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Libyan Writer Ghoma
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Wednesday, 21 April, 2010

THE ROLLER-COASTER OF LIBYAN HIGHER EDUCATION:
Compacting Univeristies from 14 to 10...?

By: Ghoma

" There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people." Victor Hugo

        The government has issued a decree to reduce the country's existing univeristies from 14 to 10, 3 of which are of special status –whatever that means! No reasons were given to explain the decision nor the criteria by which this number was reached and why 10 ant not more or less. The drastic changes were said to have been taken according to the due political, economic, and the rest of the mumbo-jumbo hash of words usually barnishing not well-thought about decisions. It seems the thing came out of the blue, not much of a debate had preceded this consolidation. It 's also been stated the decision was the product of some ponderings by a committee of 'experts!' (since Libya has no experts, it's fair to assume these recommendations must have come from screwy bunch, hired international hacks, specializing in the snake-juice peddling.] These same experts may or may not have accompanied their findings by the hows and the whys of: first the criteria which helped them reach their recommendations, and second the justification(s) for the number: why 10 is better than 14.

        That there're problems in Libyan higher education was no secret. Almost from day one it was suffering from lack of resources, faculty, and clear mission. But most of all was affected by the bug of colonialism's legacy –so typical to most 3-world. Though Libya had not known education under Italian ocuupation, colonialism;s bug affection was brought by proxy. Libya had copied the Egyptian education model in its entirety, including that of higher education, and relied heavily on 'Egyptian experts!' The result was a system of universal education built on rote memorization, and a higher education system geared toward producing paper-shufflers, bureaucrat, followers never innovators.

        Libyan higher education was born in turbulent times, had very brief period of childhood, no adolescence to talk about, to find itself unprepared to handle adultedhood responsibilities. Thus its shortened history has left it without exprience nor maturity to face the unpredictable. Add to this that sudden and vertiginous growth back in the 80's and 90's of the last century, in a hapazard and at random ways. No plan was followed. That result: univeristies and colleges were springing over night literally like mushrooms to receive the increasing number of high schoolers who presumbaly were seeking some form of higher education. This growth was undertaken without any apparent thinking, under sesvere circumstances of existential threats, embargoes, and political isolation. They were concerned only with finding any vacant building to hang a shingle on it, and then hire some cheap high-degreed-holders, and voila, they thought the problem was on its way to be solved. That's higher education was treated no differently than lower eduaction: a mere quatitative problem consisting of buildingz and teachers.

        Higher education was seen, and still treated that way, no differently than the basic education. It's simply a matter of a classroom, a teacher and a textbook –if the students were lucky enough. No more, no less! This attitude has also generated its own logic of how to deal with its problems. All these universities and colleges were basically run by a central ministery. It's useless to say that in such a bureaucrtized system the way an issue was handled, even in the case of outside experts wouldn't differ very much from what the inside experts –assuming they do exist!- did or expect to proceed. That's the bureaucracy gave a sense of direction to the committee of how and where it supposed to go – the brief of its mandate almost automatically includes the foregone conclusions, the bureaucrats were hoping for, to be reached.

        The idea of appointing a committee to deal with an important social issue was passe' and antiquated. Not only such proceeding, particularly when dealing with a sensitive and an important issue like higher education belonged to another age, but also is practically ineffective. No committee is going to solve an intricate problem in relatively short period of time. Reason enough to question the premises on which such proceedings were conducted. Is higher education, or for that any other social issue, still seen as isolated domain to be handled ad-hoc by a committee of experts? One asks: What kind of experts who would accept such a task? And where have they received the wisdom that would give them, the exclusive insight(s) to see where the whole country still have difficulty to feel? If this committee was made up of experts worth their name they would have posed myriad of questions that eventually would have slowed, if not scuttled, the efforts to reform. Since issues of education and higher education in particular, whenever they're raised were notoriously prone to pose more questions than answers could be found: why, what's for, and who's doing the reforming. Because just to state the obvious higher education, where knowledge is produced and reproduced, supposed to set the tone, as well as itself, as a model for other sectors to emulate.

        For starters, it's been stated over and over again by almost all who dealt with this area, the secret to successful higher education anywhere lies in the K-12 cycles. Therefore any reform to higher education, if the intentions were more than puttering around, has to start from there. Since the quality of the feeder streams will determine the speed and quality of the river's downstream. Take the rise of Southeast Asian nations, the Tigres, as example, it was preceded by decades of serious efforts poured into their educational systems's reforms. Today, Japan, Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, etc. K-12 systems, of student achievements, are so successful models that the most successful states in the Western World are eager to emulate if they could.

        As to higher education in particular [to paraphrase Archimedes's famous saying: Give me a place to stand on, and I'll move the earth], give a philosophy (purpose) enough time and resources and a good and successful higher education will ensue. Without a vision and a central organizing idea around which both the long-term goals and the short-term objectives, generational at least, could be set no amount of work or resources are going to achieve an implicit –never articulated- desired goals. Higher education is goal oriented. What kind of leaders the country needs and wants to have? What kind of professionals, doctors, engineers, economists, etc. are suited to present needs and future aspirations, in the next 25-30 years? Are the institutions of higher education tasked only with re-producing the existing konwledge or also required to participate in the production of new knowledge? Et cetera.

        If reform is really the goal, then there're certain premises without which efforts to improve higher education will suffer terribly, if not wasteful of time and resources. These are the ideas of freedom ( all men and women were created equal, thus democratic education, that's equality of opportunity to everyone), reason (no questions are precluded: the believe in human ability to answer human questions), and secularism (no myths, taboos, and superstitions). Only at aftermath of the Enlightement did the West start the journey that eventually led to the world we live in (modern), through first : instituting universal education, and second by guaranting a free and unbound range to institutions of higher eduaction to diffuse the existing and search for new knowledge. Again Southeast Asian success story could be attributed in great part to their Confucian traditions of tolerance, hardwork ethic, and learning from the others, in addition to another important attribute: they're sure of their identities. This amounted to an historical secularism which enabled these peoples to trudge their way toward the future without being afaird of loosing themselves or straying from the "right path!"

        Since its modern rebirth higher education was never an abstract idea. Education in general and higher education in particular are true refelections to a country's clarity of purpose and priorities. Without clear goals to reach [forming a conscious and creative citizen] and objectives to work for [what kind of world the newly minted graduates will inherit] reforming univeristies will amount to probing the way ahead with folded eyes. A waste of time and resources. It cannot be done!

        Refoming higher education was anywhere always a long and arduous work. Countries took years, decades, of thinking, debating, and deliberating to reach some compromised version between where they were and where they wanted to go. Italy, for instance, was trying to reform its univeristies for the last half a century without a noticeable success so far. The diffculty of reforming higher education stems from the fact of its being intricately interwoven into the country's social and economic fabric. Untangling it from the rest of the country's weave is no easy task. No reform could be made without understanding its role and function in the past and why the model is not working anymore. For example, the way the economy works will determine higher educations' location in the productive geography of the country. If the overall weave of the society has become merit-oriented, that also will determine what kind of institutions are demanded –no less the role and function to be played. Thus fixing the role to be served and setting the goals are primary tasks before any change could be had.

        The history of other nations may also help direct the newly awakened countries to trace their course without committing the same costly mistakes those other countries had paid. For example, the European model, of complete and separate 'faculties' may have served its purposes time ago, but now is becoming fastly an antiquated model, not the least for being class-bound, wasteful in its repetitions and redunancy, inflexible, and outdated. In its heydays depended both on high selective criteria down and up the stream. It was mainly for so-called 'elite' the future leaders. Theseafter having attended their exclusive Etons would go on to finish their preparation in another set of highly selective special schools, which will teach them how to deal with the 'commons!' the plebes.

        If the American higher education is successful, thanks to its founders great foresight. First they panned through the world to see what models were there. Second they chose the most successful at the time, the German one. Third they continuously searched for its improvement. It's based on three-tier system. The Community Colleges, State systems, and Private universities. The system shadows the administrative subdivisions: between local and the state as well as between the public domian and private market. Almost each county in the United States has at least one Community College. These Colleges go from two-year, associate degree level to four-year programs. These colleges in addition to being accessible to every walking soul are also the cheapest. The costs were shared bewteen the state, local and the users. They're tasked with teaching both academic as well as vocational skills from pluming to carpenatry and everything in bewteen. More than 50% of American college students are enrolled into this system. This system feeds further into the four-year colleges and large research univeristies.

        Another feature looms large in American higher education is the idea of the Liberal Arts colleges. Though they tend to be elitest and expensive, they play a major role in preparing leaders for the next generation. These colleges concentrate on imparting good general education to their students, as a foundation for the next step. Graduates of these colleges would pursue further professional or otherwise graduate work in one of the many large universities, in Law, Medicine, Business, etc.

        The reasons in mentioning some of these examples is for a country as Libya it's imperative, before embarking on such costly and important endeavor, to reforme its univeristies, commonsense dicatates for it to study what others have and how to bring their successful models and experiences back home. Though good models are not lacking, they still need to be found and worked on before they can be adopted. Tapping into the right models is still no automatic success. To adopt them is not necessarily equivalent to grafting them into what exists, but rather it's a difficult procedure to made them fit into the local conditions of the country. It'd be wise if these experiences and models were tried slowly and carefully, one at the time, rather than in a rush as if there's no tomorrow. Time and resource are of the essence. Like a fledgling sapling needs a lot of care, Higher Education also needs a lot of time to strenghten its muscles and put on some feathers for protection. If God took His time to create the world, why Libya seem to be in rush to handle its problems, why doesn't take its time to mull over its future and how to approach it. Higher education certainly remains one gate, if not the main gate, to the future. Its whereabouts and howabouts should be a matter of concern to everyone. Thus a public debate must be opened on how the country has fared so far in this area and how to handle its current [robelms and what future could be envisioned for it. What Libya needs out of higher education? There's no way to avoid involving people to discuss what concerns their future.

        The impasse of Libya is caused by its lack of problem solvers. Good and reliable professionals who're familiar with their world and what it offers. If Libya still good only at sighning checks to those who were hired to do the work the country needs is because its institutions of higher learning had failed in their mission: to produce professionals who'll handle the country's problems. If the country's hospitals are compared to slaughter houses is because the country never learned what its takes to produce and train good physicians. You got the drift! Higher education is crucial and it's a pity , as well as awaste, to leave it to the whims of the bureaucrats.

Ghoma
Ghoma47@hotmail.com


More Articles Written By Ghoma

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