Will there ever be a Harvard in the Middle East?

Universities in Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo used to be home to the best scholars and would draw students from around the world. The region can regain that status

The gate on Harvard Yard at the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Getty Images via AFP
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Ask the average child in Africa, Asia or South America about where they would like to get their higher education and they would almost certainly say they’d like to graduate from an Ivy league school in the US, or one of the top universities in the UK or Canada. In fact, even after they graduate from these schools, some would make sure that the university they went to is clearly mentioned on the headline of their LinkedIn profile or when they work out at the gym, they would be wearing the university’s merchandise.

Of course, there are high-quality universities in the Middle East and Asia, in countries such as Israel, Singapore and China, but nine times out of 10, western universities still get picked. There are several reasons for that. Some might argue that western universities offer better quality of education, university life, better career opportunities after graduating and a stronger alumni network.

Everyone knows that once upon a time, the Middle East was the envy of the world; it was home to the best scholars, inventors, doctors and engineers. In fact, western students would travel East to study in Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo.

So what happened? How did the Middle East lose the appeal of being the beacon of light for higher education?

There are several theories, one of which could be that throughout the 21st century, the region has been constantly fighting wars and internal conflicts that served as battlegrounds for superpowers to push and pull Middle Eastern states into power politics. This led to the destruction of both hard and soft infrastructure, brain drain of the brightest minds to western countries who offered the dream of having white picket-fenced homes, a yard and a dog in a cosy neighbourhood cul-de-sac.

The Middle East has been on the rise again in the years since, especially with the energy-rich Gulf countries using their revenue to build cities and infrastructure that could conceivably rival the likes of London, Los Angeles and New York. Indeed, the roads and bridges are now second to none, airports are unmatched, malls are as big as the eye can see, and skyscrapers are among the tallest in the world. When it comes to higher education, they are able to host some of the most-renowned education franchises, including Carnegie Mellon University, George Washington University, Sorbonne University, New York University and others.

Again, however, we go back to the first question: where do the students want to study? They will still prefer the international institutions, particularly if they have franchises in the region, rather than studying at local universities. What can and should be done to ensure that in 20 or 30 years from now, the world’s brightest will want to study at the likes of Zayed University, Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University or Sultan Qaboos University?

There are some areas that can be tackled for our local universities to improve their rankings among the world’s educational institutions.

First, they need to allocate a significant outlay for research and development. Indeed, amounts spent on R&D in other parts of the world dwarf what is spent in our region. According to a study by Strategy&, a part of the PricewaterhouseCoopers network, R&D spending, including capital expenditures, is between 0.1 per cent of GDP in Bahrain and 0.9 per cent in the UAE. The average for OECD countries, in comparison, is 2.5 per cent.

Building academic cities is an important step, but the region’s institutions need more investment.

Second, during my time pursuing an undergraduate degree here in the UAE, I always had to show my identification card to enter the campus, which was surrounded by a large wall. I didn’t notice this on campuses in the US, where I received a master’s degree. This may seem irrelevant, but I believe that allowing the campus to be part of the community enables the transfer of ideas, knowledge and opportunities that then fosters a symbiotic relationship between the community and the university.

To paraphrase the late US president Ronald Reagan’s plea to the Soviet Union regarding the Berlin Wall, I would invite all universities to “tear down their walls”.

Third, there needs to be more collaboration between academia and industry.

For example, companies such as Boston Dynamics work in sync with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University collaborates with companies in the Silicon Valley, and the University of Washington has ties to Microsoft, Amazon and other tech companies. We can only create clearer career paths and educational journeys for students if we connect them to the opportunities that they will find when they graduate.

At a recent event, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs, spoke about sending his children to public schools, and said that he would like to see other citizens do the same since a large number of them send their children to private schools. Sheikh Abdullah was making an important statement, as he discussed ways to elevate the standard and quality of public and local education with a view to make them more appealing for the citizens.

Today, we have a succeeded in attracting investors, tourists and workers to the region. The hope is that in the future, people from around the world will be drawn to this part of the world, also to study in its universities and wear their merchandise and flaunt their mascots long after they have graduated.

Published: September 11, 2023, 7:05 AM