Governance of Arab Universities: Why Does It Matter?

  • John WaterburyEmail author


There are many facets to university governance, but they are not of equal importance. The two facets that are most important are also in tension with each other: accountability and autonomy. Accountability almost always circumscribes autonomy. Autonomy may reduce accountability.

The university, or institution of higher learning (IHL) is “owned” by someone or some authority. The owners generally finance the IHL. They demand from the managers of the IHL accountability for all aspects of the mission to which owners (principals) and managers (agents) have agreed. Some parts of the mission are fully visible but others are hidden. Managers may lose their jobs for neglecting hidden as well as visible goals. It is hard for the owners to know what their agents are doing. They may proliferate oversight bodies and cumbersome reporting mechanisms or even deploy spies to find out. These efforts generate high monitoring costs and may create an atmosphere of mutual suspicion between owners and managers.

In the Arab world, publically-owned IHLs are the norm although privately-owned IHLs are increasing rapidly. Private IHLs tend to enjoy greater degrees of administrative autonomy than public. They are accountable to boards specific to the institution. The public sector model, pioneered by Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s, is highly centralized. The owners exercise their power through supreme councils and often directly interfere in the affairs of individual IHLs. In theory it is the taxpayers who are the ultimate owners of the IHL, but because they are represented by weak and ineffectual legislatures, taxpayers have no meaningful impact on higher education (or any public education).

It is widely recognized that institutional autonomy is at the heart of the governance dilemma in the Arab world, but why is this seen as so critical? There are two models of governance at war. One is the prevailing model of a highly-centralized system that provides a uniform quality of education to students of roughly equivalent abilities (as determined by the thanawiyya ‘amma, tawjihi, etc.), taught by professors of roughly equal talent who receive roughly the same level of pay and who are, in fact, civil servants.

The counter-model, almost unheard of in the public sector, is an autonomous university, “owned” legally by a board of trustees and responsible for setting university priorities and policies, above all in:
  1. 1.

    Curriculum content and structure

  2. 2.

    Admission criteria and numbers admitted

  3. 3.

    Student evaluation criteria

  4. 4.

    Recruitment and promotion of academic staff

  5. 5.

    Recruitment and promotion of non-academic staff

  6. 6.

    Setting levels of compensation for all university employees

  7. 7.

    Setting tuition levels

  8. 8.

    Setting research foci and incentives

  9. 9.

    Responsibility for university finances, including endowments and fund-raising


This kind of autonomy is not intrinsically good. It is not an end in itself. Indeed, it may foster complacency and nepotism. It is good only in systems premised on competition. Competition for what? Competition for the best students, the best faculty, the best research programs, and, ultimately, competition for the resources to make all this possible. If that is not the goal, then autonomy may be relatively meaningless.


Academic freedom Accountability Admissions Autonomy Communities of practice Compensation Competition Curriculum Leadership selection Political interference Promotion Rankings Trilemma University finances University Governance 


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© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.American University of BeirutBeirutLebanon

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