An article of Wagdy Sawahel for University World News of 13 January 2017 Issue No:188 dwelt on the hot subject of Research in North African universities, particularly of Egypt.
We reproduce the said article that confirms the need for some political decision in favour of Research in the present universities by facilitating funding, and supporting governance through institutional transparency and academic freedom so as to possibly improve on the current movement towards research.
Universities in North Africa are starting to join the research universities movement, recognising its potential in fostering innovation, promoting entrepreneurship and developing a sustainable knowledge economy, but they still face significant challenges.
“Research universities, which are mainly responsible for offering research-oriented programmes in an academic setting, are emerging in North Africa,” Samir Khalaf Abd-El-Aal, research professor at the National Research Centre in Cairo, told University World News. “However, [this] is in its early stages.”
With more than 800 universities in the Arab world, research universities constitute a small percentage of the higher education sector – a normal feature, even in developed countries, Abd-El-Aal said.
According to a 2013 report entitled Advancing the National and Global Knowledge Economy: The role of research universities in developing countries research universities constitute about 5%, 25% and 3% of the total number of universities in the United States, United Kingdom and China respectively. In many smaller developing countries there is often only one research university, while many countries have none.
Echoing Abd-El-Aal’s views, professor of biophysics at Helmy Institute of Medical Sciences at the Zewail City of Science and Technology in Egypt, Sameh Ali told University World News: “If we strictly adhere to the [definitions of] established characteristics of a modern research university, very few universities may qualify as research-oriented universities in the Arab World.”
Three of North Africa’s universities are included in the top 15 African universities ranking in terms of their research influence, namely, the University of Marrakech Cadi Ayyad, the University of Hassan II Casablanca in Morocco and Suez Canal University in Egypt.
Universities in Egypt and Morocco were also included in the 2016 Performance Ranking of Scientific Papers for World Universities which classifies universities based on their research productivity.
Recently, significant efforts have been made to establish research universities in the Arab Region, including Zewail City of Science and Technology (ZCST) in Egypt, said Ali.
Also, the Nile University positions itself as “Egypt’s Research University” focusing on three major pillars including excellence in education, relevant applied research, and innovation and entrepreneurship, as indicated in a 2015 report entitled A Model of a Research and Entrepreneurial University for Developing Nations: The case of Nile University.
According to Ali, the relatively low number of Arab research universities is due to economic problems, lack of sustainable funding, political interference, lack of cultural tolerance and corruption.
He said even the promising universities with potential research impact that enjoy strong governmental support suffer huge challenges in terms of sustained funding, logistical support and infrastructure.
According to Professor Said Saddiki who is based at Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University in Morocco, one of the main characteristics of Arab universities is that most of them are teaching universities and do not give priority to research.
Saddiki said the scarcity of financial resources combined with a high student:faculty ratio, heavy teaching burdens, and the absence of long-term strategies for research development, contribute towards delaying the development of research-intensive universities.
Several studies have highlighted the problems facing Arab universities in their quest to undertake high quality scientific research.
According to higher education expert Allam Mohammed Hamdan who authored a study entitled The Road Towards World-Class Research Universities: A comprehensive study of Arab universities, a study of 19 Arab countries showed that the Arab universities “do not meet any of the pillars of research universities, namely, governance, finance and concentration of talent”.
Furthermore, a 2016 report entitled The Crisis of Research and Global Recognition in Arab Universities identifies lack of research infrastructure and political instability as factors responsible for falling standards in research and the lack of global scientific recognition of Arab universities.
Suggesting how things might be improved, Saddiki said there was an interdependent relationship between research universities and economic development.
“Whereas the higher education institutions, especially research universities, play a central role in the development of a knowledge-based economy, the creation of research universities, or world-class universities, requires a certain level of economic development,” he said.
No magic formula
“There is no magic formula to establish research universities,” said Saddiki. “However, there is a set of necessary factors that must converge to draw up a roadmap for setting up research universities in the Arab World, including a long-term and ambitious strategy, inspiring academic leadership, big research budgets, and a major contribution by the public sectors.”
Hilmi Salem, research professor and higher education expert, told University World News that leading Arab universities with strong research and postgraduate training should join forces to form an Arab research universities network in order to build Arab research excellence.
Salem suggested that the proposed network should follow in the footsteps and share the aims of other research university consortiums around the world such as the African Research Universities Alliance or ARUA, the League of European Research Universities, the International Alliance of Research Universities and the Group of Eight in Australia.
The Arab research universities network should cooperate with like-minded organisations worldwide to stress the importance of universities for research and innovation along with providing opportunities to students and staff and promoting joint projects at various levels between member universities, Salem said.
For Hamdan, a key factor was political support.
“There is a need for a political decision intended to guide the current universities to go down the road towards research universities by facilitating funding, and supporting governance and institutional transparency as well as granting enough academic freedom,” he said.