Higher education in Jordan: history, present status and future

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Higher education in Jordan: history, present status and future

By Prof Azmi Mahafzah
The University of Jordan

This article aims to discuss the status, challenges, and future of the higher education and scientific research in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. As a small country of about 90,000 square kilometres with a population of 9.8 million, and limited resources with GDP ranking of 90th according to the World Bank 2015 list (Total nominal GDP: US$37.5 billion). However, Jordan’s cultural and historical roots, its central location in the heart of the Middle East combined with the outstanding leadership of the Hashemite Royal family, has made Jordan play a leading role at regional and international levels. Since its independence in 1946, Jordan has modernised significantly and witnessed a remarkable improvement in all sectors. Despite turmoil and unrest, Jordan has shown a unique internal stability in a region where conflict is the norm.

Building a strong and modern education system in Jordan is one of the most important national priorities. For example, Illiteracy in Jordan (6.8%) is among the lowest in the region; also, 30% of men and 40% of women between 19 and 23 are attending universities. The University of Jordan was established in 1962, as the first university in the country. His Majesty King Abdullah II initiated a significant reform in education in early 2001 with a vision to promote knowledge-based economy and to make Jordan the regional hub for technology and innovation.

Higher education in Jordan is regulated and monitored by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MHESR), which was created in 1985. Jordan is home to 10 public and 21 private universities with more than 35,000 faculty and staff members, 267,000 undergraduate students, and 18,000 graduate students. Jordanian universities provide a diverse spectrum of academic programmes (948 for the BSc level; 476 for master’s level and 105 for PhD level). Interest in higher education is evident from the increasing number of universities and enrolled students (see representative graph below).

Increasing number of students attending universities in Jordan

Operating under the umbrella of the MHESR, a scientific research-funding agency was established in 2005 to prompt scientific research and to fund research initiatives in the country. However, due to the challenging economy in Jordan, the total national expenditure on scientific research and development (R&D) is still low (≈0.55% of GDP). For example, World Bank sponsored a series of loans focused on supporting higher education such as The Higher Education Development Project (HEDP, US$65.8 million) and The Education Reform for the Knowledge Economy Project (ERfKE, US$370 million). MHESR, as well as many universities in Jordan, established strategic collaboration and long-term partnerships with various international organisations such as Gulf Cooperation Council, World Bank, European Commission (Jordan is an active partner in various TEMPUS programmes as well as the Trans-European Mobility Program for University Studies), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United Nations (UN). For example, TEMPUS projects started in 1990 to promote experience exchange and educational improvement. Moreover, United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has sponsored a funding initiative to evaluate the learning outcomes and educational competencies of Jordanian graduates and how these are matching the market specification. This collaborative initiative aims to reduce the increasing rates of unemployment and to promote personal and social development.

Universities’ budgets derive mainly from tuition fees. However, the MHESR allocated a special portion of its budget to support students with low income, with a budget of JOD 10 million (≈US$14.11 million) annually and 40,000 scholarships in 2015.

In response to the growing number of universities and total number of enrolled students, higher education sector in Jordan responded recently by implementing international standards of quality assurance in higher education. For example, the Jordanian Higher Education Accreditation Commission (www.heac.org.jo) was established in 2007 to formulate policies and standards to ensure good practice and promote quality in higher education through mandatory national accreditation requirements covering all public and private universities. HEAC also organises a systematic and thorough national exam to evaluate educational outcomes and competencies among graduates from Jordanian universities. Many universities in Jordan have initiated additional accreditation processes from external regulatory firms with international reputation and recognition. For example, in 2016, three departments from the School of Engineering (electrical, mechanical and chemical engineering) at the University of Jordan obtained the ABET accreditation (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology), which is one of the most recognised international accreditors for such programmes. Similarly, and in the same year, the School of Pharmacy at the University of Jordan celebrated the successful certification from another internationally recognised accreditor – ACPE (Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education). This international accreditation was also obtained by other schools at the University of Jordan, such as School of Medicine and School of Dentistry. Other universities in Jordan have obtained, or are at least in the process of obtaining, international accreditation as well.

In 2016, two Jordanian universities were ranked by the QS Word University Ranking (The University of Jordan in the 551–600 category and University of Science and Technology in the 651–700 category). These measures indicate clearly a strong shift toward a quality-based higher education in Jordan through internal and external quality assurance and accreditation. In this context almost all universities established a dedicated centre or office for quality assurance and accreditation to promote the culture of quality and excellence in teaching and learning. As a result, the numbers of international students studying in Jordanian universities has increased. For example, the University of Jordan is home to more than 5,000 students from eighty-five countries, which attests to quality education and highlights its diverse campus culture.

Due to the dynamic nature of the Jordanian market, the economic challenges in the region, vocational education is gaining a significant interest by the MHESR in Jordan. This interest is being translated into practice starting by launching a public awareness focusing on the importance of vocational education and its advantages to change the mindset of many Jordanians who generally consider academic degrees as superior endpoints and more reputable outcomes. In the same context, a practical strategic plan to increase the number of students enrolled in vocational education and to provide higher number of scholarships in this direction has been devised. Al-Balqa Applied University, established in 1997, and many community colleges under its tutelage provide more than 40% of technical and vocational education in Jordan. The MHESR has plans to increase the percentage of students in technical and vocational programmes to reach 25–30% of all students attending universities in Jordan. This plan is parallel to a recent plan by the Ministry of Education that aims to increase the percentage of students attending applied secondary education from 12% to 30–40% in the coming ten years.

In conclusion, challenges in the higher education sector include: the poor economy of the country as well as of the whole region and the associated increasing unemployment among graduates, high number of graduates and insufficient university budget, unavailable and inaccurate statistics regarding the nature of the labour market to design more efficient academic programmes, weak partnership and collaboration between private sectors and the universities, migration of well-educated individuals overseas, bureaucracy, and nonresponsive legislation. To tackle some of the challenges, in September 2016, King Abdullah II and Queen Rania Foundation sponsored the launching of the National Strategy for Human Resources Development conference with a focus on serious development in basic as well as higher education. This strategy is expected to create a critical transition in higher education in Jordan toward high- quality graduates/programmes and ultimately the global ranking of our universities.

Born in Jordan in 1953, Azmi Mahafzah obtained his MD degree in 1977 from Damascus University, Syria, and his PhD in microbiology and immunology in 1984 from the American University of Beirut, Lebanon. He then joined the School of Medicine of the University of Jordan as an assistant professor of microbiology and immunology before pursuing a post-doctoral fellowship training in Virology at Yale University School of Medicine. Professor Mahafzah has been working as a faculty member at the University of Jordan since 1984. He assumed several administrative positions at the university including chairman of the Department of Pathology, Microbiology and Forensic Medicine, director of the Department of Laboratory Medicine at the Jordan University Hospital, vice dean and dean of the School of Medicine, and vice president for Scientific Schools before becoming the thirteenth president of the University of Jordan on 19 April 2016. Professor Mahafzah is a member of several scientific societies and communities. His research interests include immunology diagnosis of infectious diseases, nosocomial infections and epidemiology of infectious diseases.