Abdel Moneim Osman
Abdel Moneim Osman is the Director of the UNESCO Regional Bureau for Education for the Arab States and UNESCO Representative to Lebanon and Syria. HE is holder of an MA degree and a PhD degree in Comparative Education from the University of London’s Institute of Education, UK.
He was Inspector of administration and planning of higher education and research policies with the Sudanese Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (1972-1978) and Dean and Professor of the University of Juba, Sudan (1978-1997). He also held consultancies with Khartoum International Institute of Arabic Language (1995), Save the Children Fund (U.K) in Sudan (1996) and UNDP Sudan (1997), and took up sevarl positions at the University of Qatar and the Arab Open University in Kuwait.
In this interview, Abdel Moneim Osman, Director of the UNESCO Regional Bureau of Education in Arab States and Secretary of GUNI Arab States, reflects upon the challenges for higher education and UNESCO’s projects in the region. He also gives his vision on how higher education institutions can contribute to intercultural dialogue and peace building.
“Universities have to create a new conceptualization of social transformation and development”
What are the main challenges for higher education in the Arab states region?
Higher education in the Arab region faces five major challenges. The first one is related to access. Higher education systems, whether public or private, are not able to meet the demand for higher education. The region witnesses a huge expansion at the general education level but this expansion has not been matched by a similar rate of expansion at higher education level. We need to address the question of access but also equity. The Arab region is a large region. You have political diversity, economical, social, geographical and ethnic diversity. Those who are fortunate to live in urban areas have more chances to receive higher education. But those who live in remote areas and those who belong to the female gender are not that fortunate. We have to address these challenges of access and equity.
A second challenge is related to quality. There was this sudden expansion of higher education systems in the Arab countries and these have led to using the same facilities, whether human resources, buildings or labs to admit more students and this has negatively affected quality. Recently there was an intention of instituting in each university and each country a quality assurance setup and from the UNESCO Regional Bureau of Education we are trying to set it up in the Arab region.
The third challenge facing higher education is how to adjust to respond to developmental and social transformation in the Arab countries. Universities to some extent still are “ivory towers”. They have not changed their structure, their content in order to address the needs of social transformation and development. You find a majority of student enrolled in what you call soft sciences. Although they are important, we also need a good number of students in applied sciences. Universities are expected to contribute to social transformation and development through research and public service and this is not happening. There is a need to create a new conceptualization of how universities can relate to the needs of social transformation and development.
The fourth challenge is concerning the governance and management of universities. The universities still use a traditional kind of governance and management structures and mechanisms. We have to accommodate new stakeholders; the university cannot be run by academics themselves or by the governments. We have to open doors for students, civic society, the private sector in order to contribute to making policies and also improving management and governance in universities.
The fifth challenge is cooperation in the Arab region. We witness all over the world a move towards what you call creation of higher education spaces. Europe through the Bologna process has done that. There are 22 Arab countries with more than 400 universities, which need to cooperate because they share a lot: same culture, same language, and maybe same development techniques. If we can create this cooperation and this is one of the areas the regional office of UNESCO for the Arabic states is trying to work in.
What are the main aims of UNESCO’s higher education programme in the Arab Region?
We are trying to help Arab states in the modernization of their higher education systems through helping them to establish a mechanism, an institutional setup for quality assurance. We provide technical advice in policy with regard to improving access and equity. We also promote this idea of an Arab higher education space.
In quality assurance we are working towards helping Arab states to establish what we call a pan-Arab quality assurance setup. We are not concerned about accreditation of higher education because this is the sensitive issue for most of the Arab states, but we’ll be concerned with programme accreditation. We are going to concentrate on five programs to set up a sort of specialized committees and we’ll start by making any institution applying for programme accreditation to apply voluntarily, until they benefit from that.
In addition, we build up capacities of universities through training university officers who are in charge of accreditation, for example. Another area is the promotion of the involvement and the interest of the Arab states in the mutual recognition of degrees and qualifications in higher education.
The last area we are working in is teacher education. There is a huge shortage of teachers in the Arab states. We are hoping to help member states in the Arab region to develop Arab policies in teacher education. We are concerned about improving the qualifications of teachers in different levels of education.
How can higher education institutions contribute to intercultural dialogue and peace building?
The majority of students in higher education are in the age range of 18 to twenty-something and they are very important: they are active, they are supposed to be the leaders in the future so there is a very important contribution that higher education students can make in cultural dialogue or dialogue between nations.
In the Arab region we have cultural, religious and ethnic diversity and in number of countries we find how we can work with higher education institutions in order to promote cultural understanding. You know it is in the constitution of the UNESCO that wars started in the minds of people because of misunderstanding. If you remove the misunderstanding, you make each other understand the other, his fears and hopes and then you create some sort of better understanding. We have a project we started in Lebanon among university students from different religious sects, from different parts of Lebanon, a country which has witnessed a number of conflicts in recent years. We organize a number of activities for those students in order to understand each other through seminars and workshops, and we are now developing some modalities out of our experience in Lebanon which will help us to extend it further.
We are also hoping to improve exchange of students within the region, not only on a short term basis, but we’d like to see for example a group of students move to another country for a semester or a whole year. In addition, we would like to promote exchange within a same country.
We also promote intercultural dialogue through research projects. For instance, we commissioned a group of university professors to produce a book which addresses the cultural aspects of Islam and Christianity, and this publication was very much welcomed in the region. It was a very simple research addressing what those two religions have in common, more than their differences.
So it is through such kind of activities, such kind of research that UNESCO is trying to contribute to cultural dialogue. We hope that we’ll be able to contribute in this respect to make the world a better place for future generations.