The call for Arab states to pool their efforts and expertise in STEM fields is one Mohamed Mrayati, senior advisor on science and technology for sustainable development at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) echoes. “Some research fields are regional by their nature – examples include water, environment, health, and space,” he argues.
Last month, 22 Arab states, accounting for more than 500 universities among them, signed off on a regional strategy for science, technology, and innovation (STI).
The STI aims to boost education and research in STEM fields by reforming and upgrading universities, improving science education, facilitating international and regional cooperation, boosting scientific research capacity, and increasing financial support for research and development.
In so doing, the STI aims to tackle a number of persistent challenges in Arabian higher education, including reversing a so-called “brain drain” from the region. Dr Sultan Abu-Orabi, secretary general of the Association of Arab Universities (AARU), frames the problem this way:
“The Arab world… faces a host of hurdles when it comes to higher education and scientific research including a lack of clear focus in research priorities and strategies, insufficient time and funding to meet research goals, low awareness of the importance and impact of good scientific research, inadequate networking opportunities and databases, limited international collaborative efforts and brain drain.”
The strategy is a long-planned regional response to such issues and, more broadly, the need to better realise the potential of STEM fields for economic development. It was approved at the 14th Congress of Ministers of Higher Education and Scientific Research in the Arab World, held in Saudi Arabia in March 2014.
It encourages Arab States to boost financial assistance for research and development from the current 0.3% of GDP to 3%, with 30-40% of the funding increment coming from the private sector.
The strategy places the focus on “national and pan-Arab higher education and research initiatives in about 14 priority areas,” including agriculture, biotechnology, energy, environment, nanotechnology, space, and information technology. It will be supported by a new online platform for Arab science and technology featuring:
- a database of technological centres and universities;
- a portal for research;
- a directory of scientists, educationists; technologists, and policy-makers;
- science and technology indicators;
- development and innovation activities and projects;
- information on conferences, symposiums and workshops in the Arab region.
Tackling some long-standing issues
As we noted earlier, the STI is squarely aimed at a number of persistent challenges in higher education and research in the region. Chief among those is a concern that research in Arab institutions and research centres is not sufficiently serving the needs of either industry or society.
In a recent post on the science and development website SciDev.net, Moza Al-Rabban, general-director at the Arab Scientific Community Organization (ARSCO), notes that while a staggering 30,000 research papers by Arab research centres are published annually, and 270,000 papers since 1993, most of these don’t “have any impact on the development of Arab countries or the well-being of their people.”
This disconnect between research and society (and the economy) is cited as a factor in high levels of unemployment in Morocco and Egypt. Students, according to Mahmoud Nasruddin, head of the Centre for Middle-Eastern Strategic Studies (CESMO), are chiefly concerned with obtaining a degree to increase their employability. He adds, “If scientific research is not linked with development through applicable strategies and identified research priorities, there can be no expected impact, whatever the budget increase.”
Dr Abdalla Alnajjar, chair of the Arab Science and Technology Foundation (ASTF), believes governments are crucial in the pursuit of private-public collaboration. Researchers are motivated to apply their full innovation and creativity skills if public research centres pay their staff a good rate for private sector work. However, Arab governments frequently impose additional taxes on publicly funded research centres that contribute services to the private sector, which can impede collaboration. Mr Alnajjar calls for the delivery of “incentives for researchers who provide services to the private sector and a change in the admission process for graduate students so that it becomes more controlled and takes into account society’s needs by setting clear priorities for the research they conduct.”
The broader context of institutional collaboration in the region
The approval of the STI was accompanied, also in March, by proposals for increased collaboration and coordination among institutions of higher learning across the same 22 Arab states. Brought forward at the recent General Conference of the Association of Arab Universities (AARU) in Amman, Jordan, the unified governance proposals emphasise a clearer understanding of the responsibilities and roles of stakeholders in university governance reform in the context of global, national, and regional challenges.
The discussions in Amman suggest a broader interest in collaboration among Arab institutions, both for the sake of improved quality and efficiency and to improve the standing of Arab institutions in world university rankings. Hilmi Salem, a higher education consultant, believes the strategy will “help Arab universities to operate efficiently and be more responsive to the needs of young people, and become sources of knowledge and innovation.”
Speaking to University World News, Martin Rose, country director for the British Council in Morocco, says, “The agenda on university governance reform should include looking at greater autonomy and its benefits, developing university brands and competitive marketing to employers and students, and much greater calibration to the external environment in all its manifestations.” Mr Rose highlights as well the need to establish alternate sources of funding for Arab higher education institutions, “without which there is no hope of providing quality higher education to a fast-growing universe of young people leaving school and looking for higher education and jobs.”