Higher Education in Transition: Current Realities in Palestinian Universities
Christa Bruhn, Ph.D.
[Editor’s note: The opinions contained in this paper are those of the author and not necessarily those of PARC.]
The responsibility for administering education was handed over to the Palestinians in August 1994, nearly a year after the Oslo Accords. After 26 years of Israeli occupation, gaining control over the educational system has posed tremendous challenges to the Palestinians as they struggle to define for the first time what role education will play in their national development. Until now, institutions of higher education have, for the most part, existed in isolation from one another. Recent changes call for greater cooperation and integration within a system of higher education that honors the autonomy and integrity of individual institutions while at the same time facilitates the needs of economic and social development. As stated in the Special Task Force plan for the Ministry of Higher Education, “the degree of success Palestinians will achieve in building a modern state will depend largely on the quality of the higher education system they build." (1) On my most recent trip to Palestine in August 2000, I researched how the role of higher education has changed through conducting 26 interviews with the presidents and/or vice-presidents of the nine universities, as well as officials in the Ministry of Higher Education and other prominent figures in Palestinian education. I found that the role of higher education in Palestine is indeed being transformed. Born as a vehicle for the development of national identity under Israeli occupation, it now faces the challenge of truly serving the educational needs of its people and defining its role in integrating the Palestinian people and contributing to Palestinian national development. This task is met with tremendous obstacles, including a financial crisis in higher education, ongoing repressive Israeli policies, and the explosion of frustration over the lack of diplomatic progress, all of which interfere with meaningful planning and development in higher education.
Overwhelming consensus among ministry and university officials confirms an emerging role of higher education in nation-building. The focus of this effort is to prepare the Palestinian people to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to be productive members of society as the infrastructure and institutions are developed as part of a larger modernization and state-building effort. The Ministry of Higher Education, established in 1996, focuses on raising the quality of programs by developing its regulation and accreditation capacity. (2) There is a general lack of trust among universities as to the extent to which the ministry wants to regulate institutional developments. Rather than be bound to new regulations coming from above, most universities have chosen to ignore calls for program evaluation and accreditation, resulting in an “unchecked proliferation of programs." (3)
Although the relationship between the ministry and the universities appears to be inherently adversarial, (4) the ministry hopes to serve as a facilitator of individual institutional efforts in self-improvement. (5) Elements within both segments have expressed a need for specialization. For example, Al-Najah University President Rami Hamdallah notes that “there is no strategic planning for higher education. We must merge specializations, colleges, and universities" so that we can better serve society and Palestinian development as a whole. (6) Without an integrated plan, it will be difficult for institutions to serve the needs of society at large. The absence of a plan will actually contribute to the developmental stagnation of Palestinian society as a whole. (7)
“Everybody’s working in isolation, but we all have the same problems," said Daoud Al-Zatari of Hebron Polytechnic. (8) Recognition of what universities share and the role the Ministry of Higher Education could play in coordinating the planning and communication among institutions is the first step toward tapping into the creativity and expertise within the larger system to better serve the social and economic needs of an emerging Palestinian state.
Leaders in higher education can take specific action to strengthen their role in national development in spite of the tremendous obstacles they face due to the confrontation with Israel. Initially, they can develop a common vision by recognizing a shared sense of purpose directed at Palestinian national development. Knowing they are on the same path would foster trust among universities at an institutional and systemic level. In the resulting spirit of collaboration, the unique strengths and contributions of each institution would come to the forefront so that universities, with the support and guidance of the Ministry of Higher Education, could develop partnerships among faculty, programs, institutions, and communities by sharing expertise and resources for mutually beneficial endeavors.
Based on my interviews, I believe that the Ministry of Higher Education neither wants to nor can police the activities of individual institutions. It can, however, provide guidance and support to the universities’ own planning and development efforts and can seek to enhance higher education’s contribution to national development in an atmosphere of collaboration rather than competition. Both the vision and the responsibility must be shared. Committing adequate financial and human resources to the Ministry of Education to facilitate alignment of these activities within the system is crucial to its stability. With higher education’s vital role in economic development, universities must take their shared role seriously in enabling future generations of Palestinians not only to work within a viable economy but also provide leadership to a people that has struggled for both identity and survival.