Universities in Islamic nations make the same mistakes we do—but worse

There are a lot of bad things that can be said about American higher education—it is too costly, academic standards have slipped mightily, it fails miserably at achieving its ostensible objective of promoting high income mobility, it contributes to a monumental “mismatch” problem with massive numbers of underemployed college graduates, et cetera. We spend too much and get too little.

All that said, however, I have learned something important recently: things are in many ways worse elsewhere, especially in the Middle East/North African (MENA) area of predominantly Islamic nations. 

I attended a very informative Hollings Center dialogue in Istanbul a few weeks ago, along with academics from nations stretching from Morocco to Qatar and Bahrain, by way of Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Adding spice to the mix were other scholars from Japan, Germany, and Canada. (The Hollings Center was founded by Democratic Senator Fritz Hollings and Republican Senator Judd Gregg to promote positive interaction between the Middle East and western nations on education and other issues.)

The American “College for All” movement is off-based, but at least it’s founded on some rational premises regarding higher education’s positive contribution to productivity. But massive enrollment increases in some Middle Eastern countries like Iran and Iraq have led to huge levels (probably 25 percent) of outright unemployment for college graduates. 

Why? These nations have erroneously bought into the notion that massive spending on “human capital development” will help propel them into economic growth. At the MENA region’s stage of development, nations like the U.S. and Germany had very modest proportions of the population with college degrees, and for good reason: most work did not require a lot of well-developed brain power. 

The same is true in the Middle East, and the presence of oil in some countries does not fundamentally change that. In some countries the mismatch from collegiate overexpansion turns out lots of moderately literate individuals whose life expectations are not being realized, making them very susceptible to radical Islamic appeals. 

Layered on top of that problem are other pathologies. One professor from a relatively moderate Islamic country lamented that she had NO control over what she said in class. Course content is dictated by the Ministry of Education and no deviation is permitted. She said she would not even try to defy that edict, because if she did word would get back to the Ministry from class monitors and she would be punished. Salaries in that country do not vary with merit, or even subject matter—much like K-12 education in the United States. Professors who are innovative, industrious, etc., are likely to be punished. The term “academic freedom” is not even fully understood.  

A professor from one of the more radical of the countries told me that, while his normal teaching load was at least four courses, for economic reasons he was forced to teach each semester usually about six courses—an 18-hour teaching load turning out students who cannot get jobs. He pines to come to the United States. And American professors bitterly complain when you ask them to teach, say, 5 courses a year (not per semester) rather than four.

We spent a day discussing this question: how can universities promote entrepreneurship (which is not flourishing in the MENA region)?  

One group advocated a new bureaucracy in the Ministry of Education to deal with the problem, while another said ideas have to percolate up from the universities themselves. I made the somewhat heretical argument that universities are bastions of anti-entrepreneurship, consisting of individuals who are risk-adverse, who are shielded from competition, and who don’t know the difference between an asset or liability, or profit and loss. Outside of contributing some commercially useful research, why do we look to universities to promote entrepreneurship? 

(My heretical question was greeted with a mixture of shock and amusement, but some of the attendees expressed quiet agreement.)

The reality is the MENA region is poor and bereft of a strong entrepreneurial spirit for reasons far removed from higher education. The rule of law is not well established. Private property rights are tenuous. Centralized regulatory overreach is prevalent. Free-wheeling competition is unknown. Add to that a few other problems (in some countries unpredictably instable currency fluctuations) and you impede business formation, something that is occurring on a smaller but troubling scale now in the U.S. as well, as we abandon the tenets of classical liberal thinking as we careen towards a European-style welfare state.

Universities are great inventions, and they have a role everywhere, in areas rich and poor, Christian, Islamic, and even atheist. But the Law of Diminishing Returns applies: universities in small doses can disseminate and advance knowledge in welfare-inducing ways, but if expanded too fast, they produce dismal results at the margin. In the MENA region, this problem is aggravated by over-centralization. 

The Hollings Center and others are to be applauded for at least discussing the issue, focusing attention on an important region in the world, and allowing iconoclastic individuals like me the opportunity to counsel foreign academics to “think small.”  Often, universities should not do more, but do less.