As a witness for more than four decades of various phases of academic development of Birzeit University, and having studied at Birzeit when it was a junior college and served in it as a faculty member as well as in various administrative positions for many years after it became a university, I view the year 1967 when Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as a turning point in the academic life of this institution.
At that time, Palestinian society was very much worried about the future and people were questioning the feasibility of continuing to study and teach while Israeli occupation continues. Calls for the boycott of schools (most of which were governmental) and denouncing the reopening of schools were rampant. Birzeit College and some other educational establishments, however, called for schools to resume, viewing education as an important factor in fostering steadfastness and encouraging the youth to stay in Palestine. This logic was viewed with caution and suspicion at first, and then it was adopted by Palestinian society at large. Within a few years, Birzeit announced its plan to develop its academic programs so that students could get a four-year degree while staying on their land.
Toward Bachelors and Then Masters Degrees
The date July 11, 1976 represents the first important landmark in the academic biography of Birzeit. On that day, Birzeit University awarded its first bachelors degrees in eight disciplines: Arabic literature, English literature, business administration, Middle East studies, sociology, mathematics, physics, and chemistry.
Further steps to introduce new academic programs and to develop the academic offer followed. One year later, the Department of Education and Psychology had developed a program that enabled students to earn a master’s degree in education. By 1978, the Faculty of Commerce & Economics was offering programs through the economics, business administration, and accounting departments, and in 1979, the Faculty of Engineering was offering programs through the electrical engineering, civil engineering, and mechanical engineering departments.
At the beginning of the 1984-85 academic year, 2,400 students were enrolled in the Faculties of Arts, Science, Commerce & Economics, and Engineering. During the 1980s, programs leading to bachelors degrees in education and psychology, sociology and anthropology, history and archeology, biology and biochemistry, and architectural engineering were added to the list of offerings. And in the tradition of liberal arts education that the University had adopted, it offered courses in philosophy, cultural studies, geography, library science, physical education, music, fine arts, general science, and other subjects, designed to enrich and diversify students’ knowledge and skills, either as part of degree requirements or as electives.
By the mid-1990s, history, geography, political science, and philosophy and cultural studies departments were established; so too was the Faculty for Graduate Studies, which introduced a master’s program in international relations. In addition, an international summer program was designed for foreign students who wished to study Arabic and to experience how Palestinians cope under occupation.
Birzeit College and some other educational establishments, however, called for schools to resume, viewing education as an important factor in fostering steadfastness and encouraging the youth to stay in Palestine
The development of the graduate programs offering continued and by the year 2000 the University was offering twelve masters programs, including such novel programs as community and public health, gender and development, and democracy and human rights.
Birzeit now offers forty-six bachelor’s and twenty-two master’s programs. The number of students has been increasing steadily, from 239 students in 1972 to almost 8,800 in 2009, enrolled in eight faculties: Arts, Commerce & Economics, Science, Engineering, Law & Public Administration, Information Technology, Nursing & Allied Health Professions, and Graduate Studies.
The Faculty of Education was accredited during the writing of this chapter, and the Faculty of Pharmacy is in the final stages of accreditation. The increase in the number of students was accompanied by an expansion of the physical infrastructure as well as an increase in the number of degree programs and in the qualified faculty, such that the university was able to maintain a healthy student-teacher ratio of 20-1, which is an important indicator of academic standards.
The expansion of the academic offer that took place at Birzeit over the past thirty-eight years was not as easy and straightforward a process as the preceding description suggests. Early on, it wasn’t such a complicated affair to add degree programs—administrators were guided by what roughly constituted the core of programs and courses offered by a typical liberal arts college. If the faculty was available, program designs, courses, and textbooks could almost be taken off the shelf. The reality was never quite that simple, of course; adding a new academic program always entailed careful study of need, relevance, and feasibility. (Adding multidisciplinary programs was another story entirely.)
Prior to the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority, the current system of accreditation did not exist. New programs could be proposed by individuals or departments. Once a proposal had an initial go-ahead, it had to go through a process involving the Planning Office in order to ascertain that the University has or can muster what it takes to ensure successful delivery. Securing the endorsement of the Academic Council was sometimes a contentious process but generally it was possible to reach agreement and to launch programs for which a valid case could be made.
With the establishment of the independent Accreditation and Quality Assurance Commission (AQAC), the University was no longer completely at liberty to launch new programs. To start new programs, academic institutions have to demonstrate availability of all the requisites for years to come—space, number of qualified faculty, material resources, books and periodicals, and anticipated enrollment, in which the projected tuition fees was a factor. Today, the process of introducing an accredited degree program can take as long as eighteen months; in the 1980s, the whole process could be concluded in the space of a single semester.
For example, after it became feasible to offer teacher training programs in four subject areas, the process of designing these programs and getting them accredited took a good two years. When Birzeit decided to venture into programs related to health and paramedical professions in 2006, it took two years for it to launch a bachelor’s program in nursing and another in nutrition and dietetic. A doctor of pharmacy (Pharm. D.) program has taken sustained efforts for over three years to be accredited. The period of time required to take a program from concept to catalog listing is not all spent on accreditation procedures, however.
The internal discussions of the program proposal in the various councils— from department council to faculty council and then to the University Council for an initial go-ahead—can take semesters, and the study of feasibility at the Planning Office can take months. If the program entails long-term commitments and the establishment of a new faculty, then the approval of the Board of Trustees has to be secured. Only then is the program submitted to the Academic Council and after that to AQAC for accreditation.
This excerpt, taken from “Birzeit University: The Story of a National Institution,” was written by Sami Sayrafi, the vice-president for Administrative and Financial Affairs at Birzeit University in 2010. He has served as the chair of Birzeit University’s Department of Chemistry, the Dean of the Faculty of Science, and the Dean of Graduate Studies.
Edited by Ida Audeh and published in 2010, “Birzeit University: The Story of a National Institution” chronicles the development of Birzeit University by retelling the stories of those who helped establish it. In its three parts, the book presents the history of Birzeit University from its early beginnings as an elementary school all the way to its present status as a full-fledged university, underscoring the challenges and obstacles that it faced during its time and highlighting its prominent role in the Palestinian community.