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Higher education, education need action-driven, brave leadership from premier

Jan 12,2019 - Last updated at Jan 12,2019

The rare and detailed insight into the University of Jordan’s financial, operational and academic woes provided by its recently appointed president, Abdul Kareem Qudah, is a noteworthy and commendable precedent, despite the package of challenging news it delivered.

Qudah called on the government to pay its JD190 million debt to all public universities in order to allow them to stand at a point from which they could plan their recovery. But I think the stronger message in his review of the shocking numbers, whether in reference to the unnecessary oversupply of administrative and academic employees, the heavy burden of monthly salaries, the losses incurred by the university’s mismanaged investments and resources, failing academic standards, etc., is his admission that recovery will require extraordinary and brave planning and action.

Qudah laid out his plans for stricter controls on spending, better management of the university’s investments and resources, as well as an ambitious vision for improving the standards of academic achievement for both the academic staff and the students. In all honesty, as I was reading the list of initiatives launched or in planning by the university, to address the multilayered challenges it faces, I felt sorry for the man and his management team, as I began to visualise the heavy burden of the task, its complexity and the expected pushback from multiple power centres, in trying to achieve it.

In fact, one only has to read the Economic and Social Council’s (ESC) State of the Country report’s chapter on higher education to realise that the challenges facing this sector are endemic, multilayered, impacted by an archaic rentier mentality, hostage to debilitating social constructs and is actually not specific to this or that university but is relevant to how the sector is managed in general.

The University of Jordan, with all the good will of its new president, cannot and really should not be expected to, tackle the university’s challenges without also receiving clear political support and incredible commitment from the government, and at the highest level, to improve the working environment and regulations regulating the sector.

The ESC’s report is meticulous, detailed, scans the challenges and proposes multiple approaches to remedial action, reviews relevant strategies and almost painfully identifies then reiterates the areas where descriptive language was highlighted in strategies but was not followed up with substantial action on the ground. Qudah’s public diagnosis of his university’s situation, only a couple of weeks after the launch of the report, comes almost as testament and validation of the ESC’s findings, as it mimics very closely the challenges that were identified in the report, while adding real and quantifiable examples of the findings’ manifestations.

In fact, reading also through the ESC’s chapter on education provides an equally important and critical insight into that sector’s linked performance and challenges.

So what happens now?

Clearly, what needs to happen now is that the government must show it has listened to Qudah, read the ESC report and understood what is required to start the ball rolling towards reform. We need to also see clear indications that the government is serious, has political will and will turn its attention to the higher education as a sector and, in fact, to education as well as a parallel and feeding sector.

Many believe that Prime Minister Omar Razzaz has a golden opportunity with the expected appointment of new ministers of higher education and education in a proposed government reshuffle soon.

These appointments are where the prime minister should break away from the old mould and bring in leaders who are willing to disrupt, deconstruct and reconstruct the sectors for the benefit of the young people seeking better education and higher education, the labour market that is hoping for new entrants with better skill sets, the schools and universities which need to regain their academic and professional compass, the academic reputation of our teaching staff, academics and students, regionally and internationally, and the integrity of the academic research in Jordan and in the business acumen and viability of our public sector institutions.

In fact, leaders with vision, who are truly committed to a serious reform of these sectors, would not only restore faith in the sectors themselves, but would become an example and rallying point for the country’s future and its seriousness about improving its standards of operation and, therefore, prospects.  

The rumour mill around these appointments appear to be indicating that the basket of choices in front of the premier today contains the traditional set of candidates who are more likely products of archaic processes that favoured social and political bartering over merit and professional contribution. What would happen if the premier, in understanding the importance of these sectors perhaps more than any other premier we had recently, jumped out of the comfort zone and chose candidates that were not from any of the well-known power-wielding camps? What if that selection was also uniquely mandated and empowered to make changes to the standards, operating mechanisms, criteria for merit, accountability and performance indicators, in parallel to the financial viability of public sector institutions under the umbrellas of education and higher education? 

Many supporters of the premier privately excuse his “safe” cabinet member selections, so far justifying his choices as necessary, considering the political and economic challenges that he faced in his early days in office. Many begrudgingly agree that, at the time, there were more urgent and extreme priorities, including gaining parliamentary confidence in his government, passing the tax law and approving the budget, to name a few.

Now that Razzaz has crossed those critical hurdles, however, many believe that it is time for him to accept the responsibility of living up to the package of expectations that came with his own unlikely selection. Razzaz was seen as an “out of the box” candidate for premiership, whose selection sent a message in support of meritocracy, integrity, populism (in the positive sense) and professionalism, and steering away from regionalism, favouritism, rentierism and the influence of corrupt power brokers.

The selection of the ministers for education and higher education, because of the value-laden message their selection will carry and the enormity of any real reform effort in those sectors, is seen as a litmus test for the premier among many of his original supporters and backers and a key influencing factor in attracting the support of youth to his policies. 

What is needed now, therefore, is a show of seriousness in these two intertwined sectors in particular. A positive and courageous step in that regard will provide a credible platform to showcase Jordan’s reformed political and economic vision for the future of Jordan, and its own willingness to walk an uncomfortable path politically, in order to achieve that vision and, with it, guarantee the country’s continued stability.

In that sense, it may just be the opportunity Razzaz needs, after a turbulent and rocky start, to show his real colours.

 

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