Conference examines future of Gulf Higher Education

11 April, 2014

The shape of higher education in 2020 was the theme for a wide-ranging series of debates and presentations at the 4th Gulf Education Conference and Exhibition in London recently.

HRH Princess Basmah Bint Saud Al Saud officially opened the conference

Held at the Hilton Paddington Hotel, around 280 delegates, including presidents of universities from the Gulf region, international office staff from UK institutions, foreign ministers, ambassadors, delegates, agents and a range of service providers, gathered for the two-day event to exchange opinions on topics such as: student mobility; what the language of academic instruction should be; public versus private provision; matching education investment to skills shortages; and online provision.

Officially opening the conference, HRH Princess Basmah Bint Saud Al Saud of Saudi Arabia spoke of the importance of study and the academic history of the region. “Education means security of the individual. It is a field where gender equality is real, and this must be championed,” she said.

“Education should have no borders,” was the key message from Dr Sultan Abu Orabi, Secretary General of the Association of Arab Universities (AAU), who gave an opening and closing address at the conference. He highlighted the massive expansion in HE capacity in the Arab world, from 14 universities in 1953 to over 600 now, but noted that scientific research output was still sparse by global standards, and that the region needed to strengthen quality assurance and reverse the brain drain of researchers. He said around 30 per cent of UK-based academic researchers were from the Arab world.

In an interview with Study Travel Magazine, Dr Orabi said AAU was looking to foster mobility. “We are sending students overseas, and we would like to have students from those countries.” He explained, “Internationalisation is very important, as is the mobility of staff and students. We would like to expose European students to Jordan, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and so on.” He said that UAE had been successful in positioning itself as a regional education hub and attracting international students, but added some other Gulf and MENA countries had sizeable international student populations, including Jordan, which has 40,000 overseas students from 120 countries.

In his closing address, Dr Orabi called on some governments in the Gulf region to create visa regimes for international students, and added that AAU was working to establish an intraregional version of the EU’s Erasmus mobility scheme.

The keynote speech of the conference was provided by Dr William Lawton, Director of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (OBHE), who presented insights from the OBHE’s research paper, What will Higher Education look like in 2020? Dr Lawton argued that student mobility would continue growing, but that the increase would slow, with threats to traditional south-north mobility coming in the shape of increasing domestic capacity, more intraregional study and transnational education, including Moocs and branch campuses. He noted that UAE was by far the world’s largest host of branch campuses with 37 in 2012. Study Travel Magazine’s recent feature on global trends in higher education included analysis from the OBHE report.

In the closing plenary, David Lock, Director of International Projects at The Leadership Foundation and Chair of the conference, said the event was still growing and had been unable to accommodate the number of willing speakers and exhibitors. “The last two days have been enjoyable, challenging and enlightening,” he said, and urged universities, governments, private enterprises and other stakeholders to work together.

As well as the plenary sessions and group discussions, the Gulf Conference also featured a networking gala dinner and awards ceremony.

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