Funding Higher Education in Arab Countries. Thoughts and Reflections on the Topic


A. El-Hawat


This paper attempts to draw a comprehensive image of the funding strategy of higher education in Arab Countries, account for the changes in this funding strategy and see how Arab higher education planners and decision-makers look for means and ways to fund higher education outside the public sector and to re-orient it in order to produce better trained graduates and knowledge that serve the need for their development in a very dynamic, 21st-century global society. The paper also seeks to make recommendations about financing the growth and development of higher education in Arab societies in the 21st century, especially with regards to developing the quality of higher education and the knowledge base that is required to help secure a truly global society, culture, and economy as well as a global mind and vision of the Arab Student.


Arab governments have rapidly established a great number of universities in recent decades. In 1950, there were no more than ten universities scattered across the region. Today, however, the region has more than 200 higher education institutions, universities, and colleges, and has witnessed an unprecedented increase in enrolment rates in higher education institutions. This increase resulted from a growing social demand for education and the government's commitment to make higher education as accessible as possible. However, all of these higher education institutions were funded through public sources.

Most Arab governments spend between 10% and 20% of their annual budget on education, including higher education. However, this trend can no longer be sustained due to several constraints such as population growth, limited financial resources, foreign debt and political problems in the region which draw significant amounts of capital for buying arms away from the building of schools and hospitals and providing social services. As a result, higher education in the Arab region has fallen short of meeting its social and economic goals. Some of the main factors that have been identified as straining higher education in the region include the following:

Increased population growth and the massification of secondary education
Inadequate financial resources
Inflexible and centralized management
Lack of diversification in the programmes/ and institutions of higher education
Inability to meet students’ needs
Weakness of the links between higher education institutions, general and secondary education institutions, local communities and societal and human development needs
These factors formed the basis for policy-makers at the Arab Region Conference on Higher Education in Beirut 1998, in preparation to the World Conference on Higher Education, to state the need for:

New teaching and learning methods and processes
New education technologies
New scientific and analytical thinking skills
New ways and programmes for financing and managing higher education institutions
In addition, the most notable change in the last two decades has been the establishment of a sizeable number of new providers of higher education both at the university and the technical levels. Another feature of this new trend is that a large number of these institutions are private non-governmental institutions, many of which are being established in partnership with American or European institutions of higher learning, and most of which are profit-oriented institutions and therefore are accessible only to those who can afford them.
As a result of such strains and pressures Arab governments have attempted:

To allocate a percentage of their national budget to higher education and scientific research; however, this generally does not exceed 5% of the national budget
To limit the admission of students at the higher education institutions, so as to limit and reduce the total cost of higher education
To integrate some public universities and colleges in one university, in order to reduce expenditure. For example, Libya adopts this strategy and has reduced public universities from 14 to 9 universities, but is allowing private universities
To impose fees on students, especially those relating to registration, library services, books, and other social services
To reduce expenditure on some scientific research programmes, especially, research that does not serve development. Theoretical, and basic research, as a result is very much reduced and almost absent in Arab universities
To request financial funds from foreign countries and international organizations like the UNESCO, the World Bank, and other Arab development organizations, especially Arab oil countries like Libya, Saudi Arabia and other gulf states
To obtain income from consultative services offered by universities to different organizations, public or private, and reinvest this income in higher education programmes. Such a strategy is adopted in many Arab countries like Libya, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia
To reduce daily management expenditure like office furniture, transportation, paper and building maintenance
All these strategies have had a direct effect on higher education and scientific research, but translate to a lack of funds for higher education growth, especially with regard to its quality and knowledge production. In addition, this change of funding on higher education will affect students from poor families and low socio-economic class in Arab societies, which means creating more social gaps between different groups of the society, especially students who can and cannot access private higher education. The best thing families can hope for is to pay for their children’s education, but most poor families will be unable to afford the cost of sending their children through higher education, thus many of these children are likely to enter the labour market at a very young age or end up without work as is the situation in many Arab countries today.

The following trends can be observed in the Arab region:

An encouragement of the private sector, local or foreign, to invest in higher education
Unemployment of many university graduates
A lack or delay of many plans of reforming higher education, especially aspects of quality, and introducing modern educational technology
The widening of the gap between the university curriculums, and the labour market, especially in the modern sector of the economy which depends heavily on the knowledge economy and information technology
The growth of religious fundamentalism among university students, and the absence of cultural dialogue among different groups in Arab societies
The brain drain of educated graduates looking for a better life, income, and better opportunities for self-development, and personal freedom


There are changing patterns of funding higher education including the diminishing allocation of public money, decreasing the financial services for education or allowing the private sector to take the responsibility of higher education. Higher education will be affected, at an institutional level, at the system level, and society at large will also be affected. The impact of this can be observed in the social, scientific and political fields.

The scarcity of funds for higher education may have several consequences:

The diversification of political culture between universities, especially between public higher education and private higher education, and particularly if private higher education is funded by foreign capital
The growth of a political sub-culture within the national culture. This sub-culture may have different views and different walks and talks of life, which differ from the prevailing national culture
The growth of new political concepts relating to human rights, women's freedom, democracy and freedom of the individual and the economy, these concepts may be spreading not because of higher education, but rather because such concepts gain more strength in private higher education institutions than in public universities
Regardless as to whether Arab societies adopt private or public higher education the following approaches are recommended:

Public higher education should be maintained as it is, but more funds should be allocated to meet the need for of quality and the social demands on higher education
Higher education should be funded and managed by both the public and private sector
The private sector should be allowed to open private universities that are designed to produce knowledge and modern technology, and possibly to establish community colleges to satisfy the needs of the labour market and promote good citizenship. These community colleges can be established by either the public sector or the private sector provided that they correspond to the social, cultural and economic needs for development in Arab countries in the 21st century