I taught for one semester at Helwan University more than two decades ago and developed an excellent rapport with the students. I found many of the class of 270 students to be bright and with good potential. Toward the end of the term, one student raised her hand and asked in perfect, fluent English: “Why do AUCians rate higher in the job market than us, even when our English language and computer skills are equivalent? Why do they get more interviews and claim better salaries?”
I never forgot the rush of ideas and reasons that raced through my mind at that moment.
“Three main differences,” I said. “AUCians have much better presentation skills, and therefore sell themselves better. They also have better research skills, and usually impress interviewers by referring to things they read here and there. Moreover, they are generally team players, sometimes with good leadership abilities that show on their resumes and shine in job interviews.”
A long and scary silence descended on the room, as I saw the eyes of over two hundred students looking right through me and into their future, wondering who to blame for this disparity and questioning what could be done about it. Then the room burst out with loud expressions of confusion, fear, frustration, anger, and even regret.
Questions rushed at me a dozen at a time and it became obvious that the class was over. I packed my stuff and strode through a gauntlet of questions, most of which I could not, or did not wish to answer.
Afterward, I had a cloud of mixed thoughts. I recalled my years coming out of a very strict and efficient school system into the Faculty of Engineering at Cairo University, and the tough adaptation process I went through. The meaning of many things I took for granted had to be revisited. All my theories about studentship became alternative hypotheses to be rejected. The right to ask a question, to discuss a problem, and to stop a professor to clarify a point were all behaviors I had to discard.
The Question of Delivery
There is a fundamental divide between content (curricula) and delivery. Many critics of the Egyptian higher education system focus more on criticizing the content; they correctly realize the deficiencies in the curricula and propose drastic measures to correct and complement existing ones. However, the more serious problem is with the delivery.
The power of American education is more in the delivery than in the content. We all know that many ranking studies put the curricula of Indonesia and Malaysia ahead of American ones. Books have been written about the deficiency of the United States’ curricula and educational system. My analysis as a “participant observer” is that the main strengths of the American educational system are the development of certain norms, skills, and abilities that help graduates become highly productive, highly effective, and highly creative. In turn, they become the building blocks of a society carrying the same norms, skills, and abilities.
The following are ten important differences between traditional Egyptian and American education systems which I have personally encountered as a student in both the American and Egyptian systems at the Universities of Cairo, Georgia, and Ohio State and as an instructor at the University of Georgia, Cairo University, Ain Shams University, and Helwan University.
From their early years in primary school through their final years at university, students in the American system learn to complete projects and present them in front of their colleagues. The requirements include synthesizing the main points of the subject and doing background research to support even a minor point in the presentation. Preparing presentation material—overheads, handouts, demonstrations, and so on—and using technology to deliver the presentations (software and hardware) are both emphasized. Finally, these skills include the ability to lead a question and answer session and accept different points of view and counter-arguments.
I recall the director of the MBA program at Ohio State University summoning me to a mandatory communication skills class after noting my lack of presentation skills. I am grateful to him and the instructor of that class for all I have achieved in my career thereafter. In real life, these skills make all the difference in terms of preparing the individual to present his/her point of view and to back it up with research, logic, and the courage to speak up and take a stand. More often than not, chances in life are grabbed or lost in the presentation.
Many of the assignments given to students in western programs are assigned to teams, which allows for the development of a set of critical skills. Students learn interpersonal communication, and how to work with different personalities, and produce results through the process (for example leadership). They discover how to divide the work into tasks and assign these to the available resources (members) according to fellow students’ abilities and preferences. They are also trained to object if a team member shirks or does not contribute fairly.
This is a significant problem for Egyptian-trained students: the inability to work in teams or produce parts to be integrated into a whole project. This stifles our ability as a society to work together, live together, or even drive together in traffic.
On many occasions, at different stages of education, students engage in a constructive debate in which each individual or team adopts one side of the argument while others adopt other points of view. The healthy debates that arise are not meant to reach a meaningful conclusion (though sometimes they may) but to develop the class’s ability to present and defend a point of view. The latest trend in teaching MBA courses is to have several faculty from complementary disciplines gather in the classroom to deliver an integrated case analysis.
One of the best-regarded teaching methods with a proven success record is the case method. Students working in groups to solve cases is an approach applicable to all subjects and allows for a more comprehensive, pragmatic, and enjoyable way of sharing and transference of knowledge. The downside is that it takes more competent instructors and more effort from students.
Use of technology
Information processing and telecommunication technologies are the cornerstones of this century. In the early stages in American education, technology is used to deliver the basics of the language, math, and sciences. Interactive technology, computer, and telecommunication labs are prevalent. Most schools require that all assignments be submitted in soft format via e-mail or at least word-processed properly. Students work in teams via e-mail or chat rooms and often have their own e-mail accounts through the school website. All assignments are expected to be done using computer word-processor programs.
Today, many web-based platforms are available to manage classes of all sizes. Yet, some Egyptian universities still do not have comprehensive and interactive websites. Most faculty members in our public universities use e-mails at Yahoo and Hotmail on their professional cards, if at all. Technologically literate individuals are the infrastructure of the future and we need to embrace this future.
The availability of information of all kinds at the fingertips of every student and faculty member is a power that is only appreciated when experienced first hand. In every university I have been to in the United States, there is an official newsletter for the faculty, and another for the students, both professionally edited and produced. There are many other publications for schools and departments, while the intranet of the university brings everyone together and informs all faculty, staff, and students about the available resources for research, teaching, learning, and even recreation. Computerized library systems and electronic libraries are musts. The credentials of the entire faculty and their research interests are available for colleagues around the globe as an open invitation for cooperation. If any of our universities are to make it to the top 100 lists, they must revamp their information strategy along these lines.
The American system recognizes that education is a means not an end. Therefore it is only logical that the curricula are revised, the textbooks updated, and the knowledge base of the faculty refreshed on a regular basis. The market dictates its needs, and the educational system responds to ensure its own survival. If the market refuses to accept the graduates, the enrollment of new students drops (this is happening today at Egypt’s schools of agriculture, where the number of faculty exceeds the number of students).
The link between the university and the economic system is a structural link between two units along the same value chain. The student is handed over from the family to the schooling system to the university to the workforce, where he or she becomes a productive unit. The quality of these units depends on the process that shaped their skills, knowledge, and abilities, as well as their norms, culture, and ethics.
One of the hallmarks of American education is the liberal arts approach, which gives students the option to select the areas of additional knowledge they acquire. Of course, there is a core set of subjects they must cover, but then each student begins to take responsibility for his or her development early on. To help the students make optimal choices for their aptitude, an advising system is in place with counselors advising students on the courses they should register for.
Some university systems in the west require students to elect courses outside their intended field of specialization (science for non-science and vice-versa). My engineering background helped me stand out as I specialized in marketing, a behavioral science. The marketing course now mandatory for graduating seniors at the Faculty of Pharmacy at Ain Shams University gives them a certain flavor that is greatly appreciated by the multinational pharmaceutical companies who consider those graduates their first option among those from over a dozen other schools of pharmacy.
One of the major catalysts of continued improvement in American education is the collective responsibility of the administration, the instructor, and the student. Students in the American system voice their satisfaction and dissatisfaction with the curricula, with the tools, and with the instructor. The inept instructor has nowhere to hide in the American system. The system builds the foundation for a society where individuals take responsibility for reform by voting for what they believe in. Over and above the student evaluations of the teacher, the credit-hour system allows the student to choose the instructor and to refuse lesser-quality instructors.
Talented students find special attention from their mentors. A mentor is someone who identifies special talents in the student and pushes the student hard to excel. The system believes that each student has some ability; our concern is to identify and nourish this. All great talents had mentors who believed in them and guided them to reach their full potential. I was handpicked during my MBA at Ohio State University by Paul Miniard, professor of marketing, who mentored me into the marketing world for many years to follow. Later, at the University of Georgia, another mentor took over, Professor Warren French.
I try to practice this mentorship myself and have mentored scores of students at the undergraduate, masters, and doctorate levels. It is a joy once understood and applied with the student in mind.
The educational system is a rehearsal for the social system. If the education is void of positive norms, it throws hundreds of thousands of graduates into the workforce with compromised work ethics and severe social deficiencies. The American educational system enforces certain social norms that produce productive individuals. Punctuality is an example, honesty is another. Hard work, planning, the pursuit of perfection, finishing what you begin, respecting the rights of others, working with others of different abilities, courtesy, and a positive attitude are all examples. Interestingly, all these traits are precisely what our religions teach and preach. They are also traits that we miss in dealing with each other in our everyday lives.
Moving forward we ought to start by envisioning the graduates that we would like our educational system to produce: graduates who collectively hold a promise for a better future. Having said that, is there a prescription that could help this ailing system? I believe there is. Here are some starters that should not be difficult if we have an open mind, and the will to improve.
Listen to Your Customers
If there is one thing to start with, it should be to give a voice to the customer. Our universities could tremendously improve the quality of education without any extra cost if they allowed the students to systematically and anonymously evaluate all their professors. These evaluations should be the foundation for any recognition, awards, or development opportunities for the faculty. They should be summarized and reviewed at all levels all the way to the top. But that is only the first step.
Ultimately, the credit-hour system with the option for students to choose the instructor will be a safeguard against sloppiness. Multiple professors teaching different sections of the same course simultaneously will allow the invisible hand of competition to do its magic. Our students are, after all, the customers, the subject, and the purpose of the whole educational process.
After I earned my Ph.D. from the University of Georgia with a perfect GPA of 4.0, I applied for a vacant position of assistant professor in the department. The dean of the school complimented me on my achievements but said he could not endorse my application. Puzzled, I asked why. “We would be breeding mediocrity,” he answered.
I must have let a strange expression show on my face because he grinned as he explained further. “You see, at best, you are as good as your professors, whom we already have. I would rather hire someone who comes with a whole new set of ideas and premises to challenge their paradigms and question their wisdom.”
The Egyptian university system will continue to deteriorate scientifically as long as universities continue to hire their own graduates. At one time we had one or two universities, which may have justified this. Today we have about twenty public universities and likewise private, and if we look around in the Arab World, we could easily approach one hundred.
So why do we limit our options? The rules of nature require the selection of the fittest. Scholars should be in demand (like talented soccer players) to enrich and invigorate the existing faculty. One-year visiting professorships are a short-term solution, until the bylaws of the university system can be changed. The benefits of crossbreeding are obvious, academically, managerially, and even politically.
Tenure of Faculty
No system in the world can improve if the tenure of its leaders is guaranteed, let alone a university system where the entire faculty population is guaranteed tenure. In this situation, faculty have little incentive to improve their teaching or research endeavors. If a student graduates the top of his or her class, the road to professorship is simply a matter of time and procedure.
What cannot be measured cannot be managed. The standing committees that evaluate faculty for promotion in the region are often lacking, managerially speaking. They are selected mainly on seniority, at times with some members who have failed to publish in any international periodical. Even assuming good intentions, they have no objective criteria to judge the research or achievement of faculty, and they receive no orientation on how to do their tasks. The entire process is discouragingly subjective.
Again we ought to integrate with the region to solve this matter. Files of candidates for promotion should be sent to specialized professors in the region for evaluation with clear criteria to follow. The role of the standing committee is to endorse the decisions and to reciprocate by evaluating young faculty from abroad.
Principles of Management
The setting of clear objectives is the first step toward any meaningful achievement. Hard work and good intentions are not adequate if the system is to thrive and develop. I recommend that intense managerial workshops, albeit abroad, should be mandatory for all faculty selected for managerial posts, from department heads and deans of schools to university presidents. How are they supposed to manage without any formal training in management? How are they supposed to be evaluated without commitment to written objectives that are aligned and approved by higher management? And how are they supposed to plan without the strategy and the structured negotiation for resources?
Granted, the recent introduction of programs for accreditation and quality assurance is a step in the right direction. But effective leadership is essential at all levels. And there is no surprise that top academics may not be the best leaders. Identifying young talented leaders, qualifying them to world-class standards of leadership, and placing them at the helm will do miracles for future generations.
Other principles of management such as fair performance appraisals upon which pay and advancement are determined must be adopted. The current system rewards seniority, hours spent at work, and intentionally leaves some doors open for faculty to teach at private universities on the side, sell notes to students, and worse. Firm action against poor perpetrators is the fuel of the performance engine.
Define the Business
There are some universities that claim to be research-based educational institutions, which require certain resources in terms of libraries, labs, and financial support. Others position themselves as teaching institutions, devoting all their resources to the excellence of the educational process. I believe that we should select only three or four universities to declare as research institutions devoted to graduate studies and academic research. The rest should be teaching universities devoted to undergraduate teaching where faculty will be judged solely upon their teaching abilities. They should be well paid for delivering well.
Meanwhile, the scant budgets allocated to academic research would go to the research universities. In addition, the management of research in these universities should be centralized, so all the research in related fields such as medical sciences, social sciences, agriculture, and so on could be focused in two universities only to promote competition. When the resources are not spread too thin, there is some hope that real research could result.
Topnotch research resources will be devoted to these universities, and logically, only these universities will have graduate programs. The goal would be for these graduate programs to be prestigious, limited in number, with an international aptitude and English entry exams, and high fees. Studying should be strictly in English to develop a generation capable of pursuing studies abroad and integrating into the global scientific community. Graduates would not be allowed positions in the same university to avoid breeding mediocrity, as explained before.
The solutions provided here are starters that tackle, in my opinion, the most critical issues. If applied these solutions should set our derailed higher education system on the right track. The problem is that the system has suffered from these defects for so long it has become a victim of its own uninspired graduates, as they are now recycled back into the system. For the price of one decent soccer player per university, we could reclaim some of our bright scholars who left the system early as young graduates. If granted some freedom to manage change, their experiences as graduate students, educators, and leaders in a different system will pump fresh air into a room that is running out of the oxygen needed for a brighter future.
Ahmed Taher, MBA, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor in Journalism and Mass Communication Department at the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy of The American University in Cairo. An earlier brief version of this paper was presented in 2006 at the Annual Research Conference at the AUC.
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