Published on Arab Voices

Building universities of the future for the youth of today

Dr. Hatem Elaydi of the Islamic University of Gaza reflects on the importance of university governance

World Bank | Arne HoelUniversities are like gardens, where knowledge blooms like flowers. So says Dr. Hatem Elaydi, whose many years of teaching have not dulled his fascination with the growth and transformation he witnesses and participates in daily. The rewards are never ending. “You see your students winning prizes, finishing their graduate studies, or landing a good job, “ he says, “and wherever you go, you are always stopped by either current or former students, their parents or relatives, thanking you for your help.”

Unsure at first whether he was well suited to teaching, Dr. Hatem has made it a lifelong commitment. Over the past decade, he has broadened his engagement to include a strategic role in assessing the overall performance of his institution. This was prompted by the recognition that the Islamic University of Gaza did more than graduate students. As hotbeds of knowledge and innovation universities are vital engines for economic growth. They are also a key component of the social fabric. The Islamic University of Gaza is a constituent institution of a nascent Palestinian state, which for Dr. Hatem gives it very specific responsibilities. It must function in line with citizen expectations for state institutions: responsive to community needs and delivering the right services effectively and efficiently.

As the Director of the Administrative Quality Assurance Unit at the Islamic University of Gaza, Dr. Hatem was intrigued by a proposal from the World Bank’s Regional Program on Higher Education. The World Bank has been deeply involved with a project to modernize universities in the Middle East and North Africa. In response to regional demand for methods to assess appropriate reform strategies, a Bank team at the Centre for Mediterranean Integration in Marseille developed a system for evaluating university governance. This immediately struck a chord with Dr. Hatem. “University governance is at the center of every aspect of academic life,” he says, “it touches everything from the board of trustees to students, employees and local communities.”

The University Governance Screening Card is not so much a means of grading as a mirror that reflects back an accurate picture of the institution. Universities are complex organizations that must constantly adapt to changing environments to ensure they are providing the communities they serve with the right skills and knowledge. The screening process helps an institution define its key characteristics, which is an important step in determining the relevance of current structures and practices, and identifying what might need updating.  Every institution is unique, but they all need a well understood and clearly defined mission, and the appropriate policies, resources and staff to achieve it. Establishing and maintaining this coherence is a governance challenge. By providing a detailed picture of the institution, and how its various components interact, the screening process is a useful tool. It allows for an analysis of the institution as a whole, and the creation of individualized benchmarks on which performance can be evaluated and future policy based.

Dr. Hatem welcomed the opportunity of being among the first to take part in the screening exercise. The Islamic University of Gaza has been moving toward adopting modern management standards, but progress has been slow.

“We have been inching toward clarifying our mission and instituting better strategic planning, and we really need now to concentrate on assessing the progress made there,” he says.

Significant steps have been taken toward creating a more inclusive form of governance. Consultation councils have been established at several of the university’s colleges, which include community leaders, students and faculty. Proposals are being reviewed to increase the participation of students even further, and to provide more opportunities for the participation of university employees. There has been less progress on reforming the university’s board of governors. There is still a lack of accountability and no clear definition of the limits of their authority. In the wake of the ‘Arab Spring,’ where citizens insisted on more responsive and accountable governments, the relationship between the board of governors and the university faculty, staff and students has come under intense scrutiny. It is a complex and delicate subject, but the screening process has allowed them to establish benchmarks, based on international standards, that the institution is now committed to. It has provided the necessary consensus on what needs to be achieved and an objective means for measuring progress toward those goals.

By encouraging universities to look at themselves in the mirror, and to compare their practices with international standards and their own defined goals, the University Governance Screening Card could be a catalyst for further regional reform. It would put all institutions on the same page and establish benchmarks for crucial issues ranging from university management to academic autonomy. Most importantly, it would provide a path toward better governance. After a decade of helping to develop strategies for the Palestinian higher education system, Dr. Hatem is convinced that good governance is an essential ingredient for a well run university which can equip students with the skills they need to compete for the jobs of the future, and be a fertile bed for the knowledge and innovation that will drive growth.

“I think the tool is great,” said Dr. Hatem, “it will be of immense benefit to all the institutions that participate, and should influence higher education authorities and ministries throughout the region.”    

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