Institutions: Revive universities of the Muslim world | Nature cites inspiring example of Aga Khan University

Nidhal Guessoum & Athar Osama for Nature
28 October 2015

To boost science, higher-education institutes must give students a broad education and become meritocratic, say Nidhal Guessoum and Athar Osama.

Nature cites inspiring example of Aga Khan University - Institutions - Revive universities of the Muslim world - The world's oldest continually operational university was founded in Fes, Moroccoin 859The Islamic civilization lays claim to the world’s oldest continually operational university. The University of Qarawiyyin was founded in Fes, Morocco, in ad 859, at the beginning of an Islamic Golden Age. Despite such auspicious beginnings, universities in the region are now in dire straits, as demonstrated by a report we have authored, released this week (see

The 57 countries of the Muslim world — those with a Muslim-majority population, and part of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (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 expenditure1, 2 (see ‘Quarter deck’). 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 cites inspiring example of Aga Khan University - Institutions - Revive universities of the Muslim world - Quarter DeckTo assess this situation, for the past two years we have led an international non-governmental and non-partisan task force of experts, formed by the Muslim World Science Initiative. The task force was chaired by Zakri Abdul Hamid, science adviser to the prime minister of Malaysia. It included a dozen experts and scholars — including policymakers, vice-chancellors, professors, and science communicators — from around the world.

Our work confirmed many widely known problems, as highlighted by reports such as the Royal Society’s 2014 Atlas of Islamic World Science and Innovation2. For example, OIC countries on average invest less than 0.5% of their gross domestic product (GDP) on research and development (R&D). Only Malaysia spends slightly more than 1% (the world average is 1.78%; most advanced countries spend 2–3%). Students in the Muslim world who participate in standardized international science tests lag well behind their peers worldwide, and the situation seems to be worsening.

We hope that the inspiration from a few islands of excellence will, in time, turn the tide of public and political opinion. There is precedent. In Pakistan, two private universities established in the 1980s — the Aga Khan University and Hospital in Karachi and Lahore University of Management Sciences — revolutionized medical and business education within a decade of their creation. Students elsewhere began demanding the standard set by these educational pioneers. The same can be done for science.

Our task force is putting out an open call for universities across the Muslim world to join a voluntary Network of Excellence of Universities for Science (NEXUS), to be launched early next year. This peer group will be managed by the task force and housed in science adviser Zakri’s office. We plan for NEXUS to run summer schools for university administrators, to monitor the progress of reforms at participating universities, and to issue a peer report card that will assess the performance of the universities in meeting milestones, thus recognizing and inspiring further improvements. True transformation will require much broader action from ministries, regulators and funding agencies, and these may be the most resistant to change.

Without tough reforms, the dream of a scientific revival in the Muslim world will remain just that.

Discover, Explore and Learn more by reading the complete story in Nature | Institutions: Revive universities of the Muslim world

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