Dr. Amr Ezzat Salama, Secretary-General of the Association of Arab Universities, talks to AfricaLive about the role of Universities in North Africa and the Middle East in creating employment and opportunity in the time of the fourth industrial revolution.
AfricaLive: What is the role of the Association of Arab Universities and what’s your strategy to map out the future of higher education in the Arab world?
Dr. Amr Salama: This University is one of the oldest Arab organisations dating back to 1964. It is an independent not for profit organisation started by the Arab League, with more than four hundred member Universities. The role of the association is to help Universities in Arab countries by supporting their research and teaching. We work through a secretariat which is based in Amman Jordan and also have eight other councils and centres. And twenty-five societies, each representing a different specialisation. Each of them features a particular speciality such as the School of Dentistry, School of Engineering, and so forth. Universities that fall under our umbrella are continually making changes to their programmes, to adapt to changing times. We are very engaged with the goings-on in the world. That is why we are part of all the conversations to do with Internationalisation of education and research, curriculum reform, student life, and new teaching approaches. Though we are working hard to keep up with global changes, there is still a gap. Our Universities are still struggling to produce the right calibre of University graduates that the industry needs. Universities in the Arab world have their work cut out for them in this era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
When I assumed my position as the Secretary-General of the Association of Arab Universities, I focused on coming up with a strategic plan. We have mapped it as our strategic plan for the period 2019- 2030, which focuses on collective actions amongst partner institutions. We aim to strengthen higher education research so that we create a more inclusive future for our youth. The strategic plan is in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. There have been comprehensive studies and consultations before coming up with our project. Issues such as; inclusive and equitable quality education, gender equality, women empowerment in education, mitigating climate change, and decent employment opportunities are all in our plans.
Our strategic plan has six goals. The first is the establishment of our institution as a unique platform for Arab higher education institutions to access quality information. Second, we must promote and facilitate the strengthening of partnerships amongst Arab Universities. That will help us carry out joint research while also increasing production capacity. The third goal is to ensure transformational learning in multiple disciplines. Fourth is the promotion and facilitation of knowledge, production and innovation amongst institutions to hatch new ideas. Our fifth goal is to broaden and strengthen the implementation of quality assurance and accreditation systems for cross-regional and international recognition of Arab awarded certifications. The sixth goal is the strengthening of our governance secretariat to enable us realise our vision, expected outcomes, and impact. Each of our goals has several objectives and several projects that can help us reach our goals.
AfricaLive: African higher institutions of learning are very good at creating partnerships with western institutions but not so good at forming intra-African bonds. How do you think you can help promote more intra-African engagements?
Dr. Amr Salama: I acknowledge that the problem exists and it is sad. Though we don’t have as many engagements between Arab and African Universities as we would want, we have interactions quite often. The Association of African Universities is present in Arab countries with an office in Cairo, Egypt. We are also in the process of signing a protocol between the Association of African Universities and the Association of Arab Universities. The agreement will see both institutions carry out more joint projects and have more intense engagements. I just came back from a meeting in Ethiopia for preparing African content qualification framework. Where we are participating while working hand in hand with the African Union, such partnerships will help boost research and qualification standards. Egyptian Universities have also hosted students from Sub-Saharan Africa for a long time. I, therefore, would like to say that cooperation is there but not as much as we would want. The protocol between the associations which will be signed soon will enhance intra-African collaboration.
AfricaLive: Which current trends in the education sector will most affect the future of African education?
Dr. Amr Salama: The digitisation we see and how students have access to information in this age is unprecedented. It will no doubt have a significant effect on the future. Unless institutions of higher learning in our region adopt new technologies, they will be left behind and risk being irrelevant.
AfricaLive: Are you confident that the institutions of higher learning in your region will be able to adapt to the fast-changing global environment?
Dr. Amr Salama: It all depends on how we are going to play our role as educators. To stay relevant, the function of our professors and the rest of the academic staff will have to evolve. We also have to update the tech tools that are available for educators and students to use. If these roles change fast enough, then even our research will get better, and we will be at par with the world.
AfricaLive: The Fourth Industrial Revolution is already threatening to kill many jobs, how can academia drive conversations with the industry to put the right plans into action?
Dr. Amr Salama: Many jobs will indeed vanish, but new ones will also come up. It won’t be a matter of a scarcity of employment but how Universities can train people for the jobs that will come up. Academia must be very close to the industry so that our work benefits society.
AfricaLive: Statistics show that very little original research is coming out of Africa. What is your role as an institution in changing this?
Dr. Amr Salama: We must support innovation and promote it as much as we can. Our member universities, as well as those in Sub-Saharan Africa, are very cognizant of this. You are now seeing many schools set up incubators and encouraging entrepreneurship. That will create an environment which allows graduates to set up a business based on innovation and new ideas. As an institution, we are very serious about transformational learning to prepare graduates not just to seek jobs but create them.
AfricaLive: North American and European institutions have less problems in securing funding. How can the institutions in your region attract more independent financing?
Dr. Amr Salama: Some of our institutions have been able to attract proper funding. The Jordanian qualification framework project that we involved in had support from the European Union. We have to enhance our products to attract more similar partnerships from prominent organisations and people of goodwill.
AfricaLive: How confident are you about the future of education in the region?
Dr. Amr Salama: I am confident, but I acknowledge that there are some challenges. In the Arab world, at the moment, things are difficult politically. The Arab spring has had some severe effects on our economies, but we are recovering. We will achieve our goals despite the many challenges.