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In the aftermath of the ‘Arab Spring’: What place for universities?

The recent political turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa has interrupted academic activities in these regions. Many professors and students found themselves at the forefront of protests against the old regimes. With the disintegration of the longstanding systems, the (newly elected, provisional and often contested) governments face the challenge of bringing life back to normal, not least at universities. It is against this backdrop that countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Tunisia and to some extent Yemen have witnessed a variety of developments in their academic communities in recent months.

In Egypt, professors and students organised protest movements in several universities across the country to force the government to fire all university presidents and deans who were appointed in the Mubarak era. As a result, several university presidents and faculty deans were forced to step down, and elections were held at public universities in Cairo, Beni Suef, Benha and South Valley. Student sit-ins and protests have recently been staged at the University of Alexandria, the Mansoura University, the Akhbar Al-Youm Academy, the Modern Sciences and Arts University, the American University in Cairo and other higher education institutions across the country. Amongst the student demands are the removal of fees, and the introduction of books subsidies, free and transparent student union elections, and the assurance of university independence from any military or security interventions.

Meanwhile, in Tunisia, the decision of the Education Ministry to ban students from wearing the niqab at the start of the academic year resulted in massive protests by religious groups who clashed with secularists. In Yemen, students were kept out of classes because of a months-long anti-regime protest movement based just outside the campus of Saana University. In Libya, most of Tripoli University’s 120 000 students boycotted classes during the uprising against Gaddafi. The institution reopened its doors with a new dean in October. In the meantime, Jordan’s cabinet dealt with displaced Jordanian medical and dental students in Yemen and Libya by granting them admission into similar degree programmes in universities at home in Jordan. Finally, in a totally different vein and attesting to its massive resources, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah recently approved the creation of seven new colleges including two institutions focused on medical training.

The process of re-inventing the universities in the aftermath of the ‘Arab Spring’ has only started, and the challenges facing the affected higher education institutions are extremely complex. Support for university cooperation and student exchanges with these regions has recently been promised at the EU level (see the ACA Newsletter – Education Europe, September 2011) and the US Fulbright programme has been resumed in Libya after its interruption during the conflict. Still, it is unclear whether these responses are appropriate or sufficiently resourced to make a difference, in light of the profound problems facing these academic systems. The implications of the ‘Arab Spring’ on the future of academic cooperation across the region remain very unclear.

Ahram Online, Egypt Almasryalyom, Egypt Daily News, Egypt New York Times, Tripoli University Jordan Times, Jordan Arab News, Saudi Arabia