EDUCATION: New ‘engine’ of development
Shafeeq N. Ghabra

Oct, 25, 2005

The Arab world today is experiencing a revolution in higher education, whereas a decade ago we were talking about the information revolution. This education revolution stems from two phenomena: (1) the millions of Arab students graduation from high schools and looking, since Sept 11, 2001, for regional colleges to accommodate their needs, and (2) an evolution in methods of teaching, subjects, and ways of thinking.

Private education holds an edge in advancing the evolution in methods, subjects, and ways of thinking. This type of education stands to leave an indelible mark on the future of learning in the Middle East. Restrictions on travel by Arab students trying to study in the United States after Sept 11 makes the case even stronger for private education in the Arab world.

Private higher education based on a US-style system must be able to provide its students with emerging international standards of knowledge and exposure to prevailing professional habits. With public education having become increasingly bureaucratic over the last two decades, private education has the potential of acting as an agent of change in the cultural and political arenas as well as in the professional world. Only by focusing on quality, standards, and best practices can the new private education reach a new level of effectiveness. Standards must be reflected in admissions, classrooms, and student life. Without quality, education cannot succeed.

American higher education is a method and model of learning based on a variety of practices, opinions, research, and experiences that allow critical and problem solving thinking to flourish. India has the largest number – 600,000 – of Indian students studying in US-affiliated universities worldwide. Indians are well aware how this type of education promotes the development of critical thinking, advanced communication skills, independent study, and self-awareness. One of the values of this system is life-long learning. This aspect of education has become a basic component of the modern era. Every learned individual is today a reflection of life-long learning. When we say “American curriculum,” we mean an open curriculum, with contributions from all cultures. The US education system is not a closed system based only on one view.

It is basic in US education to focus on interaction inside lecture halls and laboratories, in libraries and through sports and the various other activities that develop talent and character. American education emphasizes discussion, classroom interaction, teamwork, and projects that require library and Web research as well as work at research centers. Attendance at lectures is stressed as is providing assistance to students having difficulties. A lively, effective, and creative model in all these areas, with the goal always of student-centered learning, is a must in higher education. This style of academic teaching model provides a learning environment – which includes trust and safety – that helps in achieving its goals.

Students graduating from colleges based on the American system will be eagerly sought after in the local and regional labor market. The curriculum and educational system makes them desirable in the private sector as well as in the public sector. By the time they graduate, such students should have the required linguistic, intellectual, and operational skills to make valuable contributions to the workforce. Accordingly, a graduate is not bound to only one specialization, but is able instead to be versed in a larger context of education, knowledge and skills.

Quality higher education is expensive. Hiring distinguished faculty from American universities is quite expensive as is providing needed services for students, staff, and professors. American-style universities in the Middle East must ameliorate their high cost through financial aid and scholarships. This year, for example, the American University of Kuwait created a scholarship fund of $300,000. We are now seeking additional scholarship funding from the private sector as part of our commitment to expanding the student population to avoid becoming an elitist institution.

It is without a doubt that any institution in the Middle East with US affiliation would face challenges if founded during active US military involvement in the Middle East. Lots of international hires see our region as militaristic and war-ridden. Kuwait, however, has been a country of peace with the exception of the 1990-1991 invasion and war. Our ability to clarify where Kuwait is and what it stands for, helps recruit faculty who see the merit of contributing to the East-West dialogue through education. We must always meet the challenge of attracting a distinguished group of professors and executives.

This is a special time for American education in the Middle East. It is a model of education that is admired and respected by the peoples of the region despite the controversy over politics and policies. While war is raging in Iraq, the American University of Kuwait and other American universities in the Middle East are building for peace and a better future.

The Arab world has a long way to go in establishing high-quality education systems. We have lagged behind during the last fifty years, and it is time to do something serious about development and learning in the region. We are at critical phase of learning, building, and developing. Quality learning is and should remain our main focus.

Shafeeq Ghabra, PhD, is the President of American University of Kuwait