Deep Generation Gap: Arab Professors Vs. Students

At a conference in Algiers last spring, a middle-aged professor compared his generation to the students he teaches. He said when he was young, he felt going to university was a privilege and a way to contribute to his nation’s future. But he said his students today take higher education for granted; they see it as “their due.” Even though, he said, many of them were not really qualified for advanced studies.

Another academic gently lamented students’ lack of respect. When she was a student, it was common to stop and offer to carry a professor’s books. Nowadays, she said, students not only don’t offer to help but “push you aside on the stairs.” They write one-line e-mails, dispensing with polite introductions.

I have heard complaints like these from professors across the Arab world: that students are rude, entitled and academically unprepared, and that their great numbers are swamping universities, decreasing the quality of the educational experience.

But I’ve also heard plenty of student complaints about professors: that they are high-handed, unaccountable, and behind the times. That, in the worst of cases, they make no effort to make their lecture intelligible, and profit from the sale of the textbooks they write (“updated” every year) and lecture notes, without which it can be difficult if not impossible to pass the final examinations.

These frequent mutual recriminations have led me to wonder if one of the fundamental problems at universities in the region today (particularly at public institutions) may be a generational divide between professors and students. In institutions that are clearly failing to meet everyone’s expectations, the two sides are almost pitted against each other.

It’s hardly unusual for young people to resent the authority of their elders, and to clamor for change; or for an older generation to find youngsters unaware or ungrateful. But across the Arab world—due to demographic growth and a dearth of opportunities—there is a particularly deep tension between an older generation that has taken up almost all the available employment that has authority, prestige and remuneration and a younger one that impatiently waits its turn. It’s not surprising that a strain of this larger social dynamic is present on university campuses as well.

“Professors are the problem,” an education expert told me a few years ago. Many publish little, don’t conduct research, don’t have office hours and don’t encourage open discussion in class. Jealous of their authority and prerogatives, they balk at “student-centered” learning. They want to keep on doing things as they always have, and they resist reforms.

Then again, professors at public universities are underpaid and those at private ones are often overburdened with teaching loads and administrative busywork. At many institutions, professors’ advancement depends on seniority and connections, rather than knowledge production or performance in the classroom. So why should motivated academics make an extra effort when they will receive no recognition for it?

But the main reason that universities in the region are under-performing these days isn’t because students are less smart or professors less dedicated—it’s the numbers.

Arab higher education has undergone an incredible expansion in the last half-century and many universities are immature. According to a recent report by the Arab Council for Social Sciences, 97 percent of Arab universities were established after 1950, and 70 percent of the universities that are currently open did not exist before 1991. Not only has the number of universities proliferated but the enrollment at higher education institutions has also increased vertiginously, year after year.

Many professors are in favor, on principle, of maintaining free higher education as a universal right. But many also view the swiftly escalating increase in enrollment and the lack, in many cases, of admission criteria, as having spelled the doom of their universities.

But professors of a certain age should keep in mind, when they feel frustrated, that they were educated under very different circumstances than the ones they are now teaching in. They were lucky: Their classes were much smaller, and they were almost sure to find jobs after graduation. Public universities in the region have very quickly transformed from institutions that trained small national elites to ones that serve a mass public—a trend referred to globally as the “massification” of higher education. Professors, it seems to me, are both overwhelmed by and contemptuous of the crowds of students that they are expected to teach now.

There are multiple other sources of alienation between faculty and students. Professors who pursued their studies in the post-colonial era probably studied in and are fluent in a foreign language—whereas the students they now teach are overwhelmingly Arabophones and some of them, in Gulf countries, seem to struggle in both Arabic and English.

And customs and conventions on campus have changed. Academics of a certain generation—who experienced the university as a venue for progressive politics or women’s liberation—are troubled by the religious militancy of some students, and shocked by students who, for example, insist on wearing the niqab.

These students, meanwhile, have come of age in an era of social media, globalization, and political upheaval. They are bound to want more informal, less deferential relationships with their teachers. (In fact one of the main draws of private universities in the region, studies show, is smaller classes where students are encouraged to pose questions and start discussions.)

The real culprit for the chasm between faculty and students are educational policies that have cynically or irresponsibly promised higher education to all, while not providing universities with the resources to keep that promise. This is what has turned the relationship between students and professors—who should be two sides of an equation—into a zero-sum game.


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