It is a well-known fact that 1.6 billion Muslims contribute a disproportionately smaller share to the world’s knowledge. This global community – forming the majority population of 57 countries and spanning virtually every single country of the world – has had only three Nobel laureates in science in the history of this prestigious prize. The number of universities from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) member countries in the top 500 universities of the world is only a little better than that.
Clichés aside, there is a widely shared view that science in the Muslim world is significantly lagging behind the rest of the world. This view is partly based on indicators, such as global university rankings, research spending, researchers per million people, performance of pre-university students etc. The causes of this bad performance and potential remedies are hotly debated.
In recent years, a number of Muslim-majority countries have made strong efforts, particularly with respect to directing scarce resources for improving science, in general, and universities, in particular, to change this status quo of decades, if not centuries, and it is important to see how effective these efforts have been.
Universities are the bedrock of a knowledge society. In the developed world, these have evolved over hundreds of years into institutions that specialise in creating and disseminating knowledge. In the Muslim world, particularly the Arab world, universities are a relatively recent phenomenon: three quarters of all Arab universities were established in the last 25 years of the 20th century.
We recently studied the status of universities in the Muslim world and found that while several countries have made progress, at least in terms of jumpstarting a culture of research and publishing, significant issues remain to be addressed. In particular, it has been found that science education at pre-university level fares worse in the Muslim world and there is little evidence that the situation improves when the young men and women join the university.
Explore: Science education in schools
Universities of the Muslim world have not ranked highly in the various global university rankings. In the 2014-15 edition of the QS World University Rankings, no university of the Muslim world was in the top 100, and only 17 ranked among the top 400 (11 between 300 and 400). Similarly, the most recent the Times Higher Education World University Rankings had only 10 universities from the Muslim world in the top 400 (five of them between 300 and 400). This has often led to repeated calls to enhance rankings of universities in the Muslim world and to create ‘world-class’ universities. While there has been some advancement on the former, the latter has remained largely inaccessible.
Though there was lack of data on a number of factors, our report identified and analysed a number of important underlying themes and issues – particularly focusing on the universities – and made recommendations that would be a useful starting point for policymakers and academic leaders to implement.
Read more: Mapping Higher Education in Pakistan
Broad, liberal, holistic education in science
One of the most significant findings were rather narrow disciplinary focus of science teaching in most universities of the Islamic world. In most OIC countries, the age at which children decide whether or not to pursue a scientific career and which discipline is between 14 to 18 years after which most of what they study is within the narrow confines of their chosen discipline. This, not only does not auger well for their development as individuals of diverse and multiple interests, but also creates challenges for a fruitful scientific career.
Today’s scientists and engineers must be creative and innovative and work in multidisciplinary and multinational teams. This requires exposure to a broad and liberal education comprising not just scientific theory and practice but also humanities, social sciences, communications and language, and interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary approach, etc. This can help develop a broad base of knowledge and questioning for a flexible mind that can relate to the theory and fundamentals of a given problem and see its application or context clearly and use this knowledge effectively.
Another area of weakness in teaching of science in the Muslim world is the absence of philosophy and even history of science from the university curricula.
As a result, the scientists who are very good resources on the bench often fail to engage with this fascinating body of knowledge at a much deeper level to ask critical questions that they are supposed to do in the first place.
The notion of a university that mixes science with history and philosophy in modern times can help deal with this situation.
The American University of Sharjah (AUS) is one such university that is an oasis in desert when it comes to providing a holistic liberal educational experience to its students who have to take courses in humanities, history, culture, and language regardless of their chosen disciplines. The university was recently ranked among the top 10 in the Arab world. Other American universities in Beirut and Cairo also follow a similar approach.
The Habib University, Karachi, is yet another recent and welcome development. Following the well-tested model of a US-style liberal arts university, Habib’s science and engineering programs require students to undertake a rigorous liberal arts course and seek to create scientists and engineers who can comprehend and tackle complex, interconnected issues and develop sustainable solutions for the society. Students must take subjects such as ‘understanding modernity’ and ‘Hikma 1 and 2’ – a two-course sequence literally translated as ‘Traditional Wisdom 1 and 2’ – in addition to many others that seek to create holistic rather than narrow disciplinary professionals. An extensive program of societal engagement that tests not only their knowledge but also their ability to adapt and utilise is also a part of the student experience.
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