Resources> Palestinian Studies Today
Higher Education in Transition: Current
Realities in Palestinian Universities
Christa Bruhn, Ph.D.
[Editorís 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."
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.
"Everybodyís 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 universitiesí own planning and development efforts and can seek
to enhance higher educationís 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 educationís 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.
||Ministry of Education,
"Proposed Direction for Palestinian Higher Education: A Vision for the
Future, Report of the Special Task Force on the Proposed Direction of
Palestinian Higher Education," Ramallah, September 1999, p. 26.
||Interview with Rubhi
Abu-Sneineh, Ministry of Higher Education, Ramallah, 7 August 2000.
||Interview with Jacqueline
Sfeir, Bethlehem University, Bethlehem, 10 August 2000.
||Interview with Ramzi
Rihan, Birzeit University, Birzeit, 14 August 2000.
||Abu-Sneineh 7 August
2000 and Interview with Gabi Baramki, Ministry of Higher Education,
Ramallah, 17 August 2000.
"Hamdallah tells Al-Ayyam: Al-Najah is turning into a first base for science
and technology in Palestine," Al-Ayyam. Jerusalem, 8 August 2000, p. 10.
||Abdul Jawad Saleh,
"Indigenous Problems of Institutions of Higher Education in the Occupied
West Bank and the Gaza Strip" (Jerusalem: Al-Quds Center for Research,
Hebron Polytechnic, Hebron, 16 August 2000.
Christa Bruhn is a doctoral student in educational
administration at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. This article
is based on a paper she presented at the Middle Eastern Studies Association
(MESA) Conference in Orlando in November 2000.
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PARC Sponsors First Panel at MESA 2000
PARC sponsored its first panel at the November
2000 meeting of the Middle East Studies Association of North America
(MESA) meeting. The title of the discussion "Rule by Records: The Impact
and Legacy of British Rule in Palestine," featured Dr. Ellen Fleischmann
(University of Dayton), Dr. Martin Bunton (University of Victoria and
recipient of one of PARCís 2000-2001 research fellowships), Dr. Michael
Fischbach (Randolph-Macon College and former director of PARC), and
Dr. Salim Tamari (Institute of Jerusalem Studies). Dr. Sandy Sufian
(Center for Health Research/Oregon Health Sciences University) was unable
to attend but provided a paper on malaria and the sharing of medical
knowledge in mandatory Palestine. Dr. Lisa Pollard (University of North
Carolina-Wilmington) chaired the panel and Dr. Roger Owen (Harvard University)
served as discussant.
While much of the research writings on the British
Mandate period (1922 to 1948) tended to focus on diplomacy and the political
struggle over Palestine, PARCís panel members explored neglected disciplines.
For example, Fleischmann discussed a survey commissioned by the British
Director of Health in Palestine that explored the sexual practices and
attitudes of Palestinians, including the prevalence of promiscuous sexual
intercourse, polygamy, and "unnatural vices," and which tells us more
about British officials than the Palestinians. Sufianís paper also dealt
with public health, mainly the exchange of scientific information on
malaria and swampland between Zionist malariologists and British health
officials that the Zionists used to promote national settlement and
to prove their efforts in developing the country.
Both Bunton and Fischbach presented information
on British land records. Bunton was looking at how, in creating English
language land registries, the British were interpreting a land tenure
situation that they inherited. "A historian canít just look at a land
registry and find objective data about who owned what, because you have
to understand all these records were being created by the British who
were in a position of power and were writing things down in a foreign
language to these Palestinians," said Fischbach. "In turn, these documents
would have a profound effect on their economic lives." Fischbach asserted
that the English-language land records continued to exert an impact
on Palestinians, even after British rule ended in 1948. "The largest
study ever done of Palestinian refugee property was done by the U.N.
and was based on British land and taxation documents. These continue
to affect their economic and social lives decades after the British
Salim Tamari extended the discussion beyond the
British rule in Palestine by discussing the UNRWA (United National Relief
and Works Agency) archives. These records include information collected
routinely about some 3.3 million Palestinian refugees registered with
the agency. When this voluminous data is transferred to CD-ROM, it will
be an invaluable databank to researchers working on social and economic
aspects of the Palestinian refugee communities throughout the Middle
East, about whom little is known.
American Research Center Panel: "Contemporary Social Science Research
Middle East Studies Association 35th Annual Conference
San Francisco, USA, 18 November 2001
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