For decades, both the American University in Cairo (AUC) and the American University of Beirut (AUB) have been a dream destination for thousands of students across the region. They continue to guarantee for their alumni higher social status, as evinced by frequent job advertisements that end with the phrase: "American University graduates preferred".
These two universities remained the only source of an esteemed private education for many years in both countries, and a window to a Western education using modern methods.
However, many private universities have since been established in various countries throughout the region, and a large number of students have sought educations abroad. Meanwhile, self-education has reshaped competition, which begs the question: do American universities continue to attract students who aspire to excellence, acting as gateways to prestigious job opportunities in the Middle East and beyond?
A School for Men and an Evangelical Institution
The American University in Cairo was founded in 1919 by Charles Watson, who wanted to establish a university and a high school where the language of instruction is English. The educational model was based on high levels of participation and knowledge, with the aim of contributing to the development of thought and knowledge, to produce leaders in Egypt and the Arab world.
Until 1928, the university only admitted male students.
On the other hand, the American University of Beirut was founded in 1866 by the American evangelical missionaries in Syria and Lebanon. It opened its doors in the same year, and was named the Syrian Protestant College. At the time, only 16 students were enrolled. Its name was changed to the American University of Beirut in 1920.
It was accredited as a private institution for higher education, with all its existing faculties, in 1961. Throughout its history, the university played an important role in producing thinkers and visionaries who contributed to shaping the Arab world.
"(Before 1970) the university produced a number of prominent critical thinkers, reformers, and nationalists who created dialogue within society and dealt with critical issues in disciplines such as Arab history and Arab unity," says Sari Hanafi, head of the Social Sciences and Media Studies department at the university.
Among some of these figures were Michel Aflaq, one of the main contributors to the development of Ba'athism and Arab nationalism, as well as Antoun Saadeh, the founder of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, who worked as a professor at AUB.
By the 1980s, its impact on social debate and its controversies had dwindled, and the demand for engineers and doctors increased, Hanafi adds. "The focus shifted to business administration, medicine, and engineering, with less interest in disciplines such as history, philosophy, archaeology and Middle East studies," he concludes.
In the Heart of Cairo, on the Mediterranean Coast
The American University in Cairo has two campus; its historic campus sits in Tahrir Square, in Downtown Cairo—the site of the revolution that broke out in 2011—while its newer campus, inaugurated in 2008, lies on 270 acres of land in the Fifth Settlement, a satellite city in the suburbs of Cairo.
The university has 13 research centers and is equipped to accommodate people with special needs. The number of lecturers at the AUC is estimated to be 54% Egyptian, 25% from the United States, and 21% from other countries around the world. The university has been expanded to accommodate approximately 40,000 students in all stages of university education and postgraduate studies.
Programs taught at the university are divided across three main schools: Humanities & Social Sciences, Science & Engineering, Business, Global Affairs and Public Policy, Continuing Education, and the Graduate School of Education.
As for the American University of Beirut, the 61-acre campus is located in Ras Beirut, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The campus includes 64 buildings, sports venues, a private beach, and a bird sanctuary, in addition to a botanic garden, an archaeological museum, and another museum for natural history.
The university offers more than 135 undergraduate, master's and doctoral programs at its six faculties: Agricultural & Food Sciences, Arts & Sciences, Engineering & Architecture, Health Sciences, Medicine—which includes Rafic Hariri College of Nursing—and Sulaiman Alayan School of Business.
The university was desegregated in 1922. AUB currently has 800 lecturers and 8,000 students. Female students constitute 50% of the university’s undergraduate students and 66% of the postgraduate students.
What Added Value Do They Offer?
"The students who apply are looking for the better quality of the educational programs at AUB, the diversity of its disciplines, and the opportunity to interact with students from other cultures," says Hala Muhtasib, Interim Associate Provost at AUB. These students come from various countries, such as Denmark, Germany, France, Syria, Palestine, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Japan, Nigeria, and others.
As for the added value at the American University in Cairo, according to Ihab Abdel Rahman, Associate Provost for Research at the university, it is the teaching and learning methods employed there, which link the studies with the skills required in the professional world. AUC alumni are distinguished from their other peers by their ability to come up with more creative solutions, as well as being better communicators and more efficient problem solvers, he says.
"I think the university remains the best in Egypt, and an option for those who do not wish for their children to travel abroad to study," says Omneya Ayyad, an AUC alumni.
She adds that her education at the AUC prepared her for her postgraduate studies in the UK, explaining that she learned to always maintain a critical opinion, even if that opinion countered that of her professors’ or the syllabi texts.
Moreover, compared to other Egyptian universities, AUC offers a number of distinctive activities, such as the theater, the university newspaper, the Model United Nations and Arab League, and others.
For decades, both the AUC and AUB were considered prime destinations for a distinguished education. How have things changes?
With the ballooning expenses demanded by the American universities in Cairo and Beirut, do they still offer the edge they once did?
The expenses of studying at the two universities are often a critical factor when it comes to considering enrollment there. The fees at the AUC are about $36,000 per year for students who enroll for the maximum of 15 credit hours per semester, while the fees at the AUB cost between $556 and $669 per credit hour. Particularly in the case of the AUC, these fees amount to a small fortune, particularly after the Arab revolutions and their adverse economic effect on various countries.
According to Salim Kanaan, Director of Admissions and Financial Aid at AUB, data indicates that the number of Arab students enrolled has dropped since 2011, with the exception of Palestinian students, largely due to the special grants offered to them by various donors.
Thus, the university offers a number of grants and financial aid for outstanding undergraduate and postgraduate students and those with special circumstances.
However, the last decade saw a periodic increase in the university fees, most prominently in the years 2010 and 2013, which led to large student sit-ins denouncing the increase.
In Egypt, the declining economic conditions were also reflected in the university fees, particularly after the devaluation of the Egyptian pound, which slashed the value of the Egyptian pound to less than half against the US dollar, in turn doubling the fees and prompting students to demonstrate in protest of the increase.
Abdel Rahman believes that there is no single reliable evaluation system for universities, since there are more than 70 different ranking systems. "However, I think that the indicators in the QS World University Rankings system best reflects the AUC's mission through its different areas—research, teaching, employment, community integration, innovation, and so on."
According to QS World University Rankings in 2016, the AUC ranked first in Egypt, fifth in the Arab world, fourth in Africa and 365th worldwide, while the AUB ranked first in Lebanon and the second in the Arab world. The ranking also showed AUB’s remarkable progress from the 268th place to the 228th worldwide in one year.
The AUC is the first university in Egypt to receive accreditation from the National Authority for Quality Assurance and Accreditation of Education. Moreover, there are specific programs offered in the university that are accredited by international institutions. For example, the Engineering and Computer Science programs are the only programs taught outside the United States accredited by the Engineering Accreditation Commission of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, Inc. (ABET) and the Computing Accreditation Commission of ABET .
The American University of Beirut was awarded institutional accreditation in 2004 by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education in the US.
AUC is distinguished by its pioneering publishing house, which focuses on publishing academic books in English, as well as translations of prominent Arab literary figures. Their publications are known for providing readers around the world with many insights about Egypt and the Middle East, thus fulfilling the educational and research objectives of the university. AUC Press publishes around 80 electronic and print books in various disciplines annually.
In Lebanon, the AUB's Medical School and Medical Center are an important addition to the university, granting students the opportunity to gain critical thinking, teamwork, and other skills that may not be offered by other public medical schools in different countries of the Arab world.
"I chose to apply for a master's degree in public health at the American University of Beirut over any other scholarship available in European countries because it was the only one that offered a full scholarship," says Nora Salama, a graduate student at the AUB, adding "many alumni encouraged me to apply because of the good quality of its education and the fact that the program in which I am enrolled is accredited in the US. "
The AUB Medical Center is the only center in the Middle East accredited by four international bodies, attesting to its high standards of nursing, patient care, and medical research. It has provided medical care to patients from Lebanon and the Arab world since 1902. Last year, the center received 360,000 patients and a plan has been set to further expand the center by 2020.
Challenges and Responses
Despite the initiatives at the American University of Beirut, an important challenge remains; that of conducting research that is relevant to local conditions. There is a pronounced need for intellectuals and reformers to critique social practices, the state, authorities, and other dominant forces, while simultaneously providing solutions to social problems .
Muhtasib believes that the flexibility of AUB is an important element. Despite the 17-year civil war in Lebanon, the university continued to provide its scientific and educational services to students and society, and responded to the Syrian crisis by providing free medical and psychological services to displaced Syrians.
The attached images captions:
The AUB Chapel
The Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (IFI), designed by Zaha Hadid
From the 2020 vision for the Medical Center