Sunday, July 22, 2007

Josh Landis on Syrian Universities

Landis writes a glowing description of a new private university in Syria.

When President Bashar al-Assad first came to power in 2000 at the age of 34, he announced to his countrymen that he would modernize Syria and open it up to the world. In 2003, Kalamoon University laid its first stone. The next year, it opened its doors to freshmen, and this year, it will graduate its first class of roughly 60 students out of a total of 3,000 enrolled. Eight private universities have sprung up in the last four years. Only this month, another ten universities were licensed by
presidential decree, a mix of private and public institutions. Despite the emerging importance of private schooling, higher education in Syria is dominated by five established state universities, situated in Syria’s largest cities. 250,000 of the 380,000 students enrolled in higher education in Syria attend the state universities; an additional 100,000 are enrolled in what is called “open education” that is dominated by virtual universities, offering courses on the internet. A mere 6,000 students are enrolled in the private universities, but that statistic is a year old and outdated. Today’s number is probably closer to 8,000 or 9,000.

Combing through these numbers, it is clear that the school being described is atypical. Kalamoon University is not only private, but new. We can hope and imagine it is the poster child for the future of Syrian higher education, but at the moment a few thousand students out of some quarter million or more nation-wide is a small number. But Syria's young dictator only came to power less than a decade ago. There is no shortage of critics of Syria and it's leader, but Professor Landis is not among them.

I have been following Landis for some time. His writing is understandable by a layman and upbeat. His positions are clear and well-argued. And his critics respect him enough to assail him regularly. By my thinking those are all positive qualities.

I was struck by the revolutionary implications of the new universities as I answered the students’ questions and gave what helpful pointers I could. The contrast between the education at Syria’s public and private universities is stark. The new universities, have handsome campuses, small classes, and accessible teachers; most importantly, they are designed to teach critical thinking.

As one of the first Fulbright students to Syria, I attended the University of Damascus in 1981-1982, where I hardly ever witnessed a student consult with a professor. As a rule, students at the state universities have no contact with their professors. Many classes have 300 to 500 students enrolled in them. The students cannot all fit into the lecture halls; many are forced to stand outside the classroom doors in the hope of hearing lectures, others don’t attend classes at all, coming to the university only at exam time. The exams are largely based on memorizing. Students are used to regurgitating the textbook used in the class or the professor’s lectures, which can readily be bought in the form of Xeroxed pamphlets at the end of the semester.

The Syrian higher education system is in tatters. At independence, Damascus University had a reputation as an excellent university and an elite institution. The city’s illustrious families had nurtured its growth since its founding in 1908, populated it with their children, and taught in it. By the 1950s, it enrolled some 5,000 students. Twenty-five years later it had expanded fourteen times. When I arrived in 1981, the student body was above 70,000. The Baath Party decrees of the 1960s, guaranteeing every student who passed the national baccalaureate exam a spot at university, had flattened the universities. Even if well intentioned, the socialist laws resulted in such rapid expansion that quality could not be maintained and facilities burst at the seams. Today, teachers’ salaries at the state universities hover around $200 a month. Professors have neither the possibility nor incentive to engage any but their very best students. Drop out rates are high. Only 2,100 students are sent abroad on scholarships a year and the state has allocated a trifling annual budget of $3.8 million for academic research.

By contrast, Kalamoon pays its professors about $1,440 for a three-hour, 16 week course. If a professor teaches three courses a semester for two semesters, the pay works out to roughly $700 a month over twelve months. If he teaches five courses, as some do, he will earn over $1,200 a month or five times as much as a professor at a public institution. Needless to say, private universities have hired away many of their best professors from the public sector. The competition between private universities is also fierce. When I took a tour of the Arab European University, another excellent private university that teaches in English and which is situated half an hour south of Damascus, I was surprised to find myself in a group of three other foreign academics. I soon discovered that they taught at other private institutions. AEU was enticing them to come start new departments it plans to open in the fall.

Check out the comments thread as well.

I was interested to read references to wasta, a term new to me. It refers to a cultural remnant of tribal origins that pervades Arab society. Consequently most of the Middle East is shot through with this practice which seems to be a serious but real barrier to what we like to think of as "meritocracy."

"Wasta" may mean either mediation or intercession. It denotes the person who mediates/intercedes as well as the act of mediation/intercession.

Intermediary wasta endeavors to resolve inter-personal or inter-group conflict. A jaha (wajaha', mediation group of notable emissaries sent by the perpetrator's family to the victim's family) acts to inhibit revenge being taken following an incident involving personal injury. The jaha seeks a truce between the parties, with the hope of an eventual agreement to resolve the conflict.

Wasta as mediation has a long and honorable history. In a tribal setting, wasta mediation binds families and communities for peace and well-being in a hostile environment. This face of wasta benefits society as a whole, as well as the parties involved.

Intercessory wasta involves a protagonist intervening on behalf of a client to obtain an advantage for the client - a job, a government document, a tax reduction, admission to a prestigious university. Many individuals, supported by their wasta backers, may be seeking the same benefit. When the seekers for a benefit are many and the opportunities are few, only aspirants with the strongest wastas are successful. Succeeding or failing depends on the power of the wastas more than on the merits of the seekers.

This is the start of a lengthy article explaining wasta from Arab Studies Quarterly, Summer, 1994.

I can't help wondering how much of this material is known by highly-placed people in the administration. Rather, how much it is understood and appreciated. Landis candidly acknowledges the reality and importance of wasta in his reply to a comment.

My impression from talking to various teachers is that the system is not based on wasta. As private universities, which teach all, or almost all, classes in English, they cannot afford to hire professors that are unqualified or that are relatives of important people who have few qualifications.

There seems to be a distinct shortage of qualified candidates available - a good protection against wasta. Few Syrians speak English fluently and foreign-trained faculty are paid below a European scale, which makes it difficult to recruit them. Most of the European faculty I met were young and just starting their carriers. Some had been learning Arabic here and began teaching on a lark or in order to remain in the region for a year or two. Retaining them will be difficult.

I was told that AEU could not find Syrian candidates to teach business administration and turned to Lebanon. The Lebanese professors demanded much higher salaries than the university typically paid and negotiated them successfully.
I think the whole process of hiring is a work in progress and subject to constant change and adaptation as the universities expand. The reputation of any university is largely dependent on the quality of its faculty. These universities are very competitive as they struggle to build reputations in Syria. Those that fail to recruit respected faculty will pay a high price for their failure.

Nur comments "Cool."
If she likes what he said, that's a good sign in my book. She's one of the most reliably informed sources of primary information on my blogroll.

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