Friday, April 11, 2014

Academic brain drain: A challenge

The column appeared originally in Arab News dated 14/2/2013

Saudi Arabia has done a remarkable job of beefing up the health care, technology and sciences profession by attracting top-notch talent from around the world.
The Ministry of Health, for example, has innumerable projects to vastly expand medical facilities throughout the Kingdom. And the King Abdullah Foreign Scholarship Program has sent thousands of Saudi men and women abroad to earn postgraduate degrees with the expectation that they will return to serve their country.
These are the right steps to securing a better future for the next generation of Saudis with a knowledge-based society. No longer is oil the cure-all for whatever ails us now. And oil is certainly no panacea for a secure economic future. It’s indeed far-sighted for the Saudi government to invest in its youth.
But according to a 2009 study by Ameerah Yousef Mansour called Factors Affecting Locational Decisions of Saudi Health Care Professionals, only 21.4 percent of all physicians, including dentists, were Saudis. Saudis accounted for only 19.5 percent of nurses and 45.4 percent of the health care technical staff were Saudis. This is just a small sampling of one segment of the work force of the low numbers of Saudis engaged in high-caliber professions.
It’s the job of Saudi universities to improve those numbers and rely less on foreign labor.
Yet hidebound institutions have not embraced the concept of helping the king’s vision of developing a knowledge-based society. Specifically, colleges and universities remain locked in a rigid hierarchy that squelches the pursuit of greater knowledge.
Saudi academia is awash in internal politics, fear, apathy and jealously, which stifles intellectual growth. Bureaucracy and unnecessary cost cutting have sapped the motivation of many promising academics.
While the Ministry of Higher Education sends students abroad with high hopes, those very same students who choose a career in academics are coming home to an environment that does not encourage research. Without published research, an academic has few opportunities for career advancement. Without career advancement there are no higher salaries and few academic achievements that make the university professor marketable to other employers.
In Saudi Arabia, the salary of an assistant professor averages almost SR 19,000 monthly. There often is no accommodation allowance. The transportation allowance may pay for a bicycle. As rents continue to rise in urban areas and drivers demand higher salaries, the outlay for those two expenses alone reduces a female professor’s salary by nearly half.
There once was a time when Saudi universities paid a premium for a Saudi possessing a doctorate. But in recent years, some universities have been on a cost-cutting spree. The Ministry of Higher Education is still debating whether to take away extra compensation for computer literacy. Extra pay for rare skills, such as earning a Ph.D., might soon disappear. It makes little sense to make budgetary cuts when the Kingdom’s education budget has a surplus of funds.
The payments cuts, although small in the grand scheme of things, chip away at a professor’s self-worth. The era of coveting a Saudi academic with a doctorate no longer exists. They are no longer special because any Ph.D holder is expected to teach. Administrators want to see tangible results immediately by gauging student progress on a week-to-week basis, instead of investing in long-term commitments to achieve long-term goals.
In fact, classroom hours increase to the point that few doctorate holders have the time to pursue the goals that motivated them to become Ph.D holders in the first place: research.
Even in academic circles the idea of research is viewed with suspicion, as if it’s not really work. If you are not visibly teaching, then you are not doing anything constructive.
The great danger in this is we waste the talents of doctorate holders. University administrators insist they remain in the classroom, taking them away from research that allows them to develop policies that lead to better academic programs that help Saudis become more competitive in the global workplace.
If administrators deny academics the ability to conduct research to produce a better educational environment, those academics will go elsewhere. Already, some Saudi women graduating from Western universities are deciding that Saudi Arabia does not offer a healthy academic or work environment. Part of the reason is the closed nature of Saudi society, but also because universities are steeped in traditions that were important to learning 20 years ago, but only serve as obstacles to the growing thirst for knowledge among young Saudis today.
Saudi postgraduate students are not satisfied to return to Saudi Arabia to be snowed under heavy classroom hour requirements that all but eliminate any opportunity to pursue research and attend conferences to exchange information and be exposed to other ideas. They have been to American, European and East Asian universities and experienced academic freedom.
A friend of mind recently completed his Ph.D and returned to the United Arab Emirates with a job paying 33,000 dirhams, more than one-third higher than the top salary tier of a similar position in Saudi Arabia.
Saudis are loyal to the king’s vision to develop the Saudi brain trust to secure the country’s future. But if universities can’t get with the game plan, then another country’s gain of a Saudi academic is our country’s loss.

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