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Abdullatif Abuhijleh, President of Birzeit University

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UNIMED General Assembly 2019

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Abdullatif Abuhijleh, President of Birzeit University

  1. 1. 1 Prof. Dr. Abdullatif Abuhijleh Palestine-President of Birzeit University UNIMED General Assembly 2019 Link Campus University, Rome Challenges facing education and research in basic sciences and humanities in the Euro-Mediterranean Region Distinguished guests, dear colleagues, It is my great pleasure to be here, at the UNIMED General Assembly 2019. I would like to thank Link Campus University for hosting this meeting that opens up welcome opportunities for vibrant discussions, and facilitates dialogue that will lead to new initiatives, activities and partnerships. Greetings to our brothers and sisters in Lebanon. We appreciate the ongoing partnership with our peers from Europe and the Mediterranean region that has consistently catalyzed change. Our cooperation helps us foster community engagement and educate future leaders and innovative,
  2. 2. 2 creative problem-solvers who are capable of positively affecting their communities and countries. Indeed, this is the right time and appropriate place to discuss our major responsibility as presidents, rectors, academics, and educators: We must find ways and means to overcome our geographic boundaries, deepen our academic cooperation, and create for ― and with ― our youth the future they deserve. Our youth in our region are letting us know that they understand the importance of knowledge and education. As we are building our nations, we carry the huge responsibility of preparing them well for the future and for its demands in terms of work, life, and citizenship. We are aiming to fulfil this duty by exposing our youth to broad and holistic educational experiences. Here, we are guided by our firm conviction that the main mission and great responsibility of higher education institutions is to develop not only youth’s skills and knowledge but also their personalities and characters. Because today’s students will be tomorrow’s citizens, workers, and leaders It is a fact that in today’s digital age, the nature of work and job-market demands are changing rapidly. Increasingly and at every level, there is a need for skills in applied sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The number of undergraduate students
  3. 3. 3 who earn a degree in the humanities and in basic sciences is declining, as students want to earn a professional degree ― and this is their parents' wish as well. At universities, students should be encouraged to go beyond their specialization. Law, accounting, IT or engineering, as solid sciences are not solely enough to build careers and bright futures of our youth. An integration between basic and social sciences and humanities is essential to build their life skills as creative and active citizens. Unfortunately, there are common obstacles facing our universities in relation to the integration of humanities and basic sciences. Most importantly with the limited access to financial resources for research in these fields, and the lack of sufficient translations between the various languages of the Euro-Mediterranean. I would like to point out, and raise as a point to reflect upon, that our local cultures tend to support a rather narrow view of education. Students and parents increasingly focus their aspirations and plans on fields in which immediate, post- graduation employment seems certain and financially more rewarding, while the associated reputation is considered more prestigious ― mainly for such financial reasons.
  4. 4. 4 This perspective, however, has certainly not helped our young generation. Unemployment among youth is way too high in most of our countries, and the lack of opportunities is fostering disillusion and despair. Society must realize that it is not a "waste" of valuable time to study philosophy, politics, and engage with literary, artistic, or social issues. I may add that we should also sensitize the academic staff who teach IT, medicine, and engineering to the value and importance of the humanities in addressing the major ethical, social, and political issues of our day. Only when all of us consider it our task to educate accountable citizens and foster responsible citizenship can we make progress. Therefore, when we train our youth for the labor market, we should strengthen the knowledge in both social and basic sciences and develop transversal skills ― such as critical thinking and creativity ― so we provide our youth with the opportunity to build their personal development on solid bases. Such an approach can serve as an effective means to overcome all forms of exclusion. With the enormous progresses in STEM disciplines, graduates will need such human skills to be able to adapt and prosper in their careers. At the same time, graduates at humanities will also need the knowledge and skills of basic sciences.
  5. 5. 5 A new study issued by the “Board on Higher Education and Workforce” at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in the United States bolsters the case for an approach in which higher-education institutions integrate the STEM disciplines with the social sciences and humanities. This approach would consider these disciplines, as Albert Einstein once wrote, "branches of the same tree." In order to successfully prepare out youth so they may tackle the challenges associated with hard-to-predict future demands, we must learn to integrate the insights and approaches of the humanities into our university education ― whether it is in STEM or other newly emerging disciplines. The integration of disciplines will bring about the broad and interwoven education that is essential when we wish to prepare young citizens for life, work, and civic participation. An educated and open mind empowers the individual and allows him or her to separate truth from falsehood, bias from fact, and the logical from the illogical. At Birzeit University, we have long recognized the importance of the humanities and basic sciences. Since the early days when the university was still a college, all students have been required to complete a number of courses we have classified as “cultural studies” ― but which clearly go beyond an appreciation of the cultural domain. These courses introduce students to intellectual themes; they
  6. 6. 6 incorporate deliberation that encourages critical thinking and underlines the importance of debate and argument. In this era of increased interdisciplinarity, where boundaries between traditional disciplines are being eroded, I would also like to emphasize the importance of complementing approaches and of inclusive perspectives that draw from both the humanities and the social sciences. At our university, we have pioneered a number of unique interdisciplinary academic programs, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels, that bring together insights gained from the humanities and social sciences, to bear on the study of particular issues and problems in science-related fields. To give only a few examples: - Our master’s degree in public health, offered by the Institute of Community and Public Health, is unique in going beyond the narrow biomedical determinants of public health, considering the important social, ethical, cultural, and economic factors that affect the well-being of individuals and of society. - We launched a linguistic search engine with 150 multilingual lexicons and a linguistic ontology for Arabic language, which is developed by a computer scientist and a professor of Artificial Intelligence- Mustafa Jarrar This search
  7. 7. 7 engine contains the world’s largest Arabic lexical database and forms a non- profit, long-term research project that aims to provide people with an innovative tool that allows them to find translations, synonyms, and definitions in all domains and disciplines. - Our Leadership & Active Citizenship program–Masari is a flagship co- curricular program that engages Birzeit University’s undergraduate students in an interactive and transformative learning journey. The journey empowers them to take charge of their future, challenge the status-quo, and bring about meaningful and sustainable positive change in their immediate communities. The program spans 3 years and is comprised of six highly interactive and student-centered learning stations that aims to foster an enabling university environment that is conducive to innovation and entrepreneurship, and empower students to design and carry out social action projects (SAPs). Therefore, amid the many obstacles that our region faces in its efforts to provide high-quality higher education, we call for a more integrative model of education that better prepares students for work, life, and citizenship. Working together on developing skills in basic sciences, reinforced by social-sciences knowledge in a sustained and
  8. 8. 8 coordinated manner, is the way towards ensuring a fair, inclusive, and more sustainable future for our youth. Our European partners are currently working for their new programing period (2021-2027) to help students and staff to acquire the skills, deepen their knowledge in understanding other cultures, and be open up to new perspectives and views. I recall the importance of introducing humanities and basic sciences as a strategic axis in our higher education systems. Thank you for your kind attention

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