Friday, April 11, 2014

Curriculum must match infrastructure growth

The column appeared originally in Arab News dated 13/12/2012

The other day a group of us from the Nursing College at the King Saud bin Abdulaziz University for Health Sciences left our little campus in Jeddah for a day trip to our new university about an hour away.
The new university building was not finalized, but its vastness left most of us speechless. It was a sprawling campus with state-of-the-art classrooms and on-campus residential accommodation for university personnel. To say we were awestruck by the potential this university offered to women nursing students is an understatement. There is no comparison to the ill-suited building we currently occupy not far from the Palestine Street in the heart of Jeddah.
Saudi Arabia has been on a construction-spending spree. Construction by 2009 had grown by about 5 per cent. In 2010, about SR 260 billion had been set aside to build new infrastructure and upgrade existing projects that include transportation and power generation.
Particular attention has been paid to the development of the Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University that consists of 32 colleges, with its own College of Nursing, in and around Riyadh. And, of course, there is the King Abdulaziz University of Science and Technology outside of Jeddah that has gained considerable attention for its emphasis on its Western-style campus.
Last April, Dr. Khaled bin Muhammad Al-Anqari, the minister of higher education, inked contracts valued at about SR 1 billion to build more universities throughout Kingdom. These new projects will include construction at Shaqra and Al-Majmah universities and an applied medical science building in Jizan. Administrative facilities at Salman bin Abdulaziz University in Al-Kharj and Tabuk University are also on the agenda for improvements under the new construction contracts.
It’s admirable that the Saudi government has devoted so much since 2005 to invest in the country’s academic infrastructure. When combined with the King Abdullah’s scholarship program, our country is finally making significant progress to produce graduates to enter the workforce and contribute to bettering the Kingdom.
At the same time the Saudi higher education officials signed off on contracts that bring high-tech classrooms to rural areas, Prince Saud bin Abdulmohsen, the emir of Hail, questioned whether the amount of money spent on infrastructure matches the commitment to university curriculum. Prince Saud pointed out that education inside Saudi Arabia was mired in “traditional roles” that left students bored and unengaged.
Prince Saud brings up valid criticism about the way we go about educating our young people. Western critics have long complained that high-school level curriculum is not only inadequate, but teaches the more violent aspects of our nation’s history at the expense of more social and scientific subjects. However, these critics are missing out the big picture. Curriculum at the high-school level is turning itself around. And while giving high school student a broader view of the world is vital to prepare them for universities, the more important issue is just what kind of education is waiting for these young people in Saudi universities. And this is where I despair.
The Saudi government has done its part by providing the infrastructure and the environment to teach students. Now it’s up to the educationists to stand up and perform their duty. Education is not just new buildings, but a commitment to develop the country. Education is a belief in development and research.
Unfortunately, when we examine our commitment to standardized curriculum, I find it wanting when compared to what the rest of the world is demanding of its students.
There is a disconnect between the so-called experts who develop the curriculum and the professors and lecturers who teach it and the students who absorb it. Most university professors take it for granted that these experts — experts in which we have no idea of their credentials and whether they really have the expertise in their field — are giving our young people the best education necessary to be competitive outside Saudi Arabia. Most university faculty members can’t say who designs the curriculum for our students and what credentials they possess to provide such a service.
If we really compare ourselves to the international community, we are not up to their standards. We are not taking the proper steps to meet those international education standards, but instead we are developing curriculum that pleases some people in some education circles. For example, we must review our education philosophy, an area that university faculty members — at least to my knowledge — never discuss. Instead, there is a tendency among some educators to underestimate the ability of students by teaching to the lowest common denominator instead of demanding more. We still don’t take incorporating technology into education seriously. Some universities don’t provide the students with wireless Internet connection or even enough computer clusters. Above all, critical thought is a skill that is totally absent from our curriculum. Faculty members do not enjoy any type of freedom especially when it comes to what to teach.
The disproportionate amount of money we are spending on infrastructure compared to efforts we are making to ensure our curriculum is rigorous and up to the international standards. This leaves us with impressive buildings but students unprepared for the real world.

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