The state of higher education in the Middle East and North Africa was discussed Thursday, focusing on the lack of representation from American universities in the region. The panel included a visiting Fulbright professor from Algeria, a representative from the World Bank, Cal Poly professors and an engineering student.
Although the agreement with Saudi Arabia’s Jubail University College was mentioned, the forum concerned itself more with the concept of collaborative works between American universities and developing education systems throughout the Arab world.
The panelists universally agreed that the United States was being left behind in partnerships that would create valuable relationships and opportunities for individuals, the university and businesses alike.
“There are untapped reserves of intelligence in the Arab world that are hungry for science and technology; America, unlike Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand is not taking part in the competition for these resources,” said Fouad Bouguetta, a communications professor at the University of Annaba in Algeria.
The forum also stressed that higher education represents the most viable opportunity to create dialogue with a particularly volatile region in an effort to facilitate understanding.
“If we pay more attention to education in the region, it is less likely that the uneducated masses will be manipulated by the very few,” said food science professor Hany Khalil, a native Egyptian and director of the California State University consortium for international development.
“It is the best mechanism, a catalyst to start national dialogue,” said College of Engineering Dean Mohammad Noori.
Noori also noted that, despite unpopular U.S. foreign policies, America is still held in high regard by most of the general public, seen as the “Mecca of research and development.”
David Fretwell, a lead employment and training specialist in Europe and Central Asia for the World Bank, pointed out that the issue was about quality and not quantity.
“In terms of gross enrollment rates, the Arab world is comparable to developed countries, and in most countries there is a higher enrollment for women than men,” he said. “The problem is all the disconnects and cultural roadblocks that have caused the labor market to fall behind in education, meaning there is no outlet for the population’s knowledge.”
Bouguetta and Fretwell were particularly adamant that socialist ideologies and state-sponsored programs have resulted in a lack of entrepreneurship and privatization in the Middle East and North Africa – an attitude that international relationships among universities could help instill.
The panelists also insisted that benefits would go both ways.
Lori Atwater, an engineering student with vast experience in the public and private sector, believes in the idea that small- and medium-sized private enterprise is a key equalizer for teaching. It’s important for students to get real-life experience during their education that would facilitate development in the labor market domestically and in the region, she said.
Atwater is currently drafting a business plan for the Society of Women Engineers that would see “capable students go overseas and work in real-world situations where there is a desperate need for women technicians and women in construction.”
The event was sponsored by International Education and Programs (IEP) and moderated by journalism professor John Soares.
“The idea that you can be isolated, staying in one job and one place for life, is an outdated concept,” said John Battenburg, director of IEP at Cal Poly.
“We’re presented with a new world where levels of multiculturalism and knowledge of multiple languages is the norm, not the exception. That type of experience would be invaluable for our students.”
The panel concluded with each panelist delivering his or her vision for the future of educational collaborations with the Arab world, for Cal Poly and universities nationwide.
Overall, each panelist agreed that the U.S. is in a tenuous position of being left behind in terms of the economy, science and technology if it doesn’t expand its horizons and begin dialogue on an educational level with the Arab world in the Middle East and North Africa.