Pathways to Excellence: How a Reinvigorated University System can Stem the Decline in Science in the Muslim World

Pathways to Excellence: How a Reinvigorated University System can Stem the Decline in Science in the Muslim World
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Sheikh Umar Ahmad

Science is as old as Islamic civilization. The institutes of scientific dissemination had been established first by Muslim dominated nations as is evident from history and historical monuments. The Islamic theology lays claim to the world’s oldest continually operational university. The University of Qarawi¬yyin was founded in Fes Morocco in 859 AD, at the beginning of an Islamic Golden Age. Despite such auspicious beginnings, univer¬sities in the Muslim world are now in dire straits. The 57 countries of the Muslim world, those with Muslim-majority population, and part of the organization of Islamic Coop¬eration (OIC) — are home to nearly 25% of the world’s people. But as of 2012, they had contributed only 1.6% of the world’s patents, 6% of its academic publications, and 2.4% of the global research expenditure. There have been only three Nobel laureates in the sciences from OIC countries; today these nations host fewer than a dozen universities in the top 400 of the many world rankings and none in the top 100 (Nature journal report 2016).OIC countries on average invest less than 0.5% of their gross domestic product (GDP) on research and development (R&D)with only Malaysia spending slightly more than 1% (the world average being 1.78%, most advanced countries spend 2–3%). Students in the Mus¬lim world who participate in standardized international science tests lag well behind their peers worldwide, and the situation seems to be worsening.
University science programmes are using narrow content, limited edition and outdated teaching methods. To become beacons in society, OIC univer¬sities need to revitalize their teaching and for universities to become truly meritocratic, they must develop new ways of assessing faculty members to reward valuable research, teaching and out¬reach. And, for this to happen, governments must give universities more autonomy both in terms of carrying out their research of interest and financial inclusion. Scientific research must be relevant and responsive to society’s intellectual and prac¬tical needs. For scientists and engineers to be creative, innovative and able to engage with ques¬tions of ethics, religion and the wider social purpose of research, students must receive a broad, liberal styled education. Quite a few institutions among OIC countries attempt to relate their students’ learning to their cultural backgrounds and contemporary knowledge. It is perhaps no coincidence that the most recent Times Higher Education world university rankings named Sharif University as the only top university and number eight in the OIC.
The global consensus is that enquiry-based and open competitive science education fosters the deepest under¬standing of scientific concepts and laws. But in most OIC universities, lecture-based teach¬ing still prevails. Another problem is that assessment of faculty members, innovative curriculum changes, faculty appointments and promotions are set by ministry rules and decided by centralized commissions and bureaucracies. This leaves little room for universities to intervene and innovate.
Universities in OIC nations need to be granted more autonomy to transform themselves into meritocracies that strive for scientific excellence and then lead rather than follow the winds of change towards greater development and transparency within their societies. Universities need to promote the right metrics, so that they do not inadvertently encourage plagiarism. This is a task that must be undertaken by national or transnational bodies, such as the Islamic World Academy of Sciences (IAS) or the Islamic Educa¬tional, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO). Universities need to deliver more multi¬disciplinary, explora¬tory science education. A good start would be training for university teachers, with workshops on new tools ,techniques, and approaches and toughest challenges that come their way. Barriers need to be broken between depart¬ments and colleges and new programmes constructed. Professors need to be free to teach topics that are not tightly regulated by ministries.
There are grassroots efforts across the Muslim world to stimulate curiosity about science among students of all ages, operat¬ing without much government support. Ahmed Djebbar, an Emeritus science histo¬rian at the University of Lille in France, has constructed an online, pre-university-level course called ‘The Discoveries in Islamic Countries’ available in three languages, which relates science concepts to great discoveries and stories from the Islamic Golden Age. Such courses should be scaled up, introduced and shared by institutions of higher learning. Universities will need to implement reforms individually and the inspiration from a few islands of excel¬lence will, in time, turn the tide of public and political opinion. True transformation will require much broader action from ministries, regulators and fund¬ing agencies, and these may be the most resistant to change. Without tough reforms, the dream of a scientific revival in the Muslim world will always remain a dream and will never come to fore for its particular interest and for inclusive development in general.

—The author is a Doctoral Research Scholar at CSIR , Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine, Jammu (J&K). He can be reached at: