We are still in high demand, with 180,000 students, and 20,000 annual enrollments

We are still in high demand, with 180,000 students, and 20,000 annual enrollments
feb0837.jpg
Damascus University is the oldest public university in the entire Middle East. Even in this highly competitive world, its graduates are still widely recognized for the caliber of their education. Can you give us a brief description of the University? What are the challenges that it currently faces?

 

Damascus University was established almost a century ago, precisely in 1923. At that time it consisted of only two faculties: Law and Medicine. It now has 16 faculties and five higher institutes at the Damascus Campus, in addition to seven faculties at our branches in Daraa and Suwayda. Damascus University is a multi-disciplinary institute of higher education that offers undergraduate and graduate programs in all fields, and doctoral degrees in certain disciplines. We have approximately 120,000 regular students, with an additional 60,000 enrolled in distant learning. As a result of an increased demand for higher education, we have 20,000 students being admitted annually to Damascus University. That is the most important challenge we are facing: how to cope with the large number of students. This has a profound effect on the university’s infrastructure and educational programs. One solution is a huge expansion design, with 200,000 square meters under construction to accommodate the increase in the student population. Two years ago, we started our horizontal expansion by opening two branches in Daraa and Suwayda. We are planning to expand them even more, so that in the future—hopefully—they will become independent universities. That would relief some of the pressure exerted on Damascus University.

You have been the president of Damascus University for almost three years. What are the main achievements—your success stories— during this period?

Over the last three years, we paid great attention to quality. We started a comprehensive mechanism for Quality Assurance. A new Mission Statement and a strategic plan have been developed, and we are now in the process of implementation. The British Council provided us with the services of a Quality Assurance expert from Great Britain, to advise us on methodology. Furthermore, we worked hard, during the past two years, to modernize our curriculum in various disciplines, so that they are in-tune with market need and the national development plan of Syria.

The Higher Institute of Translation and Instant Interpretation, a pioneering project in the entire region, was started in Syria in 2005. We also established two undergraduate programs in ‘German Language & Literature’ and ‘Spanish Language & Literature.’ In collaboration with a British university, we launched a new program in Environmental Science. On the postgraduate level, we established several new programs including an MA in Telecommunications (in partnership with a specialized school in France) and a graduate degree in Preventive Medicine, in collaboration with Rome 1 University (La Sapienza). We plan to start other programs in 2008, like an MA in “Transition Economics” (in collaboration with the University of Marburgh-German) and a Master’s in “Urbanism” with the University of Marne La Valee, France.

Many of the programs you mention are striking because they are strongly based on cooperation with international universities and institutes. Would you elaborate on that?

 

Indeed, we realize that working in isolation is not the right answer to address challenges of the 21st century. That is why we invested in international cooperation. In this context, we have established several graduate programs in partnership with distinguished foreign universities. In selecting these programs, our main objective was to address the real needs of the Syrian labor market. For example, the program in “Banking & Finance,” started three years ago in collaboration with the University of Bordeaux IV. It was established to support the rapidly expanding banking sector in Syria. Several joint-programs are currently underway, in several important fields like banking, environmental science, architectural restoration, biotechnology, preventive medicine, and linguistics. Some of these programs are double-degree programs where graduates come out with two degrees from both partner universities. Several more programs are on the agenda for the upcoming academic year.


Damascus University was among the first in the region to participate in EU-TEMPUS project (which aims at developing the curriculums of Syria’s Faculties of Economics). What are the impacts of this project on the university?

Damascus University has benefited greatly from TEMPUS projects since they were first introduced four years ago. Within the context of these projects, we managed to build very successful partnerships with many distinguished European universities. Through several TEMPUS projects, we were exposed to European experiences and practices in Quality Assurance. At the moment, we still have one ongoing TEMPUS project dealing with QA. It is called “Quality University Management and Institutional Autonomy” and is done in collaboration with Humboldt University in Germany, along with other European partners. Within the context of this project we opened last year the Quality Assurance Center at our university.

Is Damascus University only involved with TEMPUS when it comes to Quality Assurance?

Not at all. During the past few years Damascus University participated in a regional project sponsored by UNDP titled “Enhancement of Quality Assurance and Institutional Planning in Arab Universities.” In the first phase of this project, the Computer Science Program of 14 Arab universities (including Damascus University) were evaluated. In the second phase, Education Programs were evaluated in 28 Arab universities. All evaluation were conducted according to Quality Assurance Agency Guidelines in the UK, which include evaluation of academic standards, quality of learning opportunities, along with quality assurance and enhancement. The evaluation also included a peer review conducted by experts from the Quality Assurance Agency. In both cases, the evaluation results for our university came out as “satisfactory.” The third phase, which evaluates Engineering Programs in different Arab universities, is currently underway. Our Faculty of Civil Engineering is participating in this evaluation.

Beside TEMPUS projects, what sort of cooperation do you have with EU universities and institutions?

For example, through an agreement with DAAD (the German Academic Exchange Establishment) we managed to open our German Language Department in 2006. Our German partners provided us with teaching material and professors. A similar agreement was finalized with the Spanish International Cooperation agency and Cervantes Institute enabling us to open the Spanish Language Department in 2007. At the moment, we’ve got 200 assistants preparing their PhDs at French universities. We have another 100 doing the same at British universities, and around 65 at German universities. This clearly illustrates that EU universities and academic institutions are indeed our most important partners in capacity building.

What about non-EU universities? Is there any cooperation outside the European Union?

Certainly, we have very strong collaboration with many Arab Universities, especially from neighboring countries. This is manifested mainly in student and staff exchange, joint supervision of research, and participation in numerous academic committees. A few years ago, we established the Japanese Language Department with the support of the Japanese International Cooperation Agency, JICA. The Persian Language Department was also established in a similar manner with the support of the Iranian government. We are negotiating similar agreements with universities in Australia.

Is Damascus University attractive to foreign students?

Well, you have to bear in mind that, the majority of our programs are taught in Arabic. This fact—sometimes—poses a burden to non-Arabic speakers. Nevertheless, we certainly have many students from Europe and the United States. They learn Arabic at our language institute because we have one of the most renowned training centers for non-Arabic speakers. During the past few years we have signed several agreements with European and American Universities to facilitate the placement of their students in our Language Institute for a period ranging from six months to one year. We have prepared a tailored made program for these students, according to their needs. We also have many students from the Arab region studying in our regular programs.

Private universities are mushrooming all over Syria. What is your opinion regarding these universities? Do you think these universities pose any threat to Damascus University? Do they compete or supplement Damascus University?

I think that the private sector has an important role to play in higher education. The private universities that have been licensed and opened in the last four years differ signiicantly from Damascus University, when it comes to quality. Some of them appear to be very good, others are not-that-good. Therefore, quality control and accreditation of their programs is of paramount importance. Although, this task is currently assigned to the Council of Higher Education, it is usually the mission of an independent agency such as the Quality Assurance Agency of the United Kingdom. The accreditation process, after all, involves a huge amount of work. Regarding competition, I do not see it in the near future. It is dificult for these universities to provide—in such a short period of time—what we have had for decades in terms of infrastructure (like hospitals or sophisticated labs). Additionally, private universities are very expensive when compared to public universities, which provide education and services that are almost, free-of-charge. The only competition that I am worried about is with regard to staff—not students. Many of these universities are luring our academic staff to work for them, either part-time or full-time. This may negatively impact our educational programs. Nevertheless, I believe that private universities should be encouraged and supported (without compromising quality) so that they can relief some of the tremendous pressure that stands with public universities.

In 2003 you have won the Basel Assad Award for Scientiic Research, which is the most prestigious award in Scientiic Research offered by the Ministry of Higher Education in Syria. Bearing in mind your current position and responsibilities, do you still ind time for research? Not as much as I would like. Being President of Damascus University is a very demanding job. I work more than 65-hours a week. I had to give up many of my previous academic commitments. Nevertheless, I kept my lecturing load as it is, and I am currently supervising the research of some postgraduate students. This gives me some satisfaction.