Muwatin’s 22nd Annual Conference Spearheads the Gradual Integration with Birzeit University
Muwatin Institute for Democracy and Human Rights held on September 30 and October 1, 2016 its 22nd Annual Conference at Birzeit University, marking the gradual integration of the programs of the Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy (Muwatin) into the programs of Muwatin Institute for Democracy and Human Rights at the university.
The conference brought together a number of academics and officials to explore key questions around the complex challenges faced by higher education in Palestine.
It aimed to stimulate a critical debate among researchers and academics from different disciplines suggesting a holistic approach that can guide universities in their institutional decision-making.
University president Abdel Latif Abuhijleh, Minister of Education and Higher Education Sabri Saidam and Chairman of the Board of Trustees for Muwatin Mamdouh Al-Aker made opening remarks as well as the directors of the two Muwatin Institutes.
A promising start
The MA Program in Democracy and Human Rights, which was established at Birzeit University in 1998 and has an enrollment of 80 students, will become part of Muwatin Institute, and many of its students will become involved in the projects of the institute.
Abuhijleh expressed in the opening session his enthusiasm about the tradition that Muwatin will bring to Birzeit University. "This conference is the first fruit of many activities the institute will produce,” he said.
He pointed to new programs to be developed in the field of human rights and democracy, in addition to a number of research studies, societal engagement and an information wealth.
“The integration of Muwatin’s programmes into Birzeit University is part of our mission to produce knowledge and put it to work with excellence.”
Referring to statistics on higher education institutions in Palestine, Saidam talked about the ministry’s efforts to integrate vocational and technical education into academia. "The mission and vision of higher education in Palestine need to be revised," he said.
Aker also applauded the integration, saying that it is a fine model for other civil organizations to seek integration with higher education institutions. This contributes to policies that support excellence in teaching, learning, and ensures the continuity and sustainability of the organization’s mission and role to the community, he said.
Muwatin’s General Director George Giacaman spoke of the challenges that Palestinian universities are facing. “Priorities are not well-defined and are vague. Our universities are rushing to be distinguished for their scientific research, Numbers of graduates, and social responsibility, all at the same time.”
The Director of the new Muwatin Institute for Democracy and Human Rights Mudar Kassis assured that the institute is going to be organically engaged with the community, independent and vibrant, seeking to build networks and collaborations with local and international centers to create a shift in the production of knowledge.
Exploring controversial issues
One of the main focuses of the conference was a collective analysis of the conditions for higher education in Palestine and the role of the government and political elites.
Panelists spoke of the dwindling role of the Palestinian government in supporting higher education, which negatively affects the quality and quantity of education and research at universities.
Samia Al-Botmeh, a faculty member at the Department of Economics, says that universities have been forced to follow neo-liberal policies such as services privatization and increases in tuition fees, that have had a toll on the quality of education.
Philosophy professor at Al Quds University Saed Zeedani, dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies Talal Shahwan, and Social and Behavioral Science professor Abaher El-Sakka talked about the importance of scientific research, and the critical nature of funding to support this aspect of higher education development.
Shahwan gave examples of the effects of the declining support by government, explaining that universities have had to reduce their budget for research to only one percent due to the lack of funding.
A unified strategy, an international mission
All participants emphasized the need for a collective effort between academic institutions and the private and public sector to overcome hurdles and enhance the efficiency of higher education institutions. Muwatin Board Chairman Aker suggested the formation of a civil coalition that urges the government to fulfill its commitments towards higher education.
Director General of the Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute-MAS Nabeel Kassis suggested ideas for universities to improve their “universal” role along with their role in the Palestinian community. President of the Palestine Technical University Marwan Awartani emphasized the importance of having a national initiative that facilitates the process of local universities becoming a more active part of the international academic community. This requires, according to Awartani, a unified strategy amongst the universities, and the minimizationof individual considerations in certain aspects of decision-making concerning the work of academic institutions.
Education, according to one of the establishers of Birzeit University Physics professor Ramzi Rihan, contributed to developing the Palestinian economy. “Universities have refined youth skills, knowledge and talents that were later able to nourish cultural, social and economic aspects in Palestine,” he said.
Chairman of PalTrade Ibrahim Barham emphasized the role of the private sector in offering job opportunities for qualified graduates.
Education and the occupation
Nablus deputy governor and former member of the student council and current graduate student of Birzeit University Anan Al-Atireh highlighted the patriotic aspect of the university and the importance of the student political movement, which historically played an important role in enhancing the academic role of universities by organizing activities that strengthen the national economy and the struggle for national liberation.
Political Science faculty member Ghada Madbouh and Ibrahim Abu Lughod Institute of International Studies director Lourdes Habash described how academic institutions have maintained the Palestinian identity and resisted the occupation's attempts to destroy it. Professor of Philosophy and former president of the Al-Quds University Sari Nuseibeh described the systematic violations against education by the occupation.
Finally, the conference also discussed the need to develop the regulatory framework for higher education. Vice President for Planning and Development at Birzeit University Mirvat Bulbul said that quality assurance is needed to guarantee the best educational programs.
Assistant Deputy Minister of Edcation and Higher Education Anwar Zakaria called upon all parties to continue holding such conferences and meetings, to form a committee representing Palestinian universities, and to identify the critical issues and opportunities they face in a blueprint for the future based on mutual consensus.