Knowledge is as vital as oxygen. It drives innovation, allowing economies to grow and countries to prosper. As one of the primary creators and disseminators of knowledge, universities play a critical social role. Their proper management should be a top concern of governments everywhere. Much as the failure of a major organ affects the entire body, a malfunctioning university system has widespread consequences.
This has become especially clear in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), which has seen a dramatic growth in youth unemployment, especially among university graduates. It appears that the skills being taught are not relevant to the current demands of the market, leaving a vast human resource idle. Economic reforms are certainly needed to create more and better opportunities. Yet for these to succeed, they have to be matched with a university system that is generating the right knowledge and skills for the 21st century global economy.
A World Bank team based in Marseille, at the Center for Mediterranean Integration, is developing a system for measuring the quality of university management against a combination of desired outcomes and international standards. This has been at the request of several MENA governments, keen on using the establishment of performance benchmarks to build momentum for the difficult process of university governance reform.
In an important step forward, forty-one MENA institutions in four different countries agreed to undergo the first university governance benchmark exercise. The results have been collected in a report, Universities through the Looking Glass: Benchmarking University Governance to Enable Higher Education Modernization in MENA, to be released soon. This first exercise lays the foundation for future systematic improvement of university performance. It allows universities to better understand their strengths and weaknesses, to learn from each other and use best practices to develop their own governance systems. It is a significant achievement toward the regional goal of improving accountability in service delivery, and will become a cornerstone of the strategy for developing greater capacity of evidence-based policy making related to higher education in MENA.
The institutions that participated in the program deserve our admiration, as they are setting an important regional example. The openness of university and government officials involved in this first governance benchmarking exercise has encouraged others: several additional ministries of higher education in the Arab world and elsewhere have expressed strong interest in participating in future benchmarking activities. The Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO) based in Rabat, Morocco, has expressed interest in partnering with the Bank to expand this program to its other member countries in Asia and Africa. Hopefully this is the beginning of a trend, as modern, vibrant societies need a well functioning university system to sustain them. Reform of this vital sector can have a transformative effect, generating knowledge that can unleash the potential of young people and stimulate growth, with benefits for everyone.