A recent piece by Hassan Diab (in University World News, Issue No:369) argues that the answer to the MENA region problems lies in educating the youth.

Hassan Diab  is vice-president for regional external programmes and professor of electrical and computer engineering at the American University of Beirut. He is a former minister of education and higher education in Lebanon.AUB

This opinion piece is an abridged version of the speech he gave to the IAUP 50th Anniversary Conference at Trinity College, Oxford, on 24 May 2015.

“I come from Lebanon. A land that has been embedded in history for thousands of years and that includes the oldest city in the world. A country that gave the world its first alphabet. A country that now has almost 50 higher education institutions and had the first law school in the world in Beirut.

It is a land of many Prophets but I cannot imagine what education might look like in 2065 nor easily perceive where we might reach even a decade from now, in 2025.

However, there is no doubt in my mind that the way we do business in higher education institutions will be completely transformed over the coming years, let alone the coming decades, in such an exponential manner that today it can only be described in the realm of fiction.

For example, I expect that inexpensive high-performance computer systems, accessible by all, will lead to virtual reality courseware with embedded artificial intelligence algorithms that will allow the widespread implementation of virtual classrooms and virtual instruction.

This will be coupled with millions of petabytes of data on the cloud, channelled through links that are a hundred times faster than what is being offered through bandwidths for data transmission in state-of-the-art telecommunication systems today.

This will in turn facilitate student-centred educational delivery that will provide not only a highly customised instruction delivery and personalised exams and evaluation tools for students taking the same course but will also allow an exponential growth in higher education students which existing higher education institutions are unable to absorb.

There are three elements in education: the ‘ah’ (when one explores a new concept), the ‘ahha’ (when one understands a new concept) and the ‘haha’ (indicating that education delivery should be in a fun environment that motivates students and promotes curiosity, creativity and entrepreneurship).

Creativity is important

Creativity should be encouraged and nourished in our education systems, especially pre-university education. Our education systems should create a culture where everyone can explore their ideas and feel that they are valued. However, in many of our education institutions, students are often aided to grow out of creativity rather than grow into creativity.

An important element in providing high-quality higher education is to ensure that high school graduates are academically well-prepared for it.

Twenty years ago, kids in preschool, kindergarten and even first and second grade spent much of their time playing: building with blocks, drawing or creating imaginary worlds, in their own heads or with classmates. But increasingly, these activities are being abandoned for the teacher-led, didactic instruction typically used in higher grades.

In many schools, formal education now starts at age four or five. Without this early start, the thinking goes, kids risk falling behind in crucial subjects such as reading and mathematics, and may never catch up. The idea seems obvious: Starting sooner means learning more.

However, a growing group of scientists, education researchers and educators say there is little evidence that this approach improves long-term achievement; in fact, it may have the opposite effect, potentially slowing emotional and cognitive development, causing unnecessary stress and perhaps even reducing kids’ desire to learn.

Many experts interpret this trend as a profound misunderstanding of how children learn. As the sceptics of teacher-led early learning see it, that kind of education will fail to produce people who can discover and innovate, and will merely produce people who are likely to be passive consumers of information, followers rather than inventors. That leads to the question: What kind of citizen do we want for the 21st century?

The importance of higher education

Although the Middle East region is rich in natural resources: minerals, oil and gas, our true wealth is our youth. This is why the best contribution any country can make to our region is in the provision of non-profit high-quality universities.

As Aristotle said: “The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.” In the Middle East region, K-12 represents the bottleneck in the overall education system which is clearly manifested in the fact that more than 80% of high school graduates in many Middle East countries are admitted to a pre-freshman foundation programme where students can spend up to two years addressing their subject matter weaknesses including mathematics, science, IT, languages, etc.

Our education systems should promote cutting-edge concepts of quality in higher education, as well as put into practice relevant quality assurance mechanisms and processes. The only way to ensure this is in place is through the provision of institutional and programme accreditation from well-established accrediting bodies across the world.

For many years it was believed that economic and social returns depend on attendance of pre-school and primary education, but new studies show that such returns are in fact very much dependent on higher education.

We thus need to look at the importance of higher education from a different perspective – it is not a matter of elites, luck, chance and-or privilege. It is crucial for our nations to invest in higher education and for our children to benefit from good-quality higher education services.

Given the conflicts in the Middle East region and the lack of stability in many of our countries, it is crucial that higher education plays a more substantive role not just in our economic development, but also in equipping learners with the competencies to manage diversity constructively, seek peaceful solutions to conflicts and be able to engage in sustainable reconstruction and development of their communities.

We need to take into account different trends in knowledge, technology, economy and mobility that will surely influence the shape of higher education institutions in the world, including in our region.

Some claim that, given the possibilities of new technologies, traditional higher education institutions will steadily disappear, which implies also that traditional governance models may disappear.

I expect they will not disappear, but will have to cope with new challenges, such as the expansion of distance education, e-learning, MOOCs and potentially other new ways of pursuing higher education programmes that are different from the traditionally defined ‘bricks-and-mortar’ ways of delivery.

Institutions will have to learn to adapt to the rapidly changing higher education models and systems.

Middle East region

Furthermore, the Middle East region is witnessing major challenges in transitioning to globalisation, which in turn has faced sectarian, religious and ethnic difficulties due to the lack of the culture of co-existence and dialogue.

It is important to be able to navigate through these recurrent regional political tsunamis. People of the Middle East region want a better life and strive to improve the lives of their children, and this is their right. Good education plays a pivotal role in achieving this objective.

Education is not only basic education and higher education, but also vocational and technical education as well as lifelong and continuing education. Our education systems should produce global citizens who can adapt to the dynamically changing world by promoting, among other things, inter-religious and inter-cultural respect and dialogue.

Graduates must acquire 21st century skills and exhibit depth and breadth in knowledge. Depth represents proficiency in the area of specialisation that represents their depth of knowledge in the subject matter of their major.

On the other hand, breadth of knowledge equips students not only with communication skills and languages, but also tolerance and respect, and appreciation for other cultures, among other necessary skills in today’s complex world.

Unfortunately, less than 5% of the 1,000 or more universities in the Middle East region may be achieving those goals!

Lebanon

During my tenure as minister of education and higher education in Lebanon for almost three years, the ministry accomplished many achievements in the form of hundreds of ministerial decisions, decrees and laws.

This included many new initiatives such as introducing entrepreneurial teaching in our basic education curricula, a new law for compulsory education, compulsory community service in high school education, the first strategic plan for ICT use in education, a law to create a national council on quality assurance for higher education, a decree to regulate PhD programmes, and many others.

I will mention only one achievement assessed by the World Economic Forum, which ranked 144 countries in various sectors based on many established key performance indicators, or KPIs. In 2014 Lebanon received the following excellent ranking in higher education:
• Quality of Business Schools: 13th out of 144
• Quality of Educational System: 10th out of 144
• Quality of Teaching Mathematics and Science: 4th out of 144

The educational process is a lifelong process that starts with building the student as a global citizen.

Transformation of education is the enabler for change of our social systems, not only with respect to technology, but also in producing global citizens that promote multi-cultural and multi-religious tolerance. Higher education prepares the next generation, so let the vision be nothing less than to influence the world to become free of conflict, a world that values humanity and promotes global peace. ”