When I started working with Al-Fanar Media, after several years of working in business journalism, I wondered what could be written about higher education in the Arab world. Most of the existing articles in Arab media were about activities at universities, advertisements for grants or prizes or at best brief reports of international research that described the degraded situation of education in most Arab countries.
I was happy to join the Al-Fanar Media team, but I was worried about what issues we were going to write about other than the usual promotional news from universities.
We set off with very few stories and with three main sections.
After seven years of experience in the local journalism, I found myself starting from scratch in regional journalism. I had to look for correspondents, establish new sources and contacts, find suitable topics and, most of all, understand the educational system of each of the Arab countries. I needed to learn about the current educational trends around the world and their reflections in the region.
It was a difficult task, but the welcome that Al-Fanar Media has received since it began a year ago has made the task enjoyable.
The welcome was accompanied, though, by many questions from others about why Al-Fanar Media was focusing on higher education now. Arabs wondered who was supporting the publication and Westerners wondered if anyone in the region really cared about higher education.
After clearing these doubts, endless discussion began about the higher-education challenges in the region, where illiteracy rate is 19 percent among the population but reaches 60 percent among women, according to a report released in January by the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization.
We began to write about university admission policies, government policies that determine professors’ wages, the weak interest in scientific research, the absence of administrative autonomy and the increased restrictions on academic freedom in some countries, especially Egypt.
We had many issues to write about over the past year and produced more than 350 reports, many of which seemed to be overshadowed by the political and security situation in the region.
I enjoyed becoming more familiar with university issues. But after visits to various educational institutions inside and outside the Arab world, it seemed to me that the Arab academic communities are more closed than their Western counterparts. The tense political climate has driven many academics to prefer being silent or at best to speak “off the record.”
At a time when the Al-Fanar Media e-mail inbox is filled with press releases about academic seminars and university promotional activities, we have received little about joint research projects between universities on local or regional levels. On the other hand, some Arab educational institutions were racing to sign agreements with foreign universities. But most of these achievements were based on individual initiatives and the extraordinary efforts of professors, who are looking for “free space” for academic work.
In summary, I could say after a year in higher-education journalism that the “Arab Spring” that once visited a number of Arab countries has not reached many educational institutions yet. We have not heard about plans to update curricula or de-centralize the administration of universities. Although Arab governments have invested a lot of money in schools and higher education (around an average of 5 percent of GDP per year), the results are modest. Our educational institutions still suffer from the obvious infrastructure weaknesses and the ongoing migration of professors out of the region. Instead of reporting about the suitability of university graduates to the needs of the labor market we sometimes had to write about the numbers of wounded and dead students or detained professors.
Despite all of this I am optimistic.
First, because of the encouraging feedback Al-Fanar Media has received during the last year from our readers, both through our weekly newsletter and social media pages, reflecting a belief in the strong role of education. Despite the political unrest on some Arab campuses, many Arab institutions of higher education are making an effort at improving quality by either seeking international accreditation or by developing national quality control systems.
I believe that when the uprisings in the Arab countries reach their primary objective, namely to change the existing political system, these countries will find themselves faced with an urgent need to reform education. Building democracies and consolidating democratic concepts will not be complete until education embraces political and religious diversity, is based on critical thinking and promotes the values of citizenship.
Finally, I am pleased to acknowledge that joining Al-Fanar Media and working in education journalism and was one of the best things that happened to me on a personal and professional level during the past three years.
But I sincerely hope we can write more about achievements and not just about challenges in the near future.
Rasha Faek is a senior editor for Al Fanar Media. Follow Rasha on Twitter: @RashaFaek