“Italy: a model to be followed”

29 March 2011

 “Italy and the Arab countries have a long common history and both parties can benefit a great deal from cooperation”. AlmaLaurea is moving in this direction. "A useful tool for addressing the challenge of updating and standardizing the academic of the Arab world. To explain it is the Lebanese Antoine Zahlan, professor of physics and international science policy consultant in the International Conference "Human capital and employment in the European and Mediterranean area", held on 10 and 11 March in Bologna, and jointly organized by AlmaLaurea and by AlmaMater.“It would be a good thing if AlmaLaurea could get better understood in the Arab countries and if it inspires cooperation between Arab universities.

How do you rate the higher education system of the Arab countries?
“The higher education system of the Arab countries today is extensive in its scale but it pays more attention to student enrollment than to the quality of education. There are two areas which are generally adequate. These are in engineering and medical sciences. Professors and practitioners in these disciplines were able to convince their governments that it is stupid to have unqualified doctors and engineers; as these would kill their patients and build building that collapse! So medical and engineering schools managed to maintain standards. There is a tremendous social pressure in the region to secure university education. However, governments (aside from GCC governments) do not provide sufficient funds to invest in higher education. Thus expensive disciplines like the sciences, engineering and medicine are unable to expand their enrolment fast enough. As a result many students are forced to study languages and social science where standards are often poor because classes are large and the quality of education is often poor. Yet because of high population growth the Arab world has a large proportion of the population of school age - elementary, secondary and university. This means there is a great demand for teachers with specialization in the humanities. Furthermore, a good command of the mother tongue and of a foreign language are of great importance in the modern world”.

What do you think of the migration of graduates between the two shores of the Mediterranean?
“There are of course many types of migration. Large numbers (probably more than 150,000) of Arab students enroll annually in OECD universities. Most of these are post graduate students. There is also a large outflow of university graduates as emigrants to OECD countries. The EU receives a large share of both students who continue their studies and of emigrants. Students who study languages and humanities are not sought by employers in Europe; while large numbers of graduates in medicine emigrate to Europe from the Maghreb and there is demand for engineering graduates. Arab universities graduate about one hundred thousand engineers annually and since Arab governments give turn key contracts to international foreign companies – with no restrictions on the employment of national engineering staff and workers – Arab governments tend to export jobs. Arab engineers have to find a job elsewhere. The migration from the Arab world to Europe can be easily be reduced in two ways, the first is to help the Arab countries to adopt European labor laws so that they learn to require that foreign companies employ Arab professionals and workers. There are lot of jobs in Arab countries and in fact we import 30 million expatriates and have 30 million unemployed. So we just have to give priority to locals as it is done in Europe and elsewhere. The second activity that Arab governments should embark on is to upgrade the skills of their workers. Labor productivity is relatively low but can be increased through training. Inadequate attention is given to both employment and training”.

What do you think of AlmaLaurea? Do you think its model can be extended to the southern shore of the Mediterranean too?
“The Bologna Process is not happening in a vacuum. The European countries have undertaken a vast range of activities which facilitate the process. Concern for statistical data, quality of education, freedom of association, financial support, all facilitate the efforts needed to make the Bologna Process a success. Freedom of association is of central importance to the formation of scientific societies. These societies are of crucial importance to the formation of an independent intellectual infrastructure to enable higher education. European labor laws and policies are also critical to the success of the process: it makes it possible for graduates to find jobs. The patient and systematic efforts of Europeans to develop cooperation within the EU attracts much attention in the arab world. People working together and integrating their economy is admirable. It would be good thing if AlmaLaurea could get better understood in the arab countries and if it inspires cooperation between arab universities”.

How AlmaLaurea could improve the cooperation between arab universities?
“Needless to say, there should be many opportunities for the EU and the Arab countries to cooperate collectively and singly. Italy and the Arab countries have a long history together and both parties can benefit a great deal from cooperation. Italy could pioneer new experiments in cooperation with the Arab countries and serve as a model for the rest of the community. It is always easier to start on a small scale. It was a pleasure to visit Italy and to participate in the AlmaLaurea conference I was glad to see that there was a large Arab contingent from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt attending the conference. I also learnt that other countries had already undertaken studies in collaboration with the program. Thus the first steps have been taken; the challenge is to accelerate the process of cooperation. Upgrading and standardizing Arab universities pauses many challenges. Parachuting foreign universities in the Arab countries is no substitute for devoted effort to upgrade the 400 universities in existence”.

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