2016 Prediction: Individuals Not Governments Spur Educational Change
Last year had many qualities that were the same and many that were different in the educational realm of the Arab world. Education is often the beacon that illuminates how free, how just, and how wise the rest of a society is, so it is worth reflecting on.
Protests continued both on campuses and outside of them. Administrators and governments responded to protests and other free speech with an increase in the frequency of violations of academic freedom. The youth unemployment rate also rose to affect more than 30 percent of young people as a result of conflicts in the region and the lack of investments needed to secure jobs.
The last year has also seen an increase in a new problem—the high number of refugees and displaced students. Conflicts in the region keep producing new levels of destruction, intimidation, widespread killing, kidnapping, and arbitrary arrests of students, teachers, and staff members. Twenty-one million children in the Middle East and North Africa “MENA region” either dropped out of school or were at risk of dropping out of school, according to the last report issued by the UNICEF.
More than 8,850 schools and at least a hundred higher-education institutions in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya are closed now as a result of being damaged, being used to house displaced families, or being occupied by armed troops. Despite the lack of international reports monitoring the number of students who have dropped out of universities in the region, the Syrian situation reveals the disaster’s magnitude. Today, about 6 percent of Syrian students attend their universities, while 25 percent were studying before the war. In spite of the increased international attention to this issue, the response—especially in the neighboring Arab countries, has not kept pace with students’ needs. The problem is not affecting Syrian students alone. The region is full of refugee students from Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, and Sudan, all of them seeking help to continue their studies.
Personally, I do not think things will be much better in 2016. We are about to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the “Arab Spring.” But we can see that none of the countries ravaged by that “Spring” have experienced any kind of political stability or economic growth. On the contrary, most of them have seen more violence, arrests, suppression of freedom, and the reimposition of emergency laws that give the government the upper hand in squelching dissent. With the lack of political stability and economic growth, Arab governments will probably not pay much attention to education in the near future.
Still, there an opportunity to make a difference.
I do not count on the official governmental policies, although I don’t deny their importance. I bet more on the individual initiatives of people and academic institutions that believe in education as a way to change and develop over the long term.
I know that changing a single curriculum in any of the Arab faculties requires a long series of bureaucratic procedures, and sometimes even ministerial approvals or presidential decrees. Still, the adoption of teaching methods based on dialogue and critical thinking only needs the willpower of a professor or tutor to discuss any scientific or literary subject and avoid the outdated style of indoctrination.
The entrepreneurial spirit some professors have is enough to make a big difference. Look at the past year: At a public university in a country suffering from a raging war, a professor was able to informally introduce a new course in his curriculum as a non-mandatory course. A university professor in another Arab country used modern online applications and social media to communicate with her students and supervise their graduation projects. In addition, a small initiative by a young university student managed to promote the education of street children in one of the Arab capitals more effectively than all the ministerial strategies that have been established to combat illiteracy.
Over the past two years, we have published some stories about some talented Arab academics who have gained international acclaim. Unfortunately, most of those scientific talents emerged in foreign universities, or are at least employed by them. The budgets for scientific research certainly play a big role in this, but believing in talented young people, and opening the way for them also could provide an opportunity for the emergence of more local talent in Arab universities. If some administrators and professors encouraged young students and researchers both emotionally and intellectually that would help reduce the scientific slackness we are witnessing, and perhaps that would be followed by promotion through financial investments.
Some public universities are busy in fighting student unions and activities, but many students respond by creating informal groups that provide impressive cultural, educational and service activities, such as Molham, in Jordan or Khatwa, in Egypt. Independent networks of Arab professors and researchers are also connecting universities with each other to exchange experience and knowledge without the need for official agreements.
While Arab governments continue to put obstacles in front of the enrollment of refugee students—from various nationalities—in universities, many enterprises, most of them small or medium-sized, are seeking to provide scholarships for refugees.
Rather than focusing on criticizing old governmental policies, I want to emphasize existing initiatives that may seem to many people insignificant because of their small scale compared to the magnitude of the educational problems. But those individual and unofficial initiatives could be the only possible way now to make a difference, especially in education. The increasing number of those initiatives, especially those supported by students who will form the future generation, could eventually influence public opinion, and might affect policies.
I know that many people see individual initiatives as tilting at windmills, but for me, they are the only way to keep the hope for change alive in a world in which the only thing we can sometimes change is ourselves.
* Rasha Faek is managing editor of Al-Fanar Media.