher learning in Arab universities is too often based on attending lectures and memorizing facts, while Western models emphasize “thinking critically and articulating opinions.”

He also cited the cultural climate in the United States as a reason for the popularity of American-style universities in the Arab world. With the U.S. government placing much tighter restrictions on student visas since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, individuals from the Middle East often go through lengthy, onerous security clearances by the Department of Homeland Security, Ghabra explained, and once here, visitors from Arab countries may encounter prejudice or other cultural barriers—all of which has led Arab parents and students to look closer to home for higher education opportunities.

Western-influenced academic institutions throughout the Middle East vary, ranging from local schools that conduct classes in English, to accredited branches of Western colleges, to all-out American-style institutions of higher learning. Three schools from the Washington area are part of this burgeoning international movement: Virginia Commonwealth Univer-sity in Richmond, Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and George Mason Univer-sity in Fairfax, Va.

VCU’s Qatar Story “I had just been appointed dean in 1996 and was approached by the Qatar Foundation chaired by Her Highness Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned,” recalled Rick Toscan, vice provost for international affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and dean for its School of the Arts.

Al-Missned had seen the university listed as a top arts college in U.S. News & World Report’s school rankings, and she decided to open a design school in her country to develop a graphic arts industry in Qatar—providing women with an employment boost by initially creating single-sex classes and later opening the program to men.

VCU in Qatar is part of a university cluster established by the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development to bring superlative education to Qatar. Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned, the second of the Qatari emir’s three wives, was the driving force behind the foundation and “Education City,” a massive complex that houses educational facilities from school age to research level and features branch campuses belonging to some of the world’s leading universities.

According to VCU’s Toscan, Al-Missned had looked throughout the world for models, settling on the British public school system as an ideal education template for children through grade 12 and the university system in the United States as an ideal model for higher learning.

The Qatar Foundation invited a group of universities to the country to set up programs in areas where each excelled. Thus, VCU was invited to create a graphic design program in Qatar, Cornell to set up a medical school, Texas A&M to offer engineering degrees, Georgetown University to bring in international and foreign service studies, and Carnegie Mellon University to establish degree programs in business administration and computer science. Qatar provided support for these efforts, Toscan noted, with Texas A&M’s engineering program, for example, endowed by the emir to the tune of .8 billion.

By 1998, VCU had a campus in Doha and was offering single-sex classes for women, with a fully accredited branch campus established in 2002, and co-ed classes initiated this fall. “It’s the same as any branch campus in the United States,” Toscan said. “The only adjustment we make is that we take into account the history of Islamic art and encourage students to incorporate it as they wish.”

Graphic design is a new discipline in Qatar, and Toscan explained that one of the program goals set out by her highness was to create a contemporary graphic arts industry in the country by working with the government and private sector to prepare students, particularly women, for employment in the field. Students go through a four-year program to earn a bachelor of fine arts degree based on a rigorous studio model in which design students participate in both informal critiques and formal jury presentations, discussing and defending their design decisions before their peers, instructors and outside evaluators.

“There was no contemporary Arabic word for design, so we adopted an ancient Arabic word, ‘tasmeem,’ and used it,” said Toscan, who noted that there are now 200 students and 35 faculty members in the VCU branch, and “we have high employment rates for our graphic design graduates.”

Georgetown in Qatar Since 2005, Georgetown University has offered a bachelor of science degree in foreign service at its Qatar campus, with all students majoring in international politics. Last year’s entering freshman class included students from Qatar, Algeria, Canada, Egypt, India, Iran, Lebanon, Mauritania, Poland, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria and the United States. Classes are coeducational.

According to Andrea S. Fereshteh, the university’s assistant director of communications, the collaboration began when Robert Gallucci, the dean of Georgetown’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, was approached by former U.S. Ambassador to Qatar Patrick Theros about extending the school to the Middle East. Gallucci then traveled to Doha in 2003 to meet with Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned, and the school became a reality in 2005.

Students receive the same education as they would in the United States, administrators emphasize. According to Gallucci, “We have a profound stake in maintaining the quality of our identity and education in the school in Doha.”

Georgetown says the Qatari classes en-courage students to think for themselves and deal with diverse viewpoints, following an interdisciplinary liberal arts curriculum that focuses on international affairs, but covers a wide range of disciplines including government, history, economics, philosophy, theology and literature.

George Mason in the UAE In the fall of 2006, George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., opened a temporary campus in Ras Al Khaimah (RAK) in the United Arab Emirates with about 200 students (a permanent campus is in the works). The brand new university was established under the patronage of the Crown Prince of Ras Al Khaimah Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi.

Located an hour north of Dubai, the campus currently offers three bachelor of science degrees that feature a premed program in biology, business administration studies, electronics and communications engineering, as well as English language studies. Funding has been provided by the Ras Al Khaimah Human Development Foundation, through the RAK government, and a private company called the ETA Ascon Group.

Goals for the business administration program reflect Western academic values and include an “acceptance of diversity” and “the ability to think critically,” according to program information. Similarly, goals for the premed biology program stress developing an “understanding of the scientific method,” including experimental design, and the ability to be “a scientifically literate citizen.”

In addition, courses taken at the Ras Al Khaimah campus can transfer to other educational institutions in the same way that courses taken at George Mason University transfer throughout the United States.

Prevalence of Western Branches Branches of Western universities and colleges set up in Arab countries “carry the policies and procedures and admission requirements of the mother institution … and provide an excellent opportunity for students to receive high-quality American-style education locally,” Ghabra’s report observed.

But Ghabra cautioned that these branches are not typical because many institutions of higher learning in the Arab world do not fully implement the American model. According to Ghabra, only three independent universities in the Arab world can truly be considered examples of American-style universities: the American University of Beirut, the Lebanese American University, and the American University in Cairo, with the American University of Sharjah in the UAE, which was recently accredited, on the cusp of joining this group.

Ghabra said that common problems among other Western-style institutions include little decision-making power delegated to faculty members, with the decision process operating top down, teaching workloads that don’t allow time for academic research, as well as institutional philosophies that are not student-centered.

In addition, local institutions that only have a loose affiliation with a Western university may be subject to government “interference,” Ghabra argued, and their academic offerings may be limited, typically tilted “in favor of technical education,” with little room for liberal arts courses or degrees in subjects such as art, history, sociology or psychology.

More broadly, Ghabra is concerned about the curtailment of academic freedom at many such institutions, which can include banning certain classroom and library materials and Internet sites, limiting student interactions with each other, and barring too many student activities.

“Students are not taught to think for themselves” in many schools that describe themselves as based on a Western model, Ghabra charged, and some students may arrive at these universities through earlier schooling that focused on lectures, memorization and “an authoritarian style” of education.

Recommendations Ghabra recommends specific reforms—first among them is for universities in the Arab world to accept a role as agents of change and foster critical and independent thinking in students. “Too many Arab universities teach their students what to think, not how to think,” he said.

Second, he calls for “an Arab or regional accreditation body” to monitor standards. And third, he advises that these academic institutions not be set off or isolated from their surrounding communities, but integrated into the local culture, traditions and laws.

Ghabra also supports including liberal arts studies in all programs, establishing good governance policies that empower faculty, encouraging faculty research, and continuing collaborations with universities in the Western world.

About the Author

Carolyn Cosmos is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.