(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).
Editor’s Note: The following is an edited excerpt from Missions Impossible: Higher Education and Policymaking in the Arab World, a book published by the American University in Cairo Press. The author is a political scientist and a former president of the American University of Beirut. This is the second part of a two-part essay. The first part was “Supportive Innovation’: A New Model for Change in Arab Higher Education.”
Gradual, incremental reform may be an unavoidable goal.
In the first part of this essay, I described a process that I think of as “supportive disruption.” The hope is that some changes could take place that would improve Arab higher education without broader political revolutions.
The reforms outlined below could be implemented at the level of the system, which I would define as the totality of the public institutions within a governance structure that minimizes differences among the component parts.
Any higher education institutions in the system theoretically could introduce any one or all of these reforms, but few such institutions have the legal or administrative authority to do so. Individually or as a package, these reforms could transform educational systems in the Middle East and North Africa, making them stronger, more effective, and more responsive to societies’ real needs. They do not require any significant political concessions. The closest they come to that is in implying that higher education must be responsive to the needs of the economy and of society, and that failure to deliver in this respect would reflect negatively on the nation’s leaders.
Institute training in teaching for recent Ph.D.s, adjuncts, and sitting faculty.
This is spreading in the United States and elsewhere, but I think not in the MENA—yet. As of 2019, Egypt’s minister of education, Tarek Shawki, is taking steps in this direction at the K–12 level.
Make teaching a much more important part of performance evaluation
When I started teaching in 1968 at the University of Michigan, I went to my first class without any coaching or instruction. How my course fit with other departmental offerings was not explicitly discussed. I recall no review of how our majors were advancing toward some sort of mastery of what we, the faculty, thought was essential. Ten years later I went through the same experience at Princeton. One should expect resistance from the faculty itself to raising the weight of appropriate teaching in promotion, but the political system should be indifferent. This reform bridges naturally to the following:
Enable teachers (even virtual teachers that use artificial intelligence) to recognize and accommodate different learning styles and aptitudes among their students.
This could be hugely disruptive in a pedagogical sense and would require very different teaching styles and practices than what prevails in the current model. Moves in this direction could provoke professional backlash, but they would not create threats to the political order unless teachers’ unions tried to shut down the experiment. The interesting thing is that nearly everyone endorses this: those who want to reform the existing paradigm and those who want to disrupt it if not replace it.