An International Conference Through a Tunisian Writer’s Eyes

CAPE TOWN—For many reasons, the meeting of more than 800 higher education leaders and experts from 60 countries and five continents at the British Council’s annual “Going Global conference” was not an ordinary event, at least for me.

I have never seen a meeting of this size and level of organization before that sought to discuss university issues and the future of higher education. In the Arab region, major conferences are usually held only to discuss political or economic topics, while education is discussed at local or regional seminars or lectures. Representatives from just a few countries attend, usually at most a quarter of the number represented in this meeting in the African capital last month. (See related article: An African Perspective on Arab Universities.)

Before the meeting, I was enthusiastic about the program, which was rich in discussion on various educational issues, but I was concerned about the language barrier. English was the conference’s main language, which one would expect since it was organized by the British Council. But Shakespeare’s language is not my first language, and not even the second language in my country, Tunisia, or the rest of North Africa. I was relieved to read in the invitation that the organizers were going to provide some translation into French for those from French-speaking countries, including the 26 countries in Africa where French is spoken.

For some people, the language issue might seem marginal. But in fact, it reflects a major conflict within universities—especially in the Arab world—about what the dominant language of instruction should be. No clear answer for this question has been found, even in the halls of this conference. While some consider English a universal language, others advocate the use of local languages. Still, the most important point was that the conference organizers understood the linguistic barrier and tried to overcome it via translation.

I was surprised to find that I could communicate in English better than I thought, and using  the conference mobile application helped me get familiar with the details of the conference program and participants.

It was the first time I had used such an app, and it helped me quickly recognize all the guests and understand what the sessions were about, immediately and accurately. I also used it to find the sessions I was interested in and to learn about last-minute changes to the program. The app also easily connected with Twitter.

Along with good technology, there was human assistance. Student volunteers in the corridors of the meeting venue offered helpful guidance. The fact that they were students gave the conference an educational flavor.

When I got the invitation for the conference, I found it strange that such a meeting would be held in a remote part of Africa. I felt even more puzzled about this as I listened to presentations on the reality of education in many developed countries that rely on the most recent teaching technologies, and heard on the other hand from presenters who struggle to get a reliable Internet connection. I wondered why the organizers chose South Africa as the venue of this year’s conference.

Janet Beer, the vice chancellor of the University of Liverpool, in the United Kingdom, helped me understand this when she said, “It is interesting to meet up here, in the country that creates leaders who have changed the country, and become opinion and thought leaders worldwide. It gives us hope of a better world and that opportunities to improve the world do exist. In this country, there are 11 official languages recognized in universities. To understand the ambiguity of this world, we have to break down the barriers and limits and communicate. Here, they can give us lessons on this issue. This would be our goal for the next 15 years: international cooperation and taking advantage of all the experiences across the world. It is the era of open borders.”

In the meeting’s discussions, the strong role of higher education in creating a link between social justice and democratic transitions drew my attention. That is an important issue in my country. It was also remarkable to me to hear educators from some countries talking about the challenges of high numbers of graduates and the lack of employment opportunities, whereas others were talking about the decline in the number of people with Ph.D. degrees.

Arab participation in the meeting seemed limited yet effective. Arab participants presented the state of education in their countries and the impact of terrorism and economic crises. They also discussed opportunities offered by e-learning as well as the challenges that hinder the spread of online learning in the Arab world, which might push a country like Egypt to avoid it, according to Ali Shams Eldin, president of Benha University.

Of course, conference participants addressed the ever-present issue of refugees, who are common in sub-Saharan African, North Africa, and the Middle East, and speakers discussed the best ways to get young refugees access to education and how to make sure higher education is part of humanitarian aid.

In short, for me, the conference was not a local, African, or international one as much as it seemed a universal meeting bringing together representatives from countries around the world to share their experiences and discuss their ideas about the best educational practices to build their nations’ futures, support emerging democracies, and help poor countries get out of their crises by improving and developing education.

I left the country of Mandela with the words of Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of the University of Witwatersand, ringing in my ears: “The lack of higher education reinforces discrimination, and social and class differences, and its presence is a real way to produce knowledge for humanity as a whole.”
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