Sunday, September 23, 2012

Failure to encourage academic research hinders progress

The column was originally published in Arab news
AFTER coming home after five years in England as a postgraduate student, I have come to realize how much I have grown personally and professionally. The King Abdullah Student Scholarship Program made it possible for me and the more than 165,000 other Saudis to forge a new life that guarantees many rewards.
As unusual as it may seem for Westerners, living independently in England has taught me to pay bills, like the UK’s mysterious television license (yes, you pay a tax to own and watch television in your home) and British Gas, with its multilayered and virtually nonsensical way it calculates how much gas you use during the month. I left the UK paying hundreds of pounds to close the account, although I heated only one room and cooked on an electric stove.

Perhaps most important, the time spent in the West has taught me to manage my time and conduct intense research, which required me to spend all-night sessions in the library, and then face the unappealing walk home in freezing weather. My fellow Saudi students worked just as hard. Other foreign students were not as lucky as Saudis. They not only struggled to maintain their studies, but they often took part-time jobs in restaurants and cafes to pay for their tuition.
At the end of the day I hope to become a valuable resource for my country. The government spent a lot of money on me to make my dream come true and it is my obligation to repay the government.
I marveled at the discipline I witnesses among my fellow students in an academic environment. But I am equally disturbed about many returning Saudis who have returned to old habits. Once graduates are free of the constraints imposed on them in academia, issues of etiquette, time management and working in a highly disciplined manner seemed to have disappeared. When a student sweats blood and tears to write an 80,000-word thesis, and then pass his defense session for his postgraduate degree, why resume the old habits of passing the time in a job before going home?
I don’t claim to have the answer why Saudis forgot about a society once steeped in science or why even among some young graduates science is no longer a priority to pursue.
Speaking to a colleague with a postgraduate degree recently, I suggested we work together on a joint paper in the field we shared. She looked at me as if I was crazy, noting that she had worked hard for her degree and now she only wanted to relax.
I often receive e-mails from US and European academics asking me to participate in projects, conferences or join them in co-writing papers. I receive nothing like that from Saudi academics. In Saudi Arabia, students — men and women alike — have little mobility in research or access to libraries to continue their work after receiving their degrees.
There is little value placed on research. It’s been my experience that Saudi universities do not provide time for their academic staff to pursue research in their fields that leads to publishing important papers.
Most western universities require that faculty members spend up to 70 percent of their time in research and 30 percent teaching. Saudi universities have not embraced the concept that professional research guarantees that your colleagues and students can count on you to provide the required information and learning tools to help students advance. Research is a contribution to the humanity in general and science in particular. Eastern Asian countries have developed extensive programs to guarantee time for research, to focus on education and knowledge, and to transform their countries from consumerist economies to knowledge-producing economies.
There is immense social pressure to conform to Saudi society once we are back inside the Kingdom. And as a result we have yet to change the balance of knowledge from being a consuming society to a knowledge-producing society.
We lag behind other countries as we continue to rely on oil and nonoil exports as sources of revenue without considering the advantages of what impact a knowledge-producing economy will have on future generations of Saudis.
Although one-quarter of the Kingdom’s budget is allocated for education we have no strategic plans for education. We have vague ideas, but we are unsure where we want to go. Teachers, for example, don’t discuss the goals of their courses before teaching their subjects.
King Abdullah had a vision of education when he implemented the scholarship program. The program can help Saudi Arabia re-balance the scale of international power and allow Saudis to get on the same footing as knowledge-producing countries.
It’s one thing to send students abroad for a first-class education and have them return with a degree in hand. It’s quite another to do something with that degree and to foster knowledge to the new generation and to continue learning ourselves.
However, the tools for continuing education for academics are by and large missing from our teaching arsenal. The culture to teach what we have learned abroad, and then apply that knowledge to better our economy and education system, is missing.
King Abdullah has taken a courageous step in introducing the scholarship program that sends students to five continents. It is now up to Saudi universities, the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Higher Education to build on our newly acquired knowledge by creating libraries, research centers and opening facilities for visiting postgraduates and independent researchers.

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