UK-Palestine Higher Education Forum

Fobzu’s Director, Aimee Shalan, was delighted to attend the UK-Palestine Higher Education Forum organised by International Unit, Universities UK and the British Council from 15-16 February.

The forum brought together participants from a wide range of UK and Palestinian universities and provided an excellent opportunity to share experiences and ideas for future partnerships.

Discussions included the specific challenges facing Palestinian higher education, the potential for building meaningful UK-Palestine partnerships and how to become an ‘entrepreneurial’ university under occupation.

Challenges faced by Palestinian Universities

Over the course of the two days, Palestinian participants from universities in both the West Bank and Gaza stressed the importance of active partnerships between UK and Palestinian universities and of international mobility for academic staff and students.

Whilst higher education in Palestine has come a long way since its beginnings in the 1970s and the establishment of the Palestinian Ministry of Education in 1996, today it is, nonetheless, still facing huge obstacles.

Participants heard how disconnected demographic centres and Israeli movement restrictions in the West Bank have limited Palestinian universities to their catchment areas, while in Gaza they are also dealing with severe financial difficulties, with 38% of the population living below the poverty line, and extremely high unemployment rates due to the blockade.

Forty-three percent of Palestinian youth between 15 and 29 years of age are in education.

“But for Palestinians education is no longer a guarantee of economic prosperity,” said Dr Mirvat Bulbul of Birzeit University, “with youth unemployment the highest in the region at 37%.”

Most higher education institutions are dependent on tuition fees to cover 60-70% of their operation budget, but the economic situation has made it impossible to raise the tuition fees, even to keep up with inflation.

Although the Palestinian Authority allocates part of its budget to public universities it is not always able to do distribute the funds, due to the financial crisis.

Dr Nazmi Al Masri from the Islamic University of Gaza described the impact of Israel’s nine-year siege and three destructive wars, during which most universities in Gaza were damaged.

Complicated movement restrictions on people and goods are taking a severe toll on reconstruction, study and research. Students and staff are denied access to the West Bank and East Jerusalem and have to apply for three different permits in order to leave, while it took 12 months for the Islamic University to import 100 laptops.

There is weak co-operation between universities in the West Bank and Gaza; Palestinian academics are often denied the right to travel and participate in international conferences and events; international teaching staff are denied work or visiting permits and universities are losing opportunities to partner with British and European universities. All of which is leading to frustration, pessimism and a lack of confidence in the international community.

Movement restrictions have also meant that hundreds of students from Gaza have lost chances to take up scholarships to study abroad for a Master’s degree or Doctorate, while international students have no possibility of studying for a period at a university in Gaza - preventing opportunities for intercultural communication and generating bitter feelings of oppression, injustice and instability amongst young Palestinians.

Financial hardship is making it difficult for universities in Gaza to find and retain qualified teaching staff. It is also having a detrimental impact on the quality of new intakes of students and academic standards - due to large classes and the lack of quality facilities - while university reconstruction projects have been put on hold or cancelled due to the lack of forthcoming funds from international donors.

Becoming an ‘entrepreneurial’ university

Since the early 2000s there has been growing interest in UK universities embedding entrepreneurial activity into the fabric of their institutions - to the extent that their environment and culture not only fosters enterprising thinking among all members of its community but also delivers significant entrepreneurial impact at regional, national and international levels.

UK universities have started asking what “embedding cultural, social and economic partnerships would do to the way we teach, research and engage,” observed Professor Michael Stewart of University College London.

According to Chris Baker, Director of Work and Learning Opportunities c.i.c., an ‘entrepreneurial’ university involves “using other people’s resources to get what you want,” an appetite for risk and a willingness to learn from failure.

As most universities are risk averse and entirely predicated on the notion of success, he explained, becoming entrepreneurial represents a considerable challenge.

In the Palestinian context, the difficulties of envisaging ‘entrepreneurial’ universities are all the more acute.

“Most universities have been involved in training for entrepreneurship,” Dr Irene Hazou Makhoul of Bethlehem University explained, “but the idea of transforming into entrepreneurial universities is only just beginning to be thought about."

The first purpose of Palestinian universities is to provide affordable higher education to meet the local needs of the community. Funding for higher education in occupied Palestine is becoming increasingly difficult and survival is the key priority.

Palestinians are entrepreneurs by nature - 97% of businesses in Palestine are classified as SMEs with 10 or fewer employees. “But they are not very innovative,” said Dr Hazou Makhoul, “as they tend to focus on needs.”

Support from the Palestinian Authority, which favours large-scale industry, is also extremely limited. With an aid driven economy, very little is allocated to financing start-ups.

There is, moreover, “still a lot of work to be done to change the culture on campuses to be more receptive to innovation and to encourage research”, noted Dr Badi Al Taha of Al Quds University.

There are also considerable challenges for Palestinian universities in attempting to build strategies under occupation to support quality education for the labour market, “especially when professors are leaving for better work opportunities abroad,” said Dr Mohammed Aljabari of Hebron University.

With very high unemployment amongst university graduates, the past decade has witnessed a proliferation of training and financing programmes by local and international organisations to enhance entrepreneurship.

Investing in training a young, educated generation in entrepreneurial skills is increasingly being seen as an effective way to boost the economy and improve conditions.

However, youth unemployment remains high, especially in Gaza - with 60% of Gaza’s youth unemployed.

Last year, 39,000 people applied for 1,000 teaching vacancies in the West Bank, while in Gaza 25,000 applied for 500 vacancies.

The Faculty of Education at Al Azhar University has a very high number of students, observed Dr Awni Abu Samman of Al Azhar University, because graduates used to get well paid jobs with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). However UNRWA has not been taking on new employees for two consecutive years and last year no new teachers were taken on in Gaza at all.

Only 7,200 of the 40,000 who graduated in the West Bank and Gaza in 2015 are now involved in the labour market.

There are also huge problems facing the private sector - which is a service sector rather than a productive one. As a result, e-jobs or remote working are the most hopeful options.

“There is a growing gap between theoretical skills in Palestinian universities and the needs of a global labour market,” explained Dr Nazmi Al Masri, “but there is hope that the rapid development of information and communications technology will help us offer students opportunities to work outside of Palestine. We have poor natural resources, but rich human resources. Palestinian higher education institutions need to develop academic programmes to produce graduates with global employability skills to help them become self-sustaining.”

Building meaningful partnerships

“It is extremely difficult to build meaningful partnerships when one side is very fragile, but this cannot be a block to developing collaborations,” said Dr Nazmi Al Mazri. “Life is full of challenges in Gaza, but determination, hope and will are our bread and butter.”

“And although working with Gaza, in terms of distance, is now like working with Europe for West Bank universities” said Dr Mirvat Bulbul, “it is important to keep the same model for collaborations.”

Fobzu Trustee Dr Marwan Darweish described the research collaboration between the Centre for Peace, Trust and Social Relations at the University of Coventry and the Arab American University in Jenin.

The link between the two universities was established in 2009, after the Centre for Peace, Trust and Social Relations undertook a scoping exercise in the West Bank, Gaza and Jordan to see what academic cooperation was needed.

“One of the biggest challenges is that everyone in the world is writing about Palestine, while very little research is coming from Palestine itself. There is a fundamental asymmetry in the relationship which we are trying to overcome,” explained Dr Darweish. “One of the most astonishing discoveries was how few Palestinian think tanks or research centres there are conducting research on Palestine or Israel.”

One of the first things the centre did was to provide academics from Jenin access to the library as well as an opportunity for Palestinian staff to come to Coventry and have time to research and write.

The centre also helped to develop a Masters programme at the Arab American University, based on the principle that by the end of the course they would be able to carry it on locally.

Joint publications, conferences and the MA programme are all part of a long-term process and the centre is now looking to work with other Palestinian universities.

The UK visa system is, however, a growing obstacle to developing academic partnerships with universities in both the West Bank and Gaza.

“If there is to be meaningful collaboration,” said Tony Mahon of Canterbury Christ Church University, “it is important from the UK side to help Palestinians to get visas. At the moment the process is very difficult and this is having an impact on our ability to work collaboratively. It is very difficult for any of us to get clear information and we could do more in sharing practice.”

New measures introduced by the UK authorities have meant that Palestinian scholarship students are being denied entry.

According to the British Council, five out of ten of their students were recently refused visas. This is a worrying new development; it is the first time British Council sponsored students have been rejected.