Institutions: Revive universities of the Muslim world

Islamic civilization lays claim to the world’s oldest continuously operating university. Qarawiyin University was founded in Fes, Morocco in 859 AD at the beginning of an Islamic Golden Age. Despite such an auspicious start, universities in the region are now in serious trouble, according to a report released this week, as demonstrated by a report we released this week (see korli3).

The 57 countries of the Muslim world – with Muslim-majority populations and part of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) – are home to about 25% of the world’s people.

But as of 2012, they contributed only 1.6% of the world’s patents, 6% of its academic publications and 2.4% of global research expenditure (see ‘Quarter deck’). There have been only three Nobel Prize winners in science from OIC countries; Today these countries host less than a dozen universities in the top 400 of many world rankings, and none in the top 100.

To assess this situation, for the past two years we have led an international non-governmental and non-partisan task force of experts set up by the Muslim World Science Initiative. The task force was chaired by Zakri Abdul Hameed, Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of Malaysia. It was attended by a dozen experts and scholars, including policy makers, vice chancellors, professors and science communicators from around the world.

Our work confirmed several widely known problems, as highlighted by reports such as the Royal Society’s 2014 Atlas of Islamic World Science and Innovation 2. For example, OIC countries invest an average of less than 0.5% of their gross domestic product (GDP) on research and development (R&D).

Only Malaysia spends a little over 1% (the world average is 1.78%; most advanced countries spend 2-3%). Students from the Muslim world who participate in standardized international science tests lag far behind their peers around the world, and the situation continues to worsen, 3,4.

Our report sheds light on an even more problematic situation. University science programs are using narrow content and outdated teaching methods.

In most OIC countries, students join science or non-science streams around the age of 14, and after that their education is completely binary: science and technology students join the humanities, social-sciences, Very little is received in the form of language or art education. and vice versa.

Only one university in the region offers a program in ‘Science and Technology Studies’: the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.

To become a beacon in society, OIC universities need to revitalize their teaching methods and blend science with liberal arts like history and philosophy. For universities to become truly meritorious, they must develop new ways of evaluating faculty members to reward valuable research, teaching and outreach. And for that to happen, governments must give more autonomy to universities.

quantity and quality

Our task force has collected data on science output for 20 OIC countries, which have represented over 90% of OIC scientific productivity over the past two decades. During the period 1996–2005 to 2006–15, most countries doubled or tripled their science paper output.

Qatar’s production increased by a factor of 7.7 and Iran’s by 7.6. But the number of scientific papers produced is less than the average for countries with the same GDP per capita. We found an average of 4.2 papers per dollar of GDP per capita for our OIC sample in the recent decade, compared to an average of 8.6 for a group of 4 equivalent countries such as Brazil, Spain, South Korea, South Africa and Israel (see Supplementary Information ).

Papers from these OIC countries are cited less frequently than those from other countries. The average for 2006–15 was 5.7 citations per paper, compared to 9.7 for South Africa and 13.8 for Israel, countries with a comparable GDP per capita. The list of the 100 most cited papers since 1900 includes none with the lead author from the Muslim-majority nation (see Nature 514, 550–553; 2014).

Scientific research should be relevant and responsive to the intellectual and practical needs of society. This dual goal seems to be out of sight for most educational institutions in the region – and often out of consideration.

For scientists and engineers to be creative, innovative, and able to engage with questions of ethics, religion and the broader societal purpose of research, students must receive a broad, liberal-arts-style education. Some institutions try to link the education of their students with their cultural background and contemporary knowledge.

In the early 1970s, Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology began a rich program combining Islamic history, philosophy and culture with science and engineering. Its graduate program in philosophy of science is the only one at the OIC that we are aware of.

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