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Gulf universities need lower teaching loads to realize their economic visions

Omar Al-Ubaydli

Published: Updated:

Gulf universities need to lower the high teaching burden placed on their professors which currently undermines the potential for more research output from Gulf economies. This is a key and necessary step for Gulf countries to realize their ambitious economic visions.

Universities in the region have mimicked their western counterparts by adopting missions that emphasize the creation and dissemination of knowledge. However, the global rankings of individual universities and the scientific output of Gulf countries both indicate that Gulf institutions remain laggards when it comes to research output.

The reasons are complex, but one of the contributing factors is faculty teaching loads. An assistant professor in an average American university can expect a teaching load of two courses per semester – a figure that shrinks with seniority. Moreover, low-cost teaching assistants are provided, alleviating the burden of grading and responding to most student queries.

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This setup has a singular aim: Boosting research output, both by affording faculty the time to perform research, and by attracting the best researchers. A Harvard professor, for example, will barely interact with undergraduates, instead focusing on the cutting-edge research that earned them their reputation and led to their hiring.

In contrast, Gulf university professor teaching loads are of the order of five courses per semester, with minimal support from teaching assistants, and heavy grading requirements. Producing high quality research under such circumstances is difficult due to the tremendous pressure on the scholar’s time.

Note that this is not an issue of incentives: University bylaws make promotions and bonuses conditional on research. Moreover, there are grants that faculty can apply to help fund the material elements of research, such as laboratory equipment and travel costs for attending conferences. The basic problem is a lack of time, and it is reinforced by the minimal presence of doctoral programs, meaning that research grants cannot be used to hire graduate students as teaching or research assistants that increase a scholar’s productivity.

This deficiency has macroeconomic implications, as it contributes to the weak linkages between the Gulf private sectors and their universities. A company that would like a quick analytical report or research project will not find university-based researchers able to deliver on time due to their high teaching loads, pushing those companies toward global universities or consultancies.

Realizing the economic visions is considerably more difficult if the Gulf countries’ brightest scholars are unable to be leading contributors to their countries’ research and development efforts. International outsourcing is a poor substitute for homegrown research if the goal is building long-term capacity.

Admittedly, a few exceptions have recently emerged in the form of well-funded elite universities in the Gulf. However, their research ranks are almost exclusively composed of expatriate scholars who have neither the opportunity nor the intention of settling in the Gulf permanently. This drastically diminishes the long-term impact of their work on the local research environment.

The simple first step to addressing this problem is cutting teaching loads, but this will create a massive financial quandary for university administrations who will have to find alternative educators. Much of the pressure can be alleviated by expanding doctoral programs, as PhD students in western countries play a central role in teaching undergraduates. However, doing so in the Gulf will require a large injection of funding into higher education to attract the right caliber of doctoral students.

Along the margins, some administrative tinkering can help, too. Deans should distinguish between teaching-oriented professors and research-oriented ones, shifting teaching loads on to the former, rather than insisting on a one-size-fits-all system.

Ultimately, the solution lies in the Gulf countries’ government cabinets, who need to make upgrading the research output of domestic, homegrown researchers a priority. The science policy of countries such as Japan and South Korea, which experienced radical jumps in their innovativeness during the twentieth century, continues to play an important role in promoting a culture of research. Gulf governments must resist the temptation of pointing the finger of blame at university deans and expecting them to solve the problem alone.

Omar Al-Ubaydli (@omareconomics) is an economist at George Mason University

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.