Jordan Stakes its Future on Science

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Jordan WEBBy Amy Maxmen for Nature

When the World Science Forum kicks off on the shore of the Dead Sea in November, it will be the latest jewel in the crown for one of Jordan’s biggest champions of science. Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan successfully lured the high-profile biennial conference to the Middle East for the first time — part of Jordan’s ongoing push to transform itself into a regional research powerhouse. The country hopes to emphasize the power of science to transcend politics and war in the increasingly volatile Middle East.

It’s a tall order, but there are signs that these efforts are beginning to pay off for Jordan, which created its first national science fund in 2005. In February, the country cemented plans for a reticular-chemistry foundry, the world’s first. And in May, the Middle East’s first synchrotron, SESAME, opened near Amman with the backing of seven nations and the Palestinian Authority.

Jordan’s leaders see science, engineering and technology as an engine of economic growth for their 71-year-old country, which lacks the oil resources of many neighbouring states. The nation’s political stability and central location have aided these ambitions. So has its diplomacy: Jordan is one of the only places in the Middle East where scientists from Israel and Arab countries can meet. “We are all in the region facing issues with energy, water and the environment,” El Hassan says. “A bird with avian flu does not know whether there is a peace accord between Israel and Jordan, it just flies across the border.”

The princess did not set out to be an architect of Jordan’s science ambitions, however. In 1994, her father — the brother of King Hussein — asked the then-24-year-old art-school graduate to lead the board of trustees for an information technology college in Amman (now the Princess Sumaya University for Technology). El Hassan initially declined the job, but relented on the condition that she would first earn a computer-science diploma from the school.

Through that experience, El Hassan says, “I came to see science as a tool for human dignity. I began to see myself as a science enabler.” In 2006, she became president of the Royal Scientific Society, an applied-science institution in Amman that also facilitates research collaborations across Jordan.

The country has focused its science efforts on areas that could improve daily life for its citizens, such as energy development. “The country was dependent on oil in Iraq, and then natural gas from Egypt,” says Khaled Toukan, chairman of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission. “The problem with these sole sources is that we were subjected to political changes, like the US invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of the Egyptian government.” Now, he says, Jordan is looking to exploit its uranium resources to include nuclear power, and it is exploring the potential of solar and wind energy.

The Jordanian government is also looking for ways to cope with one of the lowest levels of water availability in the world — a problem that has intensified with the recent influx of an estimated 1.3 million Syrian refugees. Some help could come from a partnership that the Royal Scientific Society announced in February with the University of California, Berkeley, to build a reticular-chemistry foundry. Reticular chemistry involves making porous crystals. It was pioneered by Jordanian chemist Omar Yaghi, who heads the Berkeley Global Science Institute and has developed materials that can harvest water from the atmosphere.

Still, Jordan faces a long climb to fulfil its scientific ambitions. The country spent just over 0.4% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on research and development in 2011, the latest year for which figures are available. That beats its wealthy neighbour Saudi Arabia (0.07% of GDP), but Jordan lags behind some nearby countries, such as Turkey. And although Jordan nearly doubled its yearly output of scientific publications between 2005 and 2014, from 641 to 1,093, the overall number remains small.

To help build research capacity, the government set up the Jordanian Scientific Research Support Fund in 2005. The fund was initially supported by a law that required all companies in Jordan to pay 1% of their profits into the fund. By 2012, when that statute was overturned, the fund had acquired US$85 million. It is now kept afloat by Jordan’s universities, which must spend 3% of their annual budgets on research or contributions to the fund. Between 2008 and 2016, the foundation gave a total of $35 million to 325 projects, mainly in the medical, pharmaceutical and agricultural sciences.

Abeer Al Bawab, a chemist who in March became director of the fund, is thinking deeply about how to monitor its success. “The oldest university in the country is only 55 years old, and the support fund has just been around for ten years,” she notes. Because Jordan is still building its culture of science, Al Bawab says that metrics such as the rate of scientific publications are not by themselves the best indicators of progress. She hopes to quantify the intersections between academic research, science policy and the private sector.

In the meantime, El Hassan hopes that the World Science Forum will help to raise the profile of science in the eyes of the Jordanian public. “A generation of analytical thinkers and risk takers,” she says, “is something I’d like to see.”

Jordan Approves New Ranking System for Local Universities

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Jordan RankingBy Laila Azzeh for the Jordan Times

The Jordanian cabinet approved the mandating reasons of the draft by-law of the Jordanian universities' ranking system, designed to enable the Higher Education Council to ensure a higher quality of education.

The universities will be ranked according to specific criteria, including scientific research and publications, the number of faculty members and enrolled students, in addition to the ratio of foreign students to the total number of students, among others, according to Higher Education Minister Adel Tweisi.

"The main aim of the by-law is to motivate universities to improve their programmes and educational outcomes. Having a local ranking system for higher educational institutions will also enhance their competitiveness in international rankings," he told The Jordan Times on Wednesday.

Tweisi noted that the by-law draft will soon be referred to the Legislation and Opinion Bureau, expecting it be applied as of next month.

On the other hand, at least one public university president criticised the ranking system as being "unfair", saying it cannot be applied to the vast majority of universities.

"The ranking criteria are unfair to most universities, especially those located in remote areas. For example, evaluating a university based on the number of foreigners is very illogical considering the fact they prefer universities in big cities," said president of Tafileh Technical University, Shteiwi Abdulla.

He added that there are less than 40,000 foreign students in Jordanian universities, with most enrolled in Amman and other main cities.

"The criteria will also assess the quality of professors, which is also unfair because those who are highly qualified serve at the University of Jordan [UJ]. The majority of professors in other universities will never be able to compete," Abdulla charged.

He noted that the number of faculty members at the UJ exceeds 2,000, while there are only 240 at his Tafileh-based university.

However, Tweisi highlighted that the evaluation system will be in the form of ranking rather than listing, which tends to determine the position of a country according to a list.

"The ranking will evaluate each programme offered at a university on its own. This means that Al Hussein Bin Talal University, for instance, might be on top in mining engineering or scientific research," the minister clarified.

Abdulla claimed that such a strategy will "not bode well", saying that competing in international rankings should be the focus of universities.

"International rankings are not partial and enable local universities to compete without favouritism, a thing that is unlikely to be the case in local rankings," he said, citing an Australian ranking that placed the Tafileh Technical University among the top five local universities in terms of technical education. 

Other university presidents declined to comment on the issue or were unavailable despite several attempts to reach them by The Jordan Times.

Corruption, deceit plague private education in Iraq

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Iraq Eduaction 570By Salam Zidane for Al Monitor

It's said that some college degrees aren't worth the paper they're printed on. Some graduates in Iraq are finding that to be true. Others can't even get the paper.

Dozens of students protested March 8 in front of the private Mazaya College, calling on the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research to accredit their university and issue diplomas.

Mohammed al-Ghazi, who graduated two years ago from the college in southeastern Iraq, said the school still refuses to grant him and others their degrees, instead saying the ministry is reviewing them.

“I spent millions of dinars [1 million dinars equals about $860] at Mazaya College to obtain a degree in computer engineering. After I completed my fourth year, I found out that the college wasn't accredited and its degree is worthless on the market,” Ghazi told Al-Monitor.

After the protests, the ministry decided March 14 that it will develop a special test for Mazaya graduates and that if they pass it, they will be considered qualified in their field of study and receive a certificate from the ministry. The ministry hasn't yet started the process, which it expects to be complicated and lengthy.

In December, Iraq and five other Arab countries were removed from the World Economic Forum (WEF) global education quality index because their schools don't meet basic education standards. The other countries are Syria, Yemen, Libya, Sudan and Somalia.

Arab countries that made the list, with their ranking, are: Qatar, 4; United Arab Emirates, 10; Lebanon, 25; Bahrain, 33; Jordan, 45; and Saudi Arabia, 54. The index includes 140 countries.

After 2003, when the Iraq war began, many international and foreign universities stopped recognizing Iraqi university degrees because their standards couldn't be verified. Iraqis are asked to take proficiency tests before being admitted to some universities abroad. In the United States, each institution develops its own standards and requirements; many use credential verification services.

Haider al-Aboudi, a spokesman for the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, told Al-Monitor that private education first started in Iraq in 1988. Today, Iraq has 52 private universities and 35 state universities.

"Private universities or colleges are established by presenting an application by the investor to the Minister of Higher of Education, who in turn submits it to the Cabinet. Afterward, the registration procedures are carried out based on the market need for specialized colleges,” he said.

“The conditions for establishing a university include meeting financial, human resources and scientific requirements, in addition to a campus of at least 7,500 square meters [1.9 acres], with departments of no less 2,500 square meters,” he added.

The current problem in private universities, Aboudi said, isn't just about losing accreditation; some schools without accreditation continue to admit students. Also, the medical departments of some private universities accept high school graduates from literature, commerce or economics programs, "which is contrary to academic standards.”

“The Ministry of Education formed a committee to consider the problems of students who were admitted to unaccredited universities, and decided that they should undergo proficiency tests." Students who were accepted without the necessary backgrounds, such as literature students accepted into the medical program, will be disqualified. The review will affect about 3,000 students, he added. “The ministry is striving to strengthen academic standards in private education so that they meet international standards."

The ministry issued a statement March 13 confirming there are 15 unaccredited colleges and institutes in Iraq. The ministry called for shutting them down and warned students against applying to them in the coming academic year. If the institutions do not gain accreditation, they will be considered illegal.

Iraq's education quality has significantly declined since the 1990s as a result of wars and sanctions. Corruption also is a problem: Students with low GPAs who are not admitted to state universities and institutes often apply to private universities with lower standards, but admission to both private and government universities can be obtained through bribes.

Furat Jamal, a University of Baghdad teacher, told Al-Monitor, “Students with low GPAs apply to private universities, where they get accepted. The chaos plaguing the private education sector is caused by powerful politicians who establish [departments] to bolster their [visibility and] political activities, with no regard for the country’s reputation and academic standards.”

He added, "Some private universities were established as Islamic universities specialized in Islamic Sharia and teachings but soon opened academic departments, which is against the law. Education in Iraq has been going downhill because of the lack of supervision by the authorities and lack of good decisions in favor of the educational institutions.”

Parliament's Education Committee believes private colleges contribute to Iraq's increasing unemployment rate.

“The private education sector has caused many problems in Iraq, including the low level of education and increased unemployment due to random establishment of colleges without a feasibility study. … Many private universities have deceived students and admitted them without being accredited, and now their [students'] future is uncertain, even though they have spent millions of dinars on their education," Education Committee recorder Abir al-Hussein told Al-Monitor.

“The education level of most graduates of the private education sector is weak and not up to the standards of the degrees they hold. This is because it is easy to receive these degrees — private education students receive [undeserved] high grades. … [Then they] face competition from public education students, who have a higher education level."

She added, “The executive and legislative parties are currently seeking to strengthen the education system so it is recognized internationally, after having suffered a setback in recent years.”

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's website, "During [the] 1980s, the Iraqi education system was recognized as one of the most developed systems in the Arab states."

In addition to corruption and political manipulation, the system also suffers from governmental neglect. For 2017, the government has allocated only $1.9 billion to the education sector; last year that figure was $2.1 billion. No private university programs are recognized internationally. The concerned parties thus will be required to shut down the worst programs and form partnerships and exchange programs with foreign universities. They will also have to properly equip the universities and urge students and teachers alike to publish academic research papers in international journals.

Three Jordanian Universities Among Top 28 Academic Institutions in Arab World

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UnissThree Jordanian universities are among the top 28 academic institutions in the Arab world, according to Times Higher Education's ranking for 2017.  The findings were published last week in the Times Higher Education's 2017 Arab world university ranking of members of the Arab League, in which three Saudi universities dominated the top three spots.

The three Jordanian universities featured in the rankings are the Jordan University of Science and Technology (8), the University of Jordan (19) and the Hashemite University (23).

In the region, eight Egyptian universities featured in the table, four Saudi institutions which are all ranked in the top 10, while Jordan, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates each have three universities in the rankings.

Higher Education Minister Adel Tweisi commended the ranking results, saying that "it is proof that Jordanian universities are working hard to advance in ranking and education performance.'

The former minister said that the unemployment rate in Jordan is around 30 percent 'and there is a clear gap between what the labour market needs and the type of majors the graduate students hold when they graduate'.

'The rankings of Jordanian universities to me will remain artificial until the Jordanian universities focus on the market's needs to minimise the rate of unemployment,' Khadra stressed.

Jordanian education experts said earlier this year that improving the ranking of Jordanian universities in international rankings requires promoting a culture of applied scientific research at higher education institutions.

Commenting on the performance of Jordanian universities in scientific research, officials and experts have said that the majority of research conducted is theoretical, highlighting the need for applied research that helps achieve development and address issues of national priority.

The experts' comments were made following the disappointing results of a 2016 Shanghai ranking of 500 universities worldwide, which did not include a single Jordanian university.

Others attributed the poor ranking of Jordanian universities in these indexes as the result of failures to address several challenges facing scientific research, including insufficient human resources and funds, as well as legislative impediments.

This is an edited version of an article that has appeared in the Jordan Times.  The article was written by Rana Husseini.

Iraq Baghdad University’s Kurdish Departments Face Threat of Closure

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1212By Nawzad Mahmoud for Rudaw Media Network

A lack of professors in the Kurdish Department of Baghdad University means Kurdish studies are disappearing in Iraq, MPs and lecturers have warned.

Baghdad University was the first to open Kurdish language departments in Iraq, including the Kurdistan Region. “The good news is that Baghdad University’s Kurdish departments will enroll students next year,” said Farhad Qadir, member of the Iraqi parliament’s higher education committee.

“Kurdish departments didn’t enroll students [this year] due to the lack of requisite academics in this field. But we have now managed to secure an agreement that will allow them to enroll students next year and fix their shortages,” he added.

Two Kurdish language lecturers are currently on a visit to the Kurdistan Region to “convince local academics with a Master’s or PhD in Kurdish to go and teach the language in Baghdad,” Qadir said, pointing out that Kurdish departments in Baghdad have a shortage of Master’s and PhD holders.

“Not appointing Kurdish language lecturers is a big problem and heads of Kurdish departments are not putting pressure on the government to appoint lecturers for them,” a Kurdish language lecturer told Rudaw on condition of anonymity.

People are not willing to move to Baghdad to teach Kurdish there, he explained. “Moreover, the Iraqi government is not appointing Kurdish language graduates. If the situation continues this way, there won’t be any students left in these departments.”

Kurdish language studies in Baghdad suffered after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi initiated some changes and reshuffled federal government departments nearly two years ago. One of the changes he made was the removal of the head of Kurdish studies in Baghdad, Hussein Jaf.

Jaf is currently a lecturer in Baghdad University’s Education Faculty, Kurdish Department.

If the Kurdistan Region places any importance on the availability of Kurdish studies in Baghdad, then it should send lecturers to Kurdish departments there, a former education committee member in the Iraqi parliament, Burhan Faraj, noted.

He thinks that there are currently no Kurdish schools in Baghdad. “There are Kurdish classes taken in Baghdad schools, rather than Kurdish schools in the city,” he said, adding, “We suggested that Anfal and Halabja be studied in Baghdad and other cities so that Arab children have an understanding of the past, too. These classes were approved. But currently the bigger problem is the lack of teachers.”

Anfal and Halabja are two genocide campaigns carried out by previous Iraqi governments against the Kurdish population in the country.

“The higher education minister has promised to appoint the top three graduates of both Kurdish departments next year to undergo preparation for Master’s programs. He has also promised to appoint two more lecturers for Baghdad University’s Kurdish departments next month,” Qadir detailed.

There are more than 450 students in the Kurdish department of the faculty of education at Baghdad University, and nearly 100 in its faculty of languages.

“Not every one of these students is Kurdish. Some of them are Arabs who study Kurdish,” Qadir said.

Rudaw tried to contact the current head of Kurdish studies in Baghdad, but he was unavailable for comment.

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