Saturday, May 07, 2011

Different sets of education efforts in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia

by Salman Hameed

It is quite clear that almost all developing countries can see the importance of education. But the challenges and aspirations can be slightly different. Here are two cases: Saudi Arabia and Malaysia. I won't tell you which one is which, but one is trying to become a center for elite western education, and the other is facing a stiff challenge from its clerics who are afraid that education will lead to "mingling of sexes". Oh no. Not the mingling of sexes! The horror - the horror.

Okay so here is Saudi Arabia (tip from House of Wisdom):
With unemployment at 10.5 per cent, and estimated at 39 per cent among Saudis aged 20-24, the kingdom sees job promotion as a national security imperative, particularly as unemployed young people have fuelled the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. 
But conservatives, important allies of the ruling Al Saud family, see changes such as devoting more time to mathematics and science or introducing sports into girls’ schools as a western plot to secularise the kingdom, a dangerous charge in the birthplace of Islam.
In spite of resistance, efforts to shift the tenor of the debate have started. Since taking office in 2009, Prince Faisal bin Abdullah, education minister, has launched “dialogue workshops” with teachers, parents, students and clerics to explain the plans. “Resistance to change happens when people do not understand what we are doing,” Faisal al-Muaammar, deputy education minister, tells the Financial Times.
“We tell them their belief and traditions are not being challenged ... When we teach math and science, we have to link them to Islam.”
Hmm...I don't know how they are going to link mathematics and sciences to Islam. I know that Pakistan does that in some cases in biology. But even there, they keep the science mostly as science. I fear that in Saudi Arabia, they may turn to the pseudoscience of finding science in the Qur'an and institutionalize in the education curricula. By the way, Saudi Arabia is amongst the bottom countries in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. But no worry, they have their priorities correct:
Education is one of the bastions of the clerical establishment. In 2002, religious instruction took up 31 per cent of course load in the primary system, compared with 20 per cent for mathematics and sciences.
So here is an attempt at reform - and the threat of "mingling of sexes":
The centrepiece is the transformation of Tatweer, a programme to implement a $2.4bn education project, backed by King Abdullah, into a holding company owned by the multibillion-dollar Public Investment Fund. The intention is that Tatweer will form partnerships with international companies to develop an education industry, curricula, teacher training and technology intended to create “smart schools”.
“Tatweer will be the Sabic or Maaden of education,” says Prince Faisal, referring to the kingdom’s petrochemical and mining companies. “We will invest in the human mind.”
But the prince faces a struggle. After a meeting between clerics and Prince Faisal on Sunday, Sheikh Youssef al-Ahmed, a radical cleric, threatened to persuade families to sue the minister, accusing him of overseeing a project to “corrupt female students and promote mingling of sexes”.
Read the full article here.

And then we have Malaysia that is working to develop an education city:
“Educity”, as the Johor complex is called, reflects Malaysia’s grand strategy to become a centre for Western education. The country wants to meet strong demand among Asia’s new middle classes for English-language schooling. It also worries about its brain drain (over 300,000 university-educated Malays work abroad). Having watched Asian children flock west to spend a lot of money on British and American schools, the government decided a few years ago to try to reverse the trend. It has campaigned to persuade Western schools and colleges to come and set up branch campuses. The Malaysian proposition to Asian parents is simple and beguiling: come to these famous schools and universities in our country and get the same degrees and qualifications as in Britain or America for half the price. '
The Malaysian government is spending $100 million on the infrastructure and buildings. Johns Hopkins and MIT are amongst some of the universities expected to join-in in various capacities. Malaysia is also targeting students from the middle east. This is all well and good - but much of the focus is still on fields such as engineering and medicine. If they are not willing to get a few liberal arts colleges, I hope they get full universities rather than chopped up business schools, engineering colleges, and medical universities. The key is a broad, well-rounded education that opens up the students to the arts and humanities, as well as technical subjects.

But Malaysia also has its own particular set of issues: 
In return for putting up a lot of money, the Malaysian government wants universities to set up faculties in subjects that will be most useful to Malaysia. The University of Southampton, for instance, will only offer degrees in engineering. But the influx of foreign colleges might have more interesting consequences, too. In order to attract foreign universities, the government has had to waive the restrictive and sometimes racist regulations that govern Malaysia’s own universities. In these places, informal quota systems give preference to ethnic Malays in the faculties of sought-after subjects such as law, medicine and engineering. Students are not allowed to join political parties or protest. Now, local students are demanding to know why they should be subject to these archaic rules when the new students are not. Good question.
Read the full article here.


Muhammad Akbar Hussain said...

Nicely written. However I have a few points to mention.

You wrote:
"I don't know how they are going to link mathematics and sciences to Islam. I know that Pakistan does that in some cases in biology. But even there, they keep the science mostly as science."

I had my entire undergraduate and graduate education in Pakistan, and I am aware of the references from Quranic verses in Biology books. But to me it always seemed more like promoting Islam's stance and emphasis on discovery and observing the nature. It seemed like a good effort to counter the beliefs by some hard line (pseudo) religious elements who keep science and religions at opposite poles. I think it is a good effort in that direction to nullify the confusion about religion and science.

You also wrote:
"I fear that in Saudi Arabia, they may turn to the pseudoscience of finding science in the Qur'an and institutionalize in the education curricula."
Does finding something scientific in Quran really fit into the definition of 'pseudoscience' or is it just your personal anguish against this notion? I mean if it is mentioned in the first verse of Quran that there are many worlds, and (other verses) that moon and sun and all celestial bodies have their fixed defined orbits, and their creation and dynamics governed by pre-defined laws, I always thought it was plausible with enough reproducible evidences and can be reliably tested.
Having said so, I am now updating my understanding of 'pseudosciences' and would regard SETI and astrobiology etc as real sciences (having plausibility, reproducible evidences, and are reliably testable).

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