Jordan plans higher-ed expansion to attract foreign students

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Oct 4 12:46:37 UTC 2006
>>From the issue dated October 6, 2006

Jordan's Ambitious Plan
A country with few natural resources hopes to build its intellectual
capital by expanding its higher-education system


Amman, Jordan

Jordan, as its citizens are so keenly aware, often comes up short when
compared with its neighbors. A small, poor, desert country, it lacks the
oil and natural-gas resources found in the Persian Gulf. It will never
have Egypt's seemingly bottomless work force. And it lacks the
cosmopolitan appeal of Lebanon. Yet its shortcomings have inspired one of
the country's most ambitious goals: to build on its intellectual capital
by developing higher education. The country has begun a major push to
expand and improve science, technology, and scientific-research programs
at its 10 public and 13 private universities, hoping they will turn out
highly skilled graduates who can compete for lucrative jobs in the Persian
Gulf countries.

Already a popular destination for students from other Arab countries,
Jordan also wants to greatly increase the number of foreign students who
enroll here, in part because it needs their tuition to help pay for the
expansion. "In the Gulf, they have oil and other resources, but they don't
have the people, the educated manpower, to develop their society," says
Ashraf A.  Tahat, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at
Princess Sumaya University for Technology. "Jordan doesn't have many
natural resources, so we must be very educated in order to compensate.
Education is always the first priority for families in Jordan." But some
academics here question whether such rapid reform is possible in a country
so heavily dependent on foreign aid, and in a higher-education system that
struggles to cope with corruption in admissions, hiring, and grading; weak
support for research; staff shortages; and a crumbling infrastructure.

Amman is among the most modern, Western-looking Arab cities west of the
Persian Gulf. Famously built on seven hills, like Rome, Amman now sprawls
over 19, many still partially covered with centuries-old olive trees. Tens
of thousands of squat beige concrete buildings seem to tumble down the
hillsides like a child's blocks, but the city is also dotted with Western
chains, like Starbucks, and gleaming shopping malls. The sheen of
prosperity is misleading, however: Along with lacking oil and gas, Jordan
has few other natural resources, including sufficient water.  Poverty,
debt, and unemployment are national problems. Jordan's economy relies
heavily on aid from richer countries, and on money sent home by Jordanians
working overseas.

Since he ascended the throne in 1999, however, King Abdullah II has worked
carefully with international institutions like the International Monetary
Fund and the World Trade Organization to raise productivity, increase
foreign investment, and thus reduce dependence on foreign gifts and loans,
all the while trying to ensure that conflicts in neighboring Iraq and
Israel do not undermine Jordan's stability.

A Higher-Education Policy

Like its foreign policy, Jordan's education philosophy has been developed
with an eye to the country's delicate position in the region. English is
taught in all Jordanian public schools, and the country has marketed
itself as a safe and open place for foreign college students. The nation's
most prestigious public university, the University of Jordan, sits on a
sprawling and well-kept campus covered with cypress and elm trees in
northwest Amman. Students congregate between classes in shaded areas
between the white stone buildings and in a central square with gardens and
a clock tower, which serves as a popular meeting place.  Several students
stop a visitor unprompted, offering in flawless English to help with
directions. The atmosphere is energetic, friendly, and studious.

Jordan attracts about 20,000 university students from other Arab countries
and regions each year, with the Palestinian Authority, Iraq, Oman, Yemen,
and Egypt most strongly represented. Interviews with a half-dozen foreign
students suggest a variety of reasons for the country's appeal. Some
appreciate the relatively low tuition at the country's private
universities. Others cite the openness and political neutrality they find
on the country's campuses. Thamer al-Shammari, 26, a fourth-year student
in public administration at Applied Science University, in Amman, said he
had decided to study in Jordan because his grades in high school were too
low for him to enroll in a top public university at home, in Saudi Arabia.

He also likes being independent from his family, and appreciates the more
Western approach to teaching. "In Saudi, the teaching is very strict,
based entirely on memorization," Mr. al-Shammari says. "Jordanian
university professors are more modern." Foreign students are a key source
of revenue their tuition reduces the strain on public universities and
subsidizes the education of talented Jordanian students. The foreigners
also help to raise the profile of Jordanian universities abroad.

Jordan invests a higher percentage of its gross domestic product in
education than any other country in the Arab world, according to Jordanian
government officials. One-third of its education expenditures go toward
higher education. It contributes about $73-million each year to its state
universities, or about one-fifth of those universities' operating costs.
The universities, which are free to academically qualified Jordanians,
make up the balance through tuition-paying foreign students, and through a
practice known as "parallel teaching," in which students who do not meet
the academic qualifications can pay to enroll.

Foreign Students Wanted

In April, Khaled Toukan, Jordan's minister of higher education and
scientific research, announced that he hoped to raise the number of
foreign students in the kingdom to 100,000 by 2020. Since Jordan's total
student enrollment stands at about 192,000 students, that feat would mean
raising the overall capacity of Jordan's universities by almost 50
percent. One way Jordan plans to absorb additional students is through
several new private universities. Last year ground was broken for the
construction of a new American-style university in Aqaba, a project that
has received close support and patronage from King Abdullah, as well as
the new German-Jordanian University of Applied Sciences, in Ma'daba, which
will follow a German curriculum.

Jordan's Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research also plans
to invest in "educational tourism," to draw Western students in to study
Jordanian culture and Arabic. Mr. Toukan also hopes to attract students by
introducing more degree programs in cooperation with prestigious Western
universities. For example, Jordan's Yarmouk University offers a program in
cultural-heritage conservation, developed with Germany's Brandenburg
University of Technology at Cottbus. And the Royal Institute of
Technology, in Sweden, has contributed to a master's program in renewable
energy resources at Jordan University of Science and Technology.

The ministry will also promote the development of advanced-degree programs
and research opportunities in sought-after fields like computer science,
other applied sciences, pharmaceuticals, graphic design, and
communications. Changing Arab economies especially as the Persian Gulf
countries move beyond merely selling oil and natural gas and seek to
develop subsidiary industries and stronger service economies mean those
degrees are in great demand regionally.

"We are optimistic," says Mr. Toukan, who began planning a reform of the
higher-education system six years ago, with the help of some foreign-aid
agencies in countries such as Canada and Japan. "We are trying to build
organizations that will support quality assurance and accreditation. Our
whole aim is quality and excellence. The thrust now is information
technology, medicine, biotechnology, but we also want to champion the
humanities: history, the Arabic language, Shariah law. "We want our
universities to shine," he continued, "and we want to show that we can
succeed in this without losing our ancient Arab values."

Victor Billeh, a former Unesco regional director for education in the Arab
states, says that science and technology programs in Jordanian
universities were earning a reputation as some of the best in the region.
"These programs are good quality, and seen as being better than other
countries," Mr. Billeh says. He noted that the education ministry has
worked hard to improve academic quality, particularly among the new
private universities in the country. "I would say that the students that
come from other countries prefer Jordan as having a better system," he
says. Jordan uses a combination of strategies for reform. It has
encouraged students to pursue technological careers, shifted money within
higher education, and reached out to foreign donors to help support new
academic programs.

Jordan's universities have received dozens of scientific-development
grants. The European Commission, for example, has given $7.6-million to
Jordan's universities in the last four years. As in many developing
countries, Jordanian families have traditionally preferred that their
children enter fields with immediate practical applications, like medicine
and engineering. At public universities, a national exam administered at
the end of high school, the Tawjihi, funnels the brightest Jordanian
students into science. But by investing heavily in information- and
communications-technology programs, as well as in practical programs like
accounting, at public universities, Mr. Toukan and his colleagues have
made those majors highly desirable as well. Jordan's Royal Scientific
Society is investing in Princess Sumaya University, a private nonprofit
university the society started in 1991, with a view toward setting the
standard for the teaching of applied sciences and entrepreneurship in the

The university offers bachelors' degrees in computer-related sciences and
electrical engineering alongside a range of programs designed to foster
entrepreneurship and creative thinking. Within the last year and a half,
the university sent a group of 10 students to the $100K Global Startup
Workshop, managed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and held
last spring in Abu Dhabi, and made MIT e-learning materials available to
Princess Sumaya students. Such programs mean that Princess Sumaya
graduates are in great demand for technology jobs in the Persian Gulf. Mr.
Tahat, the engineering professor, says Jordanians are proud of being able
to provide talent to the resource-rich Gulf countries. "Eighty percent of
our graduates find jobs within the two months after graduation," he says.
"And the remaining 20 percent find jobs within six months."

Questions of Fairness

The shift in emphasis toward teaching more marketable skills has not come
without controversy. Professors in the arts and social sciences say that
their fields have suffered greatly. Musa Shteiwi, a sociology professor at
the University of Jordan and the director of the Jordan Center for Social
Research, says his department had been increasingly marginalized in recent
years. Mr. Shteiwi says that money was dwindling, and that Jordan's
government had nearly ceased its longtime practice of sending especially
promising social-science students abroad to Europe and the United States
to get their Ph.D.'s

"The quality of teaching in the social sciences is terribly poor, and it's
deteriorating," says Mr. Shteiwi. "Students are assigned to the department
because of their test scores and because they want to get some kind of
degree, not because they have any interest in the subject." Some are also
worried that poorer students will have a tough time meeting a new
requirement that all undergraduates and graduate students must take the
Test of English as a Foreign Language, known as the Toefl. Mr. Toukan, the
higher-education minister, says that is to ensure that Jordanian students
are proficient in English. But Khoulud Kittani, who tutors students at the
University of Jordan in English and Arabic, says that the requirement puts
students who do not come from wealthy Amman families at a disadvantage.

"Usually this means you have to pay for the preparation classes because
the instruction in the schools is not so good," she says. "The government
wants people who are bilingual, tech-savvy. But for the poorer students,
students from rural areas, this is difficult." Many here also question
whether true reform can take place in a system that, students and
professors say, is full of corruption and favoritism, and provides scant
resources for research. "Many professors don't have computers or the
proper statistical packages, and some of those who do don't know how to
use them properly," says Mr.  Shteiwi, the sociology professor. "Besides,
when you are coping with many hundreds of students, it is difficult to
find time. There is very little support for professors who are dedicated
to their research."

Palestinian students and professors between 50 percent and 80 percent of
Jordan's inhabitants are Palestinian are at a disadvantage in university
admissions. Jordan's universities use a quota system through which places
are set aside for certain groups of students the sons and daughters of
military officers; students with connections to the Diwan, Jordan's royal
court; and students from certain tribes who are then privileged in the
application process. Professors complain that this practice lowers the
overall quality of university student bodies; students merely gripe about
the injustice. "Having a friend who is an office boy at the royal court is
more important than getting a perfect score on your Tawjihi exams," says a
recent University of Jordan graduate, himself a Palestinian refugee from
an underprivileged family. He asked not to be identified by name because
of the sensitivity of the topic.

Some professors complain that tribal affiliation still plays far too great
a role in hiring decisions, particularly in the country's rural
universities. Despite the problems with the current system, analysts are
taking Jordan's higher-education reform plans seriously, but say that
potential pitfalls still lie ahead. Mr. Billeh, who until his retirement
from Unesco last year was based in Beirut, says that overcrowding and
quality control could be problems as Jordan seeks to recruit more foreign

"Dr. Toukan's efforts are quite genuine, but the demand on higher
education within Jordan has not stopped; in fact, it has been
skyrocketing," Mr. Billeh says. "In some cases, universities are now
appointing people who are not qualified to teach because of the demand
from students. ... Everyone is guessing at what fields will be most in
demand by employers, but there are not yet any follow-up studies to
determine how many graduates are employed. At the end of the day, Jordan
will find its balance. But it's a very fluid situation."
Section: International
Volume 53, Issue 7, Page A39


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