How Educators Could Help Journalists—and Themselves

* This article is adapted from a speech at a conference on “Empowering Higher Education Institutions Through Information Sharing and Improved Governance,” organized by the World Bank group, with many partners, in Beirut, May 12 to 14, 2015.

When we first started Al-Fanar Media, about two years ago, we noticed a big increase in the education budget in one of the Arab countries. We thought that would make a good article. I asked my colleague, Rasha Faek, to call the education ministry to find out why their budget was going up. She got back to me the next day and said “No one is answering their phones.” So I said, well, you better show up at their offices. She called me back the next day. She said, “I went in and I talked to them and I was very persistent but they won’t see me without an appointment.”

And on and on it went. Three days later we still didn’t have the facts for a very simple news story. Even though we were actually trying to write a positive story that time, we simply could not get the information.

Another story from our experiences at Al-Fanar Media: We wanted to do a survey on the cost of private higher education in the Arab region. We called up a private university in Egypt, a reasonably well-known one. We said we’re working on a survey of the cost of private universities around the region, how much does it cost to attend your institution for a year? Basically that institution said “We’re not going to tell you.”

The cost of an education is very basic information that should be public so that families can compare costs. We ultimately were able to do a survey of the cost of private higher education in 13 countries and we believe that survey will help institutions to think about where they are in the cost spectrum and give families some basic information to make decisions with.

We’re preaching to the converted inside this room that information sharing is a positive contribution. But we really need to figure out how to have a broader influence on Arab education institutions to persuade others that information sharing is a good idea.

Both bureacracy and fear seem to be preventing journalists from getting information. I believe that universities and ministries of education need to begin to believe that sharing information makes institutions strong, rather than worrying that sharing information exposes weaknesses.

I would like to suggest my first simple principle: Openness builds respect. Not just respect from journalists but from the broader public.

Secondly, in terms of a cultural shift that relates to my own profession, do not think of journalists just as people who are going to write about how great your institution is, on the day that you want them to. Realize they have their own important role of stirring up debate about education, a debate that should include as broad a group of people as possible, including parents, students, and employers. Sometimes the debate they stir up will cause you trouble, but in the long run, education will be improved.

So the second simple principle I would suggest is to encourage responsible journalism.Rather than living in fear of how data about your institution or your country will be presented, and hold it inside, reach out to the journalists. We need journalists in the region who realize that education is something worth covering. Invite them to your campus or better yet, hold an event at a location convenient to them. Al-Fanar Media is trying to develop professional journalists across the region who are interested in education and have some knowledge about it.

We welcome all efforts to help in the professional development of these journalists.

We’ve been trying to do this ourselves. We held two workshops for early to mid-career journalists and asked each of the journalists to write three stories. They’ve responded for the most part with compelling articles that include ones about the difficulties of many sectors of the population to get basic access to education.

We started out our curriculum with essays about broad issues such as Is Education a Right? What is Education For?  and  What Should Graduates Know? We’d like to give scholarships to Arab journalists to go to education meetings and witness some of the global debates about education, so they will see the context for what is going on in their countries.

The subject of university rankings has come up at this meeting. Rankings are dangerous in that they can be an enormous distraction from much more important debates about educational reform. The rankings companies are publicity machines, and they are very good at getting the attention of journalists, universities, and education ministries.

Debate about rankings can eat up valuable time when we could be having much more important debates. The broader issue is quality—but which piece of quality are we going to focus on? Is it employability? Education for enlightenment, so we can have enlightened citizens who can lead their countries forward? Is it the quality of teaching? In the Arab world, we still need to frame the debate.

The reality is that deep discussion about education in the Arab world is hard to find. We need more of it. We need informed debate.  Not just the old clichés hauled out of dusty reports.

We need more meetings like this one, including some that include students, who are often treated as if education is something done to them, instead of something that they participate in.

So here the principle is—don’t just share data and information for rankings, but also share information for reform.

Another principle that I want to suggest following is to set up policies to share data and people who are responsible for the data sharing. Then trust those peoples and those policies. One of the things that journalists run into as journalists is delays when we ask for information. Academic researchers face the same delays. The response we get is “I need to check with my boss.” And when we call back a couple of days later and we hear that “My boss needed to check with his boss.” And on and on it goes. If you have good information-sharing policies you don’t need to run every decision up the ladder.

What can happen when information is collected and distributed on a journalistic basis?

One project we did was a survey of the salaries of public university professors in 12 Arab countries.  We knew that we couldn’t just call the ministries and the universities and say, “What do your professors get paid,” so we built from the bottom up. We asked the professors themselves, explaining that we wouldn’t use their names and that our goal was just to gather information. Then we carefully cross-checked that information by asking other professors. Finally we called the institutions and said, we believe the salary range for professors at your institution is between x and y—is this right?

We also did an analysis of the cost of living in each country and then compared the salaries to that. What we found was that it is very hard for professors to even climb up into the middle class, except in the Gulf countries.

In the end we had our survey—it is approximate, and I am sure there are mistakes in it, but it is a beginning. This is 30-year-old debate in Arab higher education—that public university professors need to get paid more. My correspondents throughout the region respectfully thought that it was time to inject some facts in that debate.

There is lots of other publicly available information that we are seeking to collect and put on our website, in Arabic and English. We have analyzed the PISA tests, which have been administered in four Arab countries, and allow a global comparison to 65 countries around the world. We just published a list of more than 300 programs and institutions in the region that have been internationally accredited. We want to make that a searchable database so it’s easy to use and to include more information about local licensing and accreditation and quality assurance.

We’re interested in doing a lot more, in dissecting this issue of quality in education and making it clear what each Arab government is or is not doing to support quality in higher education.

We at Al-Fanar Media are not just trying to build a publication but trying to build responsible thoughtful journalists who could take the data and information that you provide and treat it carefully. I have to warn you that you are not always going to like what they write. Too many people in the region see journalism as just a kind of public relations.

You want journalists who, thoughtfully, challenge you sometimes.

I’m so glad to see a meeting that covers the topic of information sharing and I hope that this meeting is step toward more productive work in this area. Please keep involving journalists as you move forward.

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