Quality engineering education for the Arab states region
C. Jones, Ph.D. P.E.
Bethany S. Oberst, Ph.D.
ABSTRACT: Reform in engineering education is needed in all parts of the world, as universities prepare graduates to enter the profession of engineering which has been transformed by massive technological developments and by globalization of all aspects of concern to engineers. Engineering educators in the Arab states region face particular challenges in addition to those facing similar educators in other parts of the world: tailoring programs to fill the needs of countries that are undergoing rapid modernization, providing access to their education programs for segments of their societies that may not have had it in the past, offering programs which are relevant to the particular needs of women in their countries, and developing local or regional quality assurance mechanisms which have positive impact on their educational programs.
would be simple to present a paper exhorting engineering educators to carry
forward with the mandate of adopting world class standards of engineering
education here in the Arab region, but is there anyone left who does not believe
that this is what needs to be done?
rather than belabor the obvious, let us look at the world here in the Gulf and
beyond in the other Arab states. In
particular, we will examine both the pace and the scope of change which is
coming about in this region, and think about how to reconcile the global quality
mandate with the circumstances in the societies in which Arab engineers work.
What we see is a call for engineering educators to think in accordance
with global technical standards and to devise ways to apply them creatively to
the fast changing local scene. It is in the space between global technical
standards and local realities that engineering educators in the Arab world need
to fashion their own quality assurance efforts.
dynamics of change in the Arab world are startling. Change
is taking place in areas which just a few years ago were seen as intractable.
Elections are being held where they never were before.
Women are making new inroads into the power structures of their
countries. The western world is
suddenly scrambling to understand the region it so long neglected. Arab-Israeli
relations show some new dimensions. Underclass workers are daring to assert
their rights. The media are becoming
more insistent in their calls for greater freedom from government controls.
No one who lives in the Arab world can miss noticing that change is in
the air. And not the least of these
changes is the growing conviction that the Arab world must rebuild its
intellectual, social, scientific and technical capacities, which have been in
decline for so long.
are four areas where change is taking place where engineering educators would do
well, in our opinion, to give some serious thought to changing their ways.
They have to do with national employment policies, access to higher
education, the role of women, and quality assurance mandates.
Each of these is undergoing substantial change and offers opportunities
for strengthening engineering education and positioning engineers as leaders of
SAUDIAZATION, AND ALL
the past several decades, mostly in countries which have benefited from an
abundance of natural resources such as oil, foreign workers and ex pat
specialists have been hired in large numbers to aid in the development of
everything from roads and sewage systems to the most sophisticated financial and
investment policies. This process has resulted in some nationals becoming
numerical minorities in their own countries.
A corollary to this situation is a tendency on the part of many rulers to
provide financial subsidies for nationals. Without
financial incentives to work, many young people have opted out of any
professions or jobs that require high levels of intensive preparation and
countries in this region, including our host country of
ACCESS TO HIGHER EDUCATION
to higher education will likely be an increasingly important issue in the Arab
world as an outgrowth of more public deliberations about the rights of the
individual. We already have seen workers becoming bold enough to assert
themselves. (There was even a short work-stoppage in
access is not an enemy of academic excellence. Engineering educators should
strongly support the expansion of educational opportunities in order to attract
the best, brightest and most motivated students into the profession. They should
also reach into underserved geographical locations in their country, and into
underserved social groupings to find strong students. It is in the interests of
engineering educators to reach back into primary and secondary schools as well,
where premature tracking too often can result in students not making informed
choices about further education. Engineering educators must support the
strengthening of career counseling and advising services at all educational
levels, and should be collaborating frequently with the regional schools to
expose young people to the engineering profession. Building bridge programs that
would enable working adults to return to school would also be a wise step, to
compensate for circumstances which too often lead to wasted or unidentified
talent. Certainly the Arab world is poised for change in the higher education
sector. Engineering educators should be prepared: initiatives set in place now
will pay off as the wave of expectations grows larger.
topic is more complex than that of the role of women in Arab societies. And
it is made even more complex because of the lack of information about the
multiple forces that act on women as they navigate a life path between competing
interests in family, school and work. While enrollment statistics of women in
engineering in some Arab countries are impressive as compared to the weaker
numbers in US universities, information about the career paths which women
engineers follow after graduation is not adequate to enable anyone to declare
victory over gender differences. Certainly
patterns of women’s enrollment in engineering disciplines sometimes reveal
cultural constraints and restrictions in potential employment.
people see the expansion of participation of Arab women in their societies as a
barometer for advancement of the entire region.
Engineering educators could serve an important role in this time of
change, and at the same time help individual women students, by establishing
strong mentoring programs to support women’s professional aspirations, by
creating re-entry programs for women who want or need to re-engage in the
profession after a period of time spend at home, by making available
entrepreneurship programs which would enable women to design jobs that fit their
familial obligations, and by gathering more information about their women
students and the decisions they make. All
these strategies will help enhance the level of education of women engineering
students, and will position those students well for the changes which can be
foreseen to occur during their lifetimes.
COMMITMENT TO QUALITY
is currently no lack of consultants interested in designing and establishing
quality assurance mechanisms for engineering education in the Arab world: in
fact, it is difficult to read anything about higher education in the region
without finding the topic addressed at length. Interest is evident at the
college level, as increasing numbers of Arab engineering colleges seek
specialized accreditation (substantial equivalency) from the US Accreditation
Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).
Universities and colleges hope to achieve overall accreditation as a
means of quality assurance, and so seek such credentialing from US regional
accreditors at the institutional level as well.
National leaders frequently waver between establishing their own quality
assurance mechanisms and calling in consultants from abroad to do the work for
them using mainly US standards and models. And
regional groupings of governments are increasingly banding together to create
quality assurance networks as a step toward broader mutual recognition.
There is no lack of interest or activity, only a lack of evidence that
the benefits of quality assurance plans have filtered down into the education
being offered to the students in all but the most exclusive universities.
The processes are as yet too young to have achieved demonstrable results.
So the quality assurance movement is at a critical stage: having gone too
far to turn back, but not yet far enough to guarantee results. With time, more
order should come to this arena. In
the meantime, a model for transnational quality assurance in engineering is now
being set in place in
light of this lack of a clear path forward toward a transparent set of quality
assurance mechanisms in the Arab nations, individual engineering educators would
do well to shoulder the responsibility for quality assurance at the
undergraduate program level, where so much work remains to be done. One
way of improving undergraduate education – and at the same time continuing to
respect both global standards and local needs – would be to hire new
engineering faculty who themselves received both their undergraduate and
graduate education in exemplary western institutions.
While the technical knowledge available in
the end, the highest quality engineering education programs in the Arab world
will achieve that reputation because they have successfully taught to world
class technical standards while at the same time preparing their students for
the local social, political and economic change process which will continue
throughout their lifetimes.
C. Jones is a private consultant, working
through World Expertise LLC to offer services in engineering education in the
international arena. Prior to that, he had a long career in education: faculty
member at MIT, department chair in civil engineering at
S. Oberst is Professor
and Dean of the