How ‘Supportive Disruption’ Could Transform Arab Higher Education

(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.

Integrate policy focused on the transition from high school to institutions of higher education.

Everywhere secondary-level students are ill-prepared for university. Higher education institutions have to devote time and resources to remedial work or, worse, to giving students endless chances to repeat failed courses. Current administrative and policy barriers (in Morocco, for example) separate the two levels to the detriment of both.

Everywhere secondary-level students are ill-prepared for university. … Current administrative and policy barriers separate the two levels to the detriment of both.

Institute competency-based education. This is a radical departure from the standard paradigm. The student self-paces him/herself, subject to periodic assessment of achievement until s/he is deemed to have mastered a subject or skill. While any subject or discipline could be incorporated in competency-based education, it seems best designed for sharply focused skill acquisition, probably among those already in the workplace who know that they need to make a new career move or to move up the ladder where they are. There is no reason why competency based education could not be combined with more traditional pedagogic models.

Focus on graduation rates through remedial instruction and aptitude-centered learning. This follows naturally on the previous three reforms. It should contribute directly to enhanced employability of graduates and hence to reduced youth unemployment. It would reduce costs by lowering overstaffing but raise costs through more individual-focused, remedial instruction. Unfortunately, institutional costs will be frontloaded. Benefits will lag. Society will benefit more than the institution of higher learning itself.

Overhaul pedagogical assumptions. This is a question of resources—helping students overcome financial obstacles to pursuing their education—and of pedagogy. The standard formulas for imparting knowledge and delivering training must become much more interactive and tailored to the student’s aptitudes and learning modes. It is potentially costly for the institution that provides the education but has a large and positive pay-off for society as a whole.

Indeed, it is not only those students who might drop out that need special attention, but all students. So pedagogical reform must be at the heart of repairing the status quo. Part of the reform package will surely be information and communications technology (ICT)-supported instruction and interaction. In some instances, this will save the system money, and, through remote learning, spare the student sometimes crippling travel and living expenses.

One gambit is the flipped classroom, where the lecture is accessed online and the class is built on discussion of the ‘lecture.’ Traditional roles of content delivery, coaching, and assessment, normally combined in the figure of the professor, may be separated, with each role requiring a different set of credentials or training.

A university in Ghana has flipped the university itself. At Achesi University, (private) students start with problem-solving, dealing with specific puzzles, then over time work from the problems and the cases to the study of the fundaments. The basic sequence at institutions of higher education is stood on its head.

Explore where loans are most needed and guarantee them at negotiated interest rates and in light of students’ socioeconomic status. Those who regard tertiary education as a near-pure private good will not be sympathetic, but those who regard it as a quasi-public good will want the taxpayer to help lower individual debt burdens in the name of social equity. Student loans assume that students are paying some fees. That represents more than tweaking the existing system.

Those who regard higher education as a quasi-public good will want the taxpayer to help lower individual debt burdens in the name of social equity.

Recognize and accommodate the fact that manyif not most, students and faculty members are part-time. Student expectations and faculty careers can be built around that fact. This is likely to be psychologically and materially disruptive, but, in essence, it is designed for people to accept reality. Just as some reforms will focus on students’ learning modes, this reform will focus on the individual student’s ability to move ahead and try to accommodate it.

So, too, the part-time faculty member will be the focal point of hand-tailored contracts that accept multiple sources of income. The University of Maryland University College enrolls over 80,000 students. Ninety percent of its faculty is part-time, hired on contract. Most are ‘scholar-practitioners,’ and the institution’s focus is on workforce development. Graduates are in the large majority very satisfied with the results. How the faculty feel has not been reported.

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Part-timers, adjuncts, and contract teachers should suffer from no stigma and be incorporated into departmental life with the right to vote on a broad, defined range of issues.

Reduce credit requirements for degree completion. This means redefining what constitutes competency. It includes reducing the number of prerequisite courses to move from lower level to upper level. We can anticipate resistance from the professoriate/unions, as this may have implications for staff numbers. In the United States the undergraduate degree usually takes four years, while in the LMD system (licence-master-doctorat, which standardizes degree requirements in most European countries) the undergraduate degree takes three years. There is obviously something arbitrary in how we define time requirements. Competency-based education would do away with that, but if old systems persist, then shortening the time to graduation would lower costs for the student and for the institution.

Liberalize degree recognition and equivalency. It may include online education, open universities, and competency-based certificates. Again, resistance is to be expected from existing professional associations. It is simply a variant of the previous reform.

Facilitate, if not encourage, student and faculty mobility among public institutions. The aim would be to eventually develop something similar to the Bologna process that is used in Europe for the Arab world. The goal here is to enhance the academic experience for both students and faculty. Note, however, that critics of existing systems want to move away from standardized programs and criteria, while that is at the heart of the Bologna process. Maybe that tension will be healthy.

Promote regional, peer-reviewed autonomous journals. It may help marginalize journals that reflect academic clubs and cronies and promote research that is of direct benefit to the region.

Promote Arab, regionwide professional academic associations. This may be easier to do across the region than for individual countries to promote their own professional associations. These associations could suggest standards for promotion in specific disciplines. They would reinforce the ‘communities of practice’ that link together isolated experts and academics and give support to other reform processes.

While heads of state, including some real autocrats, could survive all of these reforms, citizens and society would benefit. Some of the reforms (such as competency-based education) would be pedagogically or institutionally disruptive.


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