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General Education: Top-Down Support Needed for Bottom-Up Change

DOHA—An education conference this month helped to launch the first MENA General Education Network.

The “Education in the 21st Century” conference, organized by Qatar University, brought together leaders of general-education programs that develop core curricula.

Members of the network emerged from their first brainstorming meeting having discovered they had a broad range of differences.

In her opening speech at the conference, Maha Al-Hendawi, the elected head of the network, said her research suggests there is no agreement on the goals of general education, its importance or even on the terms used to describe it, among higher-education institutions in the region. (See a related commentary “A New Network to Support General Education.”)

That didn’t discourage Al-Hendawi. “The goal is not to standardize general education in all these countries,” she said, “but for us to exchange experiences and learn from examples in different countries to enrich the general education experience.”

Al-Hendawi, director of the core-curriculum and foundation programs at Qatar University, said that changes in education and current developments in the Arab world made the conference a must.

“General education should empower students and provide them with skills, knowledge and values that prepare them to be active persons who can be part of a global community,” she said. “General education should not aim to provide knowledge only. The university’s role is bigger than that.”

Al Hendawi notes that while general education takes up almost a third of all credit hours in most universities in the region, it is not considered as important as it should be and is treated in the same way as specialized disciplines. (General education refers to the courses shared among university students of all disciplines.)

Al Hendawi’s call for reform didn’t fall on deaf ears. Professionals responsible for general education in the region want to improve their programs.

“Given the current context in the Arab world with lots of movements to change and reform, and lots of political upheaval and economic discrepancies across the region, there is a necessity to revisit our educational curriculum and to determine what core areas need to be tapped into,” said Amany Elshimi, director of undergraduate research at the American University in Cairo and a member of the conference steering committee.

“The network is a step towards that collaborative effort where people are in a conversation about the best ways to develop these programs in Arab institutions of higher education,” she said.

Susan Albertine, an American academic, thinks reaching out to institutions outside the MENA region is important at the early stages of the network. “Leaders in education in a global context have to find some shared values and some shared priorities for a global learning,” said Albertine, who is vice president of the Association of American Colleges & Universities.

“I don’t think that we have had the contributions to global learning and college from the Muslim world or the Arab world we might have and I think that’s a big absence,” she said. “Preparing young people for the future is a global responsibility and needs to depend on a set of shared values, of respectful knowledge and a certain set of skills.”

It is not clear yet how such efforts will bring about real changes in general-education programs at the network’s member universities.

“There is an urge for change coming from the faculty and the students, but in order for it to have a very strong impact it needs top-down support for this bottom-up change,” explains Elshimi.

The next step for the committee is to try to create a strategic plan with a well-articulated mission and set of objectives, and later, a set of activities that will help achieve those objectives in the region.

“Once that is in place and we begin to see some change and some impact on the students, who are the beneficiaries of these efforts, we can take that to the authorities and get their support,” she said.


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