In Arab lands, a revolution in education. Oil money, independence have spurred rise of educated class. This article is based on the author's visits to 20 institutions of higher learning in the Arab world.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Hillel Frisch, writing last year in the Jerusalem Post, pointed out that there are proportionally as many students in higher education from the West Bank as there are in Israel itself, and a higher proportion than in England or France. This is but one sign of the growing hunger for education in the Arab world, a hunger which in most cases is being satisfied to some degree. The implications of the emergence of an educated class in this society -- though the impact is bound to be far-reaching -- is less clear than how and why this class is appearing.

The rapid expansion of Arab education has been a result of two events: the availability of oil money to finance the expansion and the imperative of the postwar independence movements.

Of course, there has always been scholastic activity in the Arab world, and always institutions of learning. The great mosque at Tunis housed Islamic studies for many centuries. But most of these institutions did not keep pace with modern times. There are a few exceptions: the University of Cairo was founded in 1908 and was for many years the center of Arab education; the American University of Beirut, founded in 1860 as an American missionary university, trained many of the present generation of Arab leaders.

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The first expansion, from 1955 to 1970, was too rapid -- particularly in the socialist states such as that of Abdel Nasser in Egypt, where universities were overcrowded. Expanding higher education was part of a general principle of providing equal opportunity for everyone. But neither the funding, the size of faculties, nor the physical plants in the universities kept pace with the number of students.

This number today is substantial. According to Egyptian Embassy officials in Washington, there were 92,000 students at Ain Shams University, 77,000 at the University of Alexandria, and 96,000 at the University of Cairo in 1981 (the most recent year for which statistics are available).

In 1979, the average number of students per faculty member was 30, compared with 10 or 20 in the United States. This did not account for Arab faculty on leave in ``moneymaking'' jobs in Persian Gulf states, which brought the ratio up to nearly 40 to 1. Closed-circuit television systems were used in crowded lecture rooms, and instead of discouraging absenteeism among students, the university tacitly encouraged students to study at home. As a result, the standards of Cairo University dropped markedly. (This does not prevent it from having influential students, however: The oil minister of the United Arab Emirates, Dr. Mana Said Otaiba, obtained his PhD in economics from Cairo in 1974 for a thesis on how to manipulate Arab oil production to raise the world price.)

In Baghdad, Iraq, the initial effect of revolution was also a drop in standards. Before the 1958 socialist revolution, there was a small but influential Jesuit college, and many of the present Iraqi leaders were trained there (although they were Muslims). After the revolution, this college combined with others to form Baghdad University.

Oil money has been a boon to higher education in Arab countries with petroleum resources. The new campus of the King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which opened in 1984, cost $8 billion. It was built under a turnkey contract (that is, the contractor left the site with all buildings ready to be used) by a Texas firm. The University of Qatar in Doha has just moved into equally opulent facilities, as has the University of Baghdad.

More surprising, perhaps, is that the new Yarmouk University in the relatively poor country of Jordan is building a new campus for 20,000 students at a cost of over $500 million. Begun in 1977, Yarmouk already has 9,000 students. This, along with the 20,000 at the University of Jordan at Amman and (according to the president of Yarmouk University, Dr. Adnan Bedram) an equal number of Jordanians studying overseas, adds up to perhaps 60,000 students in a poor country of only 2 million people. This university is paid for by student fees; part of the national import taxes on commodities is assigned to new construction.

Brick and mortar may indicate the dedication of a country but they do not make a university. The men and women of the faculty and the students who study under them are the real foundation. The universities of northern Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and the West Bank are most fortunate in this respect. For some decades students from these countries have been coming to the West to be educated, creating a large pool of scholars who could return home to become faculty members. For example, Dr. Ali Nafeh left Virginia Polytechnic and State University, where he had served with distinction, to take a position as dean of Yarmouk University.

Other Western-educated Arabs have taken well-paid positions in the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia. The physics faculty of the University of Kuwait consists of 20 persons, of which only three are Kuwaiti citizens. Others come from Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Jordan, and the Sudan.

Students there were eager and attentive, though the young women appeared reluctant to ask questions. Much emphasis is placed on the physics undergraduate laboratory. It is here, that the students learn the techniques of simple measurement and uses of mechanical and electrical equipment. But they learn fast, and it is an interesting sight to see a young woman, dressed in a chuddar, using a soldering iron and drill press to make equipment.

Even in Western-oriented Tunisia, university education is a recent phenomenon. Before gaining independence from France in 1958, eager Tunisians attended French universities. The University of Tunis was founded immediately upon independence, and has grown to 30,000 students.

One of the complaints made by Palestinians against King Hussein of Jordan is that from 1948 to 1967, when he governed the West Bank, he built no institutions of higher learning there. He expected all students to go to the University of Jordan in Amman instead. In the last 15 years the Palestinians of the West Bank have been on their own, and several universities have sprung up in the West Bank. The best known, perhaps, is Birzeit University, 20 miles north of Jerusalem. This was started as a high school under the British in 1922 but became a university in 1973 and now has 2,500 students. Bethlehem University has 1,500 students; Najah University at Nablus has over 2,000, and there are Islamic universities at Hebron and Gaza. These and other institutions are financed primarily by student fees, but much new building is paid by generous donors now living in the Gulf states.

The effect of all of this education is unclear. Those educated in engineering and the sciences will be able to find jobs anywhere in the world. No doubt they will travel and spread Arab culture widely.

Richard Wilson is Mallinckrodt professor of physics at Harvard University.

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