Academics, government representatives discuss challenges, realities of higher education in Palestine

University professors and administrators, pedagogical experts, and government officials discussed realities and  future prospects of higher education in Palestine in a conference held at Birzeit University on Tuesday, April 2, 2019. 

Organized by the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees, the conference focused on the issues and challenges higher education in Palestine is facing and identified the priorities and future initiatives that are needed to strengthen research and knowledge production at Palestinian universities. 

In his opening remarks, President of Birzeit University Abdullatif Abuhijleh emphasized the importance of universities for the Palestinian community as institutions that attract and shape Palestinian experts and leaders who help advance and develop the country and defy the Israeli occupation. 

By offering quality education, Abuhijleh added, Palestinian universities help shape an environment that prevents the emigration of highly trained and qualified personnel from Palestine because they help create jobs and graduate individuals who meet the market’s demand for highly-competent and skilled workers. 

“Palestinian universities continue to develop their academic programs and facilities,” Abuhijleh asserted, “even though the Israeli occupation continuously violates the Palestinian right to education and the sanctity of educational institutions. They keep abreast of scientific and technological developments and remain committed to their mission of providing forums that facilitate the spreading of knowledge and the promotion of free thought.”  

Sabri Saidam, the Palestinian minister of education and higher education, stressed the importance of bolstering Palestinian educational institutions amidst the political and financial challenges that are besieging Palestine. He highlighted the recently-ratified Palestinian Law for Education and Higher Education that codifies a set of standards and systems to improve pedagogy in Palestine. 

The Ministry of Education and Higher Education, Saidam said, has recently implemented a number of schemes that aim to advance higher education in Palestine, such as setting quotas for academic programs in order to decrease redundancy in the offerings of Palestinian universities, establishing new programs that meet the job market’s needs, and supporting research. 

Amjad Barham, president of the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees, outlined the association’s two main aims, namely to support Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation by promoting and bolstering education and research and advancing the educational process in Palestine and by protecting the rights of workers and employees at Palestinian universities. 

David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, emphasized the association’s close working relationship with the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees, noting that the 10-year relationship has resulted in many successful projects, conferences, and symposia. 

In his remarks, Robinson outlined a number of issues that face education worldwide, such as the increase in student enrollment without an equivalent increase in funding, the privatization of education and education funding and the rise in tuition fees generally associated, and the proliferation of insecure employment in the educational sector −  the decrease of tenured positions. 

Robinson proposed that such global problems be tackled by focusing on higher education staff and professors and adopting UNESCO’s “Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel” as an instrument by which rights such as academic freedom can be asserted. 

Ali Abu Zuhri, president of the Arab American University and a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee, gave a brief overview of the history of higher education in Palestine and outlined the challenges and obstacles it faces due to the Israeli occupation. 

Abu Zuhri highlighted the role of the nascent Palestinian universities in advancing higher education and knowledge production in Palestine in the late 1970s and early 1980s by putting a stop to the emigration of talented Palestinians to neighboring countries and by sending qualified Palestinians to pursue higher education abroad to benefit their communities and universities upon their return. 

The conference comprised six sessions. The first featured Amjad Barham and Assistant Deputy Minister for Higher Education Ihab Qubbaj who discussed the legal and regulatory issues regarding higher education and public funding for universities. 

In the second session, ex-Chairman of the Accreditation and Quality Assurance Commission Mohammad Subou explored the role of the Higher Education Council in ensuring the quality of education at universities, whereas ex-President of the Canadian Association of University Teachers Robin Vose discussed university governance and community dialogue. 

The third session featured Chairman of the Accreditation and Quality Assurance Commission Waleed Sweileh, who discussed Palestinian universities in international university rankings; while in the fourth session President of the Palestine Academy for Science and Technology Marwan Awartani discussed ways of advancing and sustaining research in Palestinian higher education institutions. 

In the fifth session, Waseem Aljamal, head of the student body council at the Palestine Polytechnic University, discussed the student fund and the role of the student body in supporting universities; whereas the final session featured Atallah Balalem who explored the role and state of public universities in Palestine.