Monday, September 27, 2010

Students in the Arab World Today

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah

The academic year started yesterday at my university. (That’s quite late, but this year all schools here in the UAE decided to start after Ramadan.) So with the new school year, I thought I would bring you a quick round up of student views and university news from the region.
The first item that recently caught my (surprised) eye was the report from surveys and interviews of students in the UAE, according to which: (1) many want the educational system to move more toward a co-ed (mixed male-female) situation; and (2) many want web censorship to be tightened more. (Right now, throughout the Gulf region, all websites are filtered by the national communications authorities or providers, at least for the sexual elements, and oftentimes for political issues, at least articles related to national leaders, the country’s history and politics, etc.)

The request for co-education, surprisingly, came more strongly from female students. Traditionally, it has always been thought that it’s the boys who want more girls around, while the girls feel the weight and pressure of social norms and traditions and thus prefer to be in a totally female environment in order to be free to behave as they wish and thus to learn more comfortably.  But it turns out that many female students realize that being shielded from interactions with young males is, in the end, counterproductive for them, as they need to be more fully prepared socially and professionally for their adult lives. Paradoxically, in reporting the survey on this issue, Gulf News noted that despite the efforts being made by these young women to mix with the opposite sex, some men in the colleges purposely try and avoid mixing with women because they are not traditionally used to doing so.” Incidentally, of the main universities in the UAE, the American University of Sharjah is only co-ed institution.
The other surprising news from a survey of Arab students is that almost 50 percent of them want web censorship to be increased; the main reason mentioned for this view is that illegal downloading is rampant in the region; the trend will not be reversed or even slowed without forceful intervention by the authorities. The other half of the surveyed population believes there is nothing wrong in downloading anything (movies, music, software) from the web, which they regard as a “free exchange” domain (free here meaning no-cost).
Other surveys have shown the degree (reaching 85 %) to which men and women in the Gulf use the web from home. The following may sound very stereotypical and male-oriented, but the survey actually claims that the number one usage of the web by (Arab) women is chatting and Facebook, while for men it is reading newspapers and magazines. (My experience is not statistically significant enough to allow me to criticize these reports, however surprising they may be to me.)

On a more important, national, and generational level, Saudi Arabia has released figures on university enrollment in the Kingdom, showing a huge increase in recent and future years: 636,000 students in 2006, 850,000 in 2009 (that’s a 34 % increase in 3 years!), and 1.7 million students expected in 2014 (doubling in 5 years). (According to the World Bank, the total population in KSA is 26 million today, and it is expected to be 28.6 million in 2015.)
The report adds: “As part of its ninth five-year development plan, for 2010-14… [t]here will be an expansion of facilities including the building of 25 technology colleges, 28 technical institutes and 50 industrial training institutes… And Up to US$240 million a year has been earmarked in grants for science and technology research projects. In addition, the plan is to establish 10 research centres, 15 university technological innovation centres in association with King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), and at least eight technology incubators at KACST and other universities… Under the development plan, the 24 government universities will admit 278,000 secondary school graduates in the new academic year (2010-11) and private universities and colleges will provide an additional 15,000 places. [Additionally,] Saudi Arabia has sent more than 88,000 students abroad to study under the King Abdullah Foreign Scholarship Programme.”


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