Middle East & North Africa

Higher Education in the Arab World: Challenges and Post Corona Pandemic Prospects

Amr Ezzat Salama

It is high time to reconsider the future of higher education in the Arab world and worldwide. The global pandemic has revealed a reality that needed to be challenged while working on developing methods to overcome its challenges. Most of these challenges that go back decades are due to the nature of the emergence and development of Arab higher education institutions, and the shape of the Arab national educational systems. We may not be exaggerating to say that higher education (specifically university schooling) is the key to the success of any country economically, socially, scientifically, and even politically. Based on this point of view, the countries that have planned for improving their societies economically, socially, scientifically, and even politically, tended to pay special attention to the quality of education in general with focus on higher education in particular. Accordingly, governments would allocate suitable proportions among states’ budgets to higher education and scientific research. For these reasons, this article approaches the reality of Arab Higher Education through its indicators, exposing its challenges and concluding with a series of recommendations.


Since the beginning of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has opened the door wide to a reconsideration of the future of higher education in the Arab world and across the globe. It has revealed a reality that needs to be faced while working on developing methods to overcome the challenges involved. These challenges go back decades. They are not only related to the conditions imposed by this global epidemic, but many are also due to the nature of the emergence and development of Arab higher education institutions (HEIs) and the shape of the Arab national educational system, which began its current journey in the form of the  institutions of Cairo University (King Fouad) in 1909. It continued to develop through to the end of the mid-twentieth century, by which time there were ten universities. At the start of the 1960s, these institutions increased in number and grew steadily until the early 1990s, when private universities began to spread significantly in the Arab world.

It is no secret to anyone with an interest that higher education – especially at university level - is viewed as one of the main and most important elements for supporting human development in societies. University education provides individuals with the basic skills required for the labour market, as well as providing the necessary training for individuals in all different specialties, whether they are teachers, doctors, nurses, engineers, businessmen, sociologists, or the owners of any other business. All of these trained individuals can consequently develop and improve their analytical capabilities and skills to drive the local economy, support civil society and enhance children's education, as well as increasing their ability to make critical decisions that will ultimately affect the entire community.

It is no exaggeration to say that higher education (specifically university schooling) is the key to any country’s economic, social, scientific and even political success. Based on this point of view, countries that have planned for the economic, social, scientific and even political improvement of their societies have tended to pay special attention to the quality of education in general, with a focus on higher education in particular. Accordingly, governments will allocate suitable amounts of their state budgets to higher education and scientific research. Universities are also given a major role in shaping economic, social and scientific policies by offering multiple scenarios and solutions to deal with emergent political issues, whether national or foreign. Higher education is not really where it should be, and competitiveness will not be achieved unless rational, strong, honest, patriotic and honest university leaders are qualified enough to show the way.

Arab universities have been absent from the global competitive arena when evaluated through international university ranking criteria, specifically with regard to: the quality of their programmes, operations, research products and their subsequent outputs, whether in terms of graduate competencies, research production or the quality and quantity of services catering to their host communities. The latest QS classification for the year 2022 reveals that only eleven Arab universities are among the top 500 universities in the world, as shown in table 1 below:

University Country Arab Ranking World Ranking
King Abdulaziz University Saudi Arabia 1 109
Qatar University Qatar 2 224
King Fahd University Saudi Arabia 3 163
American University of Beirut Lebanon 4 242
United Arab Emirates University United Arab Emirates 5 288
King Saud University Saudi Arabia 6 277
Sultan Qaboos University Oman 7 368
American University of Sharjah United Arab Emirates 8 383
Khalifa University United Arab Emirates 9 183
Umm Al-Qura University Saudi Arabia 10 447
The Reality of Arab Higher Education and its Indicators:

The Human Development Report for 2019 indicated that the population of the 22 Arab countries had reached about 432 million, representing approximately 5.5% of the world's population of around 7.5 billion (United Nations Development Programme, 2019). In the Arab world, there are about 1,000 universities, of which 402 are public and private universities under the umbrella of the Union of Arab Universities. There are dozens of other foreign universities, or branches of those foreign universities, especially in some Arab Gulf countries. More than 13 million male and female students are enrolled at all Arab universities, with about 309,000 faculty members, 75% of whom hold a doctorate degree and 25% a master’s degree.

The ratio of students to faculty members in Arab universities is about 1:36. In Jordanian universities the proportion is 1:28, while it is 1:15 in the United Kingdom and 1:12 in the United States. The average ratio globally is 1:25. According to experts, the ideal ratio seems to be 1:15-20.

With regard to enrolment rates in Arab universities, these are still low in general. The enrolment rate in the Arab world is 30 individuals for every 1,000 citizens. As examples, this ratio is 20 in Egypt, 75 in Kuwait, 50 in Saudi Arabia, 44 in Lebanon, and 48 for every 1,000 citizens in Jordan. In developed countries, this ratio is 40 people for every 1,000 citizens.

The cost of a student in higher education in the Arab world is also still modest compared to developed countries. The average cost per student in Arab countries is about $2,500 per year. For example, the cost per student in Jordan is around $5,166 per year, in Egypt it is $1,500 and in Sudan it is about $600 per year. In contrast, this average cost is higher in the United States, standing at 40,000 Dollars: 34,000 Dollars in public universities and 44,000 Dollars in private universities. It is around 39,000 Dollars in the UK, and 35,000 Dollars in Japan.

The Challenges Facing Arab Higher Education:

Despite the tremendous successes achieved by Arab higher education on a quantitative level, the accomplishments on a qualitative level are still below expectations and ambitions. The reality shows the poor quality of this education stream, with low levels of output compared to developed countries. Looking at the state of the Arab educational system at its two levels - general and higher - you can see that it is today facing a number of huge challenges , as well as a succession of severe crises which have taken place in recent times. At higher education level in particular, during this evolving digital era, HEIs in Arab countries, like those in many other developing countries around the world, are currently facing several challenges. These major challenges can be summarised as follows:

a. Increased demand for higher education: there is a great desire, an intense massing and an overwhelming need to enrol in university education in most Arab countries, something which could be called the phenomenon of “student enrolment overcrowding”. This phenomenon creates other problems and obstacles such as: a rise in dependency rates and a drop in the level of academic graduates, resulting in the creation of an inverted pyramid for the productive segment of citizens in society. The situation is intensified by the knowledge that about 65% of Arab university students are enrolled in the humanities, while about 35% enrol in scientific, technical and technological disciplines. This shows the weak demand for technical education in particular.

b. The decline of basic education outputs has led to a rise in success rates among secondary school graduates. This is due to many reasons, including political and economic factors. As a result, large numbers of school graduates have joined higher education without actually being qualified for it.

c. Lack of human and financial capabilities: most universities suffer from a lack of human and financial capabilities. Most Arab countries are unable to meet their needs in this regard except in limited numbers.

d. Weaknesses in higher education inputs (students, teachers, curricula, administration, educational facilities, etc.).

e. Weaknesses in staff competencies: about 35% of the faculty members in Arab universities are graduates of Western countries, while the others are graduates of the same Arab universities or other institutes. Most of them lack research and technological competencies, are unable to use the English language technically and professionally, and there has been a spread of apathy among them, perhaps due to a lack of competitiveness, which has led some specialists to describe them as “upper secondary school teachers” and to call Arab universities “post-secondary traditional schools”.

f. Student apathy: the main indicators of apathy are tardiness and absence, academic laxity, a lack of seriousness, low interest, irregular study, disorderly behaviour and increased violence and student quarrels.

g. Limited job opportunities: the increasing unemployment rates among young graduates have caused high levels of frustration, raised the level of educational weakness among them, and prompted some of them to obtain higher university degrees (master’s and PhD) to use their spare time in the hope of being exposed to better job opportunities.

h. Dominance of academic education due to the increase in students’ interest in academic education and their reluctance to pursue technical education. The percentage of those enrolled in technical education programmes is no more than 10% of the total number of students enrolled in the higher education sector. This is what is known as the inverted pyramid.

i. Lack of accountability: the concepts of accountability, responsibility, follow-up and transparency are not provided for in the laws and regulations in force at most Arab universities. 

j. Weakness in keeping pace with rapid technological developments: the world today is immersed in the information age, with its three revolutions (digital science, information technology and genetic biology) all massively accelerating.

k. Poor scientific research due to a lack of financial capabilities (only 0.05% of national income is allocated to research). This has resulted in a widespread mood of dissatisfaction because of the absence of incentives and a possible lack of research capabilities.

l. Highly centralised administration with governmental policies that prevent universities from being independent. Universities are thus unable to implement their own plans and take steps to enhance their distinguishing qualities and individuality.

m. Lack of equity and justice in academic opportunities: there is unfair distribution of academic opportunities due to students in diverse circumstances being subject to unified standards. The swelling of student numbers beyond the institutions’ ability to absorb them and the exclusion of a segment of students whose grades fall below the required scores has also led to unjust academic opportunities.

n. Arab Brain Drain (migration of Arab scientists): this is perhaps a foreseeable result of the above challenges, as there has been a major exodus of those responsible for implementing Arab higher education, namely professors and scholars. Reports suggest that tens of thousands of them leave for the United States and Europe every year. In addition, about 50% of Arab graduate students abroad have no intention of returning to their countries.

o. Low quality of higher education: the above challenges have led to the absence of any guarantee of the high quality of Arab higher education and the deterioration of its outputs. Consequently the outputs of the educational system in Arab universities are incompatible with the needs and requirements of the labour market. There is a mismatch with development priorities in their broadest sense, as indicated by several comparative studies. This is due to the fact that Arab higher education is typically a traditional form of education, based on lecturing and memorising information, in a way that is more like an upward continuation of school education in terms of style, method and curriculum.

The qualitative challenge faced by Arab higher education is more complex than the challenges of academic opportunities. This complexity is multi-dimensional and related to funding, scientific research, institutional governance, educational technology, educational culture, international university rankings and social responsibility. The elements related to the qualitative challenge faced by Arab higher education can be summarised as follows:

  •   Educational technology: the weakness of the technical structure and the scarcity of its provision to faculty members and students inside universities and their own locations prevents flexible access to knowledge, especially under emergency circumstances.
  •   There is a lack of accountability in the educational process at the level of coaching, study plans and educational practices.
  •   The lack of strategic and continuous evaluation of institutions’ performance has hindered the achievement of measurable indicators.
  •   Study plans have not kept pace with knowledge changes in academic disciplines, especially in humanities and educational programmes that lack genuine updates.

Given the painful reality of Arab HEIs, the fact that they are not treated as a priority national issue in most Arab countries, and in spite of the positive intentions and serious determination to reform this sector, it is necessary to make the next decade the decade of Arab higher education reform and development, through a number of procedures and policies that will need to keep pace with change, including:

a. Restructuring the basic education system in the Arab world so that classification will be scaled according to academic stages built on the quality of students’ skills, talents and abilities.

b. Granting universities sufficient financial and administrative independence, as is enjoyed by universities in the developed world. Setting out the requirements for academic freedom in these universities is an essential need. There is also a requirement to change the pattern of the relationship between governments and HEIs from a state–controlled system to a supervisory model, in order that they may be subject to accountability and good governance processes.

c. Increasing internal funding for HEIs and centres of scientific research and innovation.

d. Strengthening national crisis management centres and educational institutions to enable them to face current and future challenges such as epidemics, natural disasters, wars and any other unusual circumstances.

e. Enabling university leaders to build their capacity with the required skills and knowledge, especially in the fields of management, finance, psychology and information technology. Special training and development programmes need to be implemented.

f. Adopting digital and e-learning approaches by integrating them into the learning and teaching process.

g. Establishing virtual universities in the Arab world to provide real and serious educational opportunities for traditional and non-traditional segments of students who need flexibility in terms of time and admission criteria.

h. Developing the e-learning environment in terms of technology, preparation of human cadres, motivation and customised training for both professors and students. There should be reinforcement of the online education and interaction culture.

i. Establishing special centres to enhance and develop the electronic content of study plans.

j. Creating new disciplines that are compatible with technological developments and market needs in order to provide future jobs for the coming years. These new occupations will be in great demand, including, but not limited to, artificial intelligence, cyber security, robotics, systems and data analysis, online tutors, medical engineers, geneticists and others.

k. Restructuring the entire higher education system in the Arab region to facilitate the movement of students and researchers between national, regional and international universities. It is necessary to support cooperation and joint scientific research, as well as adopting unified systems to measure and assess skills and educational accomplishments.

l. Higher education administrations in the Arab world need to adopt the higher education globalisation project and enact permanent governing legislation to guarantee the success of the project.

m. Reviewing all the study programmes catered for by educational institutions with a view to modernisation. These programmes should ensure that graduates acquire appropriate skills which are attuned with changing technology and the information revolution.

n. Linking scientific promotions of faculty members to which the results of scientific research and innovation are linked with scientific publishing and the adequacy of addressing needs of society.

o. Promoting joint programmes that ensure the hassle-free flow of knowledge to local educational institutions and research and innovation centres.

p. Generating multidisciplinary study programmes in HEIs.

q. Promoting continuous higher education and keeping it updated to improve the quality of professional and technical knowledge and skills and produce new skills related to economic and social growth and the rapid changes in labour market needs.

r. Supporting vocational and technical education through increasingly specialised programmes in order to acquire skills that are vital to the achievement of sustainable development.

s. Adopting educational policies that guarantee the link and harmony between theoretical, applied, professional and technical education paths in order to provide opportunities for the transition between these paths according to controlled arrangements.

t. Developing an Arab framework which is similar to the one in the European Union to address the qualifications issue, in accordance with the best practices and international standards in this field. The Arab qualifications system is the primary tool for raising the level and quality of education and training. The development of a comprehensive Arab system for qualifications would lead to the integration of all types of education and training as part of a unified and transparent framework in line with the requirements of the labour market. This will contribute to achieving a number of goals, including enhancing trust and credibility in Arab qualifications and achieving a healthy comparison and alignment between Arab and international qualifications. It will also enhance the competitiveness of Arab cadres and provide them with broader and greater opportunities in the global labour market. It will help to standardise and upgrade education and training standards and increase compatibility in educational and training systems by establishing unified, transparent and neutral standards for credentials, as well as promoting the recognition of all categories of certificates. These steps will help facilitate special procedures for the recognition and equivalence of university degrees and encourage the transfer of students between Arab and international public universities and HEIs to complete their studies and also to work in these countries.

u. Establishing an integrated digital platform for vocational education that will serve as an important and modern tool for disseminating science and knowledge and contribute to achieving the sustainable development goals related to quality education. There should be adoption of up-to-date standards for quality control and governance of digital education and an exploration of the best implementation mechanisms for their inclusion in the general platform.


Arab higher education indicators today suggest that there is more work to be done with regard to the future of higher education, in terms of keeping pace with global knowledge contexts and their changes, while paying sufficient attention to expenditure and the modernisation of regulations and legislation, teaching plans and the development of current and future programmes.

Universities are invited to galvanise their partnership with the private sector and scientific research support funding in order to offer incentives to serious researchers and encourage students to join these research projects.

The most important factor today is to provide graduates with practical skills that help them to educate themselves and consider the extent of the challenges faced in their environment and society. They are urged to take part in providing solutions to the problems and to contribute to the development of their society. It is highly likely that the Arab student community, along with Arab student councils and youth organisations, will need further networking through youth work institutions and international unions. The policies governing Arab higher education need to develop and modernise the legislative system, with an innovative vision that will keep pace with global change in the future, especially in the fields of educational opportunities and justice with regard to the transfer of knowledge to all in equal conditions.


United Nations Development Programme [UNDP], (2019). Human Development Report 2019. Beyond income, beyond averages, beyond today: Inequalities in human development in the 21st century. UNDP. https://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/hdr2019.pdf


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