From Arab Spring to Academic Blossoming? Transforming Nations after their Liberation

Those nations trying to propel themselves into the global economy face a daunting task. And those emerging from dictatorships, theocracies and bloody revolutions face even greater challenges. Many had been drained of their best minds and most entrepreneurial spirits. Corruption and violence now need to be supplanted by a stable, civil society that can transact business with the rest of the world. This is when the real work of a revolution begins—and gets tested. Universities become both an anachronism of the past and the best catalyst for the future of countries like Libya trying to emerge from lost decades.
While participating in discussions on the future of higher education in Libya, sponsored by the Hollings Center for International Dialogue, I struggled with how to bring about change in an academic system overcrowded, poorly staffed, bureaucratically entrenched, demoralized and lacking in the standards that provide the education and credentials a growing professional class will require to reinvent their nation. Many countries are challenged by the need to build both capacity and quality simultaneously in order to meet the accelerating needs of their society. Should you renovate what already exists, or create new institutions? Innovate from within or from without? Or perhaps some combination of both?

In the U.S., we accelerated postsecondary institution-building in the mid-19th century with a land-grant movement that created flagship universities in each state. In recent years, many states launched an innovative competition among elementary and secondary schools through charter schools. In both cases, governments invested – without micromanaging. In each, we opted for more institutions and new imaginative, adaptive models.

The U.S. has been fortunate not to have a highly centralized ministry of higher education. Instead, it has a glorious and often chaotic mosaic of colleges and universities that emerged from varying sources—highly differentiated and competitive among themselves—with the agility to respond to changing times. America’s founders understood this need to create new universities in revolutionary times: In fact, two founders (Jefferson and Franklin) started schools still thriving today.

Current struggling nations—stymied by the task of creating reputable and effective universities to serve an exploding demand for higher learning—now need to experiment with new institutional models. Trying to reform their few overtaxed and often-paralyzed public universities will be slow, frustrating and inadequate. Libya’s two major universities (Tripoli and Benghazi) already have about 100,000 students each, as a consequence of their free tuition and open access. Countries like Libya are now spending as much to send their best students abroad for higher education as they are to fund their own public institutions. This is an unsustainable model.

Instead, new fledgling institutions could be chartered by the state. These would be empowered to launch new degree programs, charge modest tuition, hire faculty, raise donations, partner internationally, set admissions and academic standards, and create curricula that respond to the dynamic needs of their nation.

These schools must ultimately be free from government interference and dependency. They could be governed by two boards—a formal Board of Trustees (composed of prominent government and business leaders) and a Global Faculty Advisory Board (to provide academic leadership and connectivity to the world community of scholars). The national government would provide their initial charter, facilities, start-up funds, and minimal ongoing operating expenses. These new universities would eventually rely more on other benefactors for future funding, as they establish their reputation and integrity.

These flagship institutions would be expressly not for everyone—modest tuition (augmented by scholarships) coupled with serious admissions standards and enrollment limits would send the aspirational message within the country that it is a privilege, not a right, to attend these uniquely meritocratic schools. This also sends a clear external message to renowned institutions abroad to embrace these start-up schools and engage both in joint students programs and collaborative faculty scholarship.

Cultivating a dedicated, modern and reputable faculty would be the major challenge for these new institutions. Large, optional lectures, the current norm, should be replaced by smaller, more interactive and engaging classes to ensure student learning. Other components of active learning—clinical and field work, original research, and internships—also create resource challenges. An optimal ratio of professor to student will be unachievable without a creative teaching model.

I propose an innovative master-teacher structure, where lead faculty design curricula and quality standards, create online course content and connectivity, and oversee a team of teaching assistants to interact with small groups of students. The emerging network of global digital materials creates an opportunity to overcome past dependency on traditional textbooks and archaic course design. These master faculty could draw from a wide range of open online sources. Online technology also allows for collaboration, without co-location, of students and faculty worldwide—so these new schools would not be isolated, but instead part of a world community.

Two Western features, each potentially controversial, would be key. First is a mix of professional and liberal education. Part of our American secret sauce is our belief in the well-rounded student—that specialized training should be coupled with general education as we prepare the whole student, not only for a first job but for a lifetime of possibilities and responsibilities. The second is English as the medium of instruction. English has become the language of commerce, academe and popular culture worldwide, and, I would argue, should be an important feature of these new schools as well—even as students should be encouraged to learn multiple languages.

Over time, in-country graduate education would help build an ecosystem of talented instructors who could ultimately emerge as their nation’s leading faculty. Initially, though, developing nations face an overwhelming dilemma of too many students, too few faculty and an educational system incapable of creating its next generation of scholars and professionals. The immediate problem would be how to identify dynamic faculty and leverage their talents over the greatest array of bright, motivated students. As new instructors emerge, they become the core of new institutions dedicated to scholarship and personalized learning.

Fostering more schools that are loosely regulated—rather than a monopoly of a few mega-institutions—has proven to be a critical component of the American success story. This is an important lesson to export to nations struggling with their own transformation.

Nations emerging from years of poverty, conflict, and oppression need new institutions and enterprises of all sorts throughout their society. The old ones are simply too mired in insurmountable problems to be repurposed quickly enough. Over time, new institution-building would help reinvent the longstanding universities as well and spur other enterprises to emerge.

Through higher education, post-conflict societies will need early success to create national pride and positive examples, which then stimulates broader reform. Starting small and thinking fresh might be the best means for that success, especially in the precious moments of idealism that follow revolution. No modern country can thrive without a serious educational infrastructure that culminates in high-quality universities. Before cynicism sets in, this is the time to create a few showcase institutions that can serve as viable models for hope and change.

Jay A. Halfond is a former dean now on the faculty at Boston University. As part of his sabbatical, he participated in an international dialogue on the future of higher education in Libya, sponsored by the Hollings Center for International Dialogue and held in Istanbul in March 2014.

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