Why Palestinian universities are looking abroad

Relations with universities abroad provide an essential part of what Palestinian higher education needs, both for its own development, as well as that of local society. The British Council’s Tim Sowula accompanies UK publication Times Higher Education on a trip to sound out Palestinian university leaders.

‘It is impossible to find a positive story in the Middle East’, the veteran Middle-East correspondent who had joined us in the bar in East Jerusalem tells us. For many of the approximately 2.4 million Palestinians living here, the political and economic realities of the situation seem only to produce relentless pessimism.

We entered the West Bank in search of ivory towers, away from the military watch towers and check points that make ordinary life so difficult for Palestinians. There are 49 higher education institutions in the West Bank and Gaza, offering a total of 1,207 programmes. The student population, in 2012-13, was 213,581, with 59 per cent female.

Palestinian higher education has significantly expanded after the 1993 establishment of the Palestinian National Authority (PA), who — at the moment — have control of approximately 40 per cent of the West Bank. With no significant natural resources to rely upon, the PA recognise that if the Palestinians ever do gain full sovereignty, producing talented graduates who can build a functioning knowledge economy is crucial for the viability of a Palestinian state. The university leaders we spoke to carried a huge weight of national responsibility, as well as being responsible for fulfilling the dreams and aspirations of their faculty and students.

The challenges are extensive. The higher education sector, despite its importance, receives a very small budget from the PA. In the past three years, approximately $20 million has been transferred from the national budget to universities. Even if they had the money, it is extremely difficult to procure equipment for university labs. Teaching dominates over research, and universities are unable to recruit foreign talent, because international academics can only get a three-month tourist visa, with no guarantee of renewal. Within the West Bank, universities host little diversity. Restrictions on movement, and a conservative society mean that only The Arab American University Jenin has a campus where students can live. Nearly all students and staff are local. They leave their campuses around 16.00 to be able to get back to their families before dark.

Dr Yousef Najajreh, Dean of Scientific Research at Al-Quds University, explained the obstacles to creating quality research, all broadly connected. Lack of government funding; the restrictions against recruiting talented international staff; and a strictly regulated salary structure. Lastly, Dr Najajreh feared that an ‘anti-research’ attitude was spreading in the Arab world, as early-career academics were ground down by the requirements of extensive teaching and scarcity of chances for international exposure.

Yet the Palestinian university leaders that we met had all benefited from study and work abroad, typically in the UK, Germany and USA. They chose to return home to try and improve the standard of education, and establish more international links based on intellectual merit rather than humanitarian concern. Far from being ivory towers, the institutions we visited played central roles in their local communities. For example, at Palestine Technical University – Kadoorie, in Tulkarm, Dr Robin Abu Ghazaleh spoke proudly of his lab that was trying to use bio-technology to support the local dairy industry. The university was able to help local farmers by producing cheaper, more reliable diagnostic kits for their livestock, and these kits could also be used across the West Bank.

Bethlehem has a Catholic liberal arts university with around 3,000 students, mostly undergraduate. Hanadi Younan, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and her colleagues were all determined to enable their students to be positive and focus on what they were able to achieve, rather than what they were prevented from doing. Establishing greater international links is central to that premise, and Ms Younan had recently visited several universities across the UK to investigate creating exchanges for both students and staff. Bethlehem already hosts two international academics from the US and France, sponsored by their embassies to teach French and English to students.

Birzeit University’s Institute of Women’s Studies has established links with the sociology department at the London Schools of Economics. Thanks to funding from the British Academy, they have also set up a joint project with Warwick University on ‘Reconceptualising Gender: Transnational Perspectives’. Birzeit was in addition taking advantage of the British Council’s ‘HESPAL’ scholarship scheme, a fund set up to support junior Palestinian academics to study in the UK. Since 2012, 69 scholars have gained degrees in the UK, and of the 2014/15 cohort, Birzeit boasted six of the 22 scholars.

It was clear from our visit that gaining quality international experience and being able to bring it back will be vital to the sustainability and growth of the local higher education sector, and consequently Palestinian society. Equally, being able to send talented, ambitious young Palestinians overseas helps spread a message to their hosts that their cities are more than the apex of so many bad news stories that we see told in the international media.

Although we encountered little hope from the people we met of any swift resolution to one of the great challenges of international politics, there was great hope that, through international partnerships, their universities could improve and therefore improve their society with them. Prof Mazin Qumsiyeh of Bethlehem University, and also the founder and director of the Palestine Museum of Natural History at the university, had come back to Bethlehem after a career teaching at Duke and Yale in the US. He was now trying to inspire his students to believe they were capable of fulfilling their dreams, that the difficulties caused by occupation were mental. ‘They have a saying in the US, from the civil rights movement,’ he told me. ‘Free your mind and your ass will follow’.