No politics Zone – Educational reform in the Arab Gulf states (CIES 2021 panel)

No politics zone: Educational reform plans in the Arab Gulf States (AGS)

Thursday 29 April11:45 AM – 1:15 PM (Pacific Time (US & Canada))
  • Organizer: Esraa Al-Muftah (Qatar University / University of British Columbia)
  • The perpetual [gendered] crisis in education: A genealogical analysis of the desired ideal girl in (post)colonial Bahrain   *Sara J.. Musaifer (University of Minnesota-Twin Cities)
  • The political mechanisms of reforming educational systems in the Gulf region   *Ibrahim Alhouti (UCL Institute of Education)
  • Strategizing in higher education: A critical discourse analysis   *Hadeel AlKhateeb (Qatar University)
  • Academic mobility, between the past and the present: The case of Qatar University   *Esraa Al-Muftah (Qatar University / University of British Columbia)

Rapid change has become a fixed characteristic of educational policy in many regions around the world. International Development Organization (IDOs) have marketed policy reform as a way for “developing countries” to “catch-up” with the developed world. However, with all the reforms unfolding across the Arab Gulf States (AGS), there have been things impossible to change, red lines impossible to cross, and also exceptional cases of change in what are deemed impossible contexts. This panel seeks to expose what remains undiscussed in this drive for education reform, notably inherited political and social structures, that the policy overlooks as it fails to capture the contextual changes and continuities in each contexts where “injustice, oppression, and destruction caused by capitalism, colonialism, and patriarchy” continues to manifest itself in our educational spaces (Santos, 2018, p.1). The presenters will begin by presenting examples of reforms in the context of K-12 schools in Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain, including Higher Education reforms in Qatar and the rest of AGS, to demonstrate the persistent and changed in each context with special attention to the social responsibility of different actors in those scenarios and the ethics around relating to the “Other” (Haraway, 2016). Within each context different factors mitigate the possibility for meaningful change but also in these different contexts the red lines are revealed. The acceptance and resistance to change is mitigated by a) actors involved in the process of designing reform plans; b)actors that try to implement the reform plans; and c) societies that both sets of actors try to sometimes challenge and many other times simply adapt to. Depending on who is developing the policy, who is implementing it, and when and where this is taking place, the outcomes are drastically different, emphasizing once again how social structures, geographical locations, and political encounters play a major role in our lived experiences and are grounds of our social and political struggles.

The four presentations in this panel offer comparative and international case studies that critically pinpoint “the broader societal dynamics in which the local is inextricably enmeshed” (Mazawi & Sultana, 2010, p. 5). To do that, the presentations draw on a variety of methods, including ethnography, qualitative comparative approach, genealogy, case-study method and critical discourse analysis (CDA). The first presenter demonstrates the dangers of overlooking the historical and colonial underpinnings driving girls schooling and citizenship education reform initiatives in Bahrain’s K-12 schooling systems. Specifically, she argues that failing surface-level K-12 education reform interventions reproduce “the desired ideal girl citizen-subject, a figure that is necessarily ahistorical and apolitical”, erasing in effect the girls’ political agency, in a rich socio-political context within which these policies unfold. Similarly, the second presentation underscores that even in states that seem to be relatively similar politically, culturally, and economically (Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain), much is to be learnt when critically examining the decision-making processes that unleashed school reforms in each context individually. The second presenter argues that while much resources have been exhausted by foreign consultants, very little has changed because these consultants overlook, perhaps strategically, the political reforms necessary to enable a successful implementation of educational reforms. The last two presentations follow a similar path, emphasizing the need for a contextual understanding to create meaningful and socially responsible change, but in higher education settings. The third presenter echoes the second’s finding. She likens the strategies proposed by higher education institutions as taking the position of the “medieval fool[s]...expected to tell stories and wear masks to amuse [royal] audiences”. This requires overlooking how AGS institutions are embedded in their State’s political and economic agendas and forming instead technical strategies filled with rhetoric and beyond reach. Finally, the last panelist exposes the ways in which these reforms, isolated from their contexts, result in grave impact for the lived experiences of academics teaching and researching in AGS and within these complex political and social settings. Bringing the presentation to a wrap, our discussant will pose questions to each panelist and the audience to open up the conversation about what can be done to ensure educational reform in the region moves in the direction of social justice, enabling the design of reforms from “less-privileged epistemic zones of being” that pay attention to the “‘geometries of power’ that enact and constitute the Arab region” (Shahjahan & Morgan 2015, p. 95; Mazawi & Sultana, 2010, p. 10)

This panel offers a nuanced analysis of educational reform in AGS where emerging young scholars from the region will talk about their first-hand experiences, frustrations, and hopes for educational reforms being implemented in AGS. The insights offered here are important to researchers, academics, policy-makers, and practitioners working in the education and development arena in the region. While the cases presented are context-specific, they collectively also echo a common struggle shared with many other marginalized peoples in the Global South, calling for “a radical demand for the democratization of knowledge” (Santos, 2018, p. 295). Hence, this panel is part of a wider conversation that we – as researchers and academics – should have in the Global South as we attempt to ground our educational reforms in our lived experiences, our ever-forming and transforming sociopolitical contexts, and our dreams for more just futures for peoples residing in the region.

In 2011, nation-wide protests in Bahrain left behind at least 122 deaths, 2700 reported physical injuries, and widespread population re-engineering policies granting and revoking citizenship–in the name of national security (Bassiouni et al., 2011; Hasso, 2016). Estimates reported thousands of teachers and students protesting for and against political reform, as well as riot police raids on school grounds- including fifteen girls’ intermediate and secondary schools (Bassiouni et al., 2011). Consequently, the 2011 protests paved way for the (re)formulation of technical assistance partnerships between Bahrain’s Ministry of Education, the British Council, US-based education experts, and United Nations agencies, designed to produce and introduce a reformed state-authored National Education (NE) curriculum to public and private K-12 schools in fall 2014. Viewed as a strategic step towards fostering “cultural pluralism” and “peace”, little is known about a) the competing agendas informing NE curricula; and b) the effects of NE curricula on girls’ lived realities- a population comprising roughly fifty percent of students in Bahrain’s K-12 schools. My paper takes this jarring over-sight as its point of departure.

For this presentation, I focus on five epochs for girls’ modern education unfolding in the context of Bahrain, the birthplace of modern schools in the Arab Gulf States (AGS) following the American missionary interventions in 1899. I apply a genealogical analysis to explore four archival collections: British colonial records, American missionary reports, AGS regional cultural magazines, and Bahrain’s local newspaper articles to trace the systematic discursive organization of the problem of gendered education disparities through discourses of crisis/success in education. Analytically, I argue that despite rapidly changing contextual processes, values, conditions and actors in Bahrain’s education and development arena, a consistent discourse of gendered crisis/success in education emerges in ways that “structure the field of other possible actions” (Foucault, 1982). Consequently, the dominant discourse of perpetual crisis/success in education opens up pathways for ahistorical and technical education reform interventions to deeply historical and complex sociopolitical problems of education in Bahrain. Such surface-level education reform interventions in turn discursively (re)produce a particular imagination of the ideal girl citizen-subject, a figure that is necessarily ahistorical and apolitical. Thus, my work supports existing anticolonial and transnational feminist critique of education reform in the Middle East as projects that discursively narrow the purpose of education towards: a) economic outcomes through neoliberal discourses, policies, and practices of “investing” in girls; and b) sociocultural outcomes through orientalist discourses, policies, and practices of “saving” girls (Abu Lughod, 2015; Adely, 2012; Skalli, 2015). Focusing on deeply divided contexts marked by sociopolitical tensions, my work has two aims. First, for education researchers, my study generates a theoretical understanding of K-12 schools as historically, socially, and politically contentious sites of nation-building. Secondly, for policy-makers and educators, my study traces and underscores counter-narrative possibilities to offer strategies, rooted in an ethos of social responsibility, in order to support young people -particularly girls- while navigating dynamic matrices of power and power-relations unfolding in their schools.

During the past two decades, the Arab Gulf states (AGS) have conducted massive numbers of comprehensive reforms (economically, politically, and educationally) aiming to diversify their economy by shifting the national income from one that relies primarily on oil revenues towards one that relies on a knowledge economy. Yet, despite the heavy investment in reforming their K-12 education system, these systems are still underperforming, and the region continues to struggle with providing quality educational practices that enable the citizens to contribute to the “knowledge economy” specifically, or to the future of their states more generally. Many international consultants have been involved in these reforms to develop the so-called ‘neoliberal’ education reform agenda; many projects have been launched and implemented. While sporadic changes have been observed, the situation remains largely unchanged. The question is why these states have not achieved their identified aims and end goals: ‘a highly-skilled nation that is capable of competing globally’. Critical scholars have placed significant emphasis on the political mechanisms and the policymaking process of education reform and its implementation (Bell & Stevenson, 2006; Heck, 2004; Nitta, 2012; Portnoi, 2016; Taylor et al., 1997; Williams & Cummings, 2005). In a similar vein, this presentation approaches the question of education reform in the AGS by looking at the educational reforms in the region from a political perspective, which is a new approach of studying the reforms in the region’s literature. In doing so, my paper aims to highlight the avoided political matters in this drive for change that may account for the low achievement and consistent underperformance of these reform initiatives in the education and development arena. This presentation applied the qualitative comparative approach to compare the education reform in Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain by analysing key policy documents and reports in the three countries to gather relevant data. My argument is twofold: First, the political mechanisms and the top-down policy process remain untouched. Over the course of the past 20 years the region still relies heavily on foreign consultants, a sign of lack of belief in the local expertise to handle the reforms. Also, the ‘street-level bureaucrats’ such as school leaders and teachers remain neglected in the policy process. Secondly, the political and bureaucratic context remain undiscussed in reforming the education system. Matters such as the instability of the leaderships, and the bureaucracy structures impacting employees low calibre at the Ministries of Education are not considered in the reform process, which seems a red line to the States leaders. Contextual changes are a crucial factor in achieving successful and sustained educational reforms, while it seems that the AGS are still not willing to take the risk of making these changes. For policy makers and education reformers in the region, this presentation offers an invitation to seriously consider the contextual and political dimensions and boundaries when imagining, articulating, and implementing future education reform initiatives.

Kavanagh (2012) notes that “if identity is an emergent property in a network of relationships, then the idea of the university is perhaps best understood through analysing its relationship with other institutions over time” (p. 101). For him, the evolution of universities’ institutional identity over the course of history is comparable to the fool’s role in the medieval royal court. He argues that throughout history and across cultures, the fool has used masks and masquerades to function as a storyteller addressing audiences. Universities as foolish institutions means that, over the course of history, they have been reconstructing their role constantly to serve one of the main five “Sovereign” societal agencies: the State, the Church, the Nation, the Professions and the Corporation (Kavanagh, 2012).

This study’s central argument is that the institutional identity of higher education in the Arab Gulf States (AGS) region is embedded in a close relationship with the State and its political and economic agendas. Akin to the medieval fool, who is expected to tell stories and wear masks to amuse audiences, higher education in the AGS region is expected to deliver a normative narrative to charm the State. This has been enacted by strategizing. Through strategic plans, higher education institutions in the AGS region wear their foolish mask to reconstruct their identities in tandem with the State’s political and economic agendas.

This study investigates how strategizing reconstructs the identities of faculty, students and staff and alters the roles of curriculum and research in five universities in the AGS region. Utilizing a Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), this study analyses five strategic plans of higher education institutions in the AGS region to (1) examine the ideological implications of strategy discourse; (2) explore the ways of legitimatization and naturalization for specific higher education organizational producers; and (3) scrutinize the emergence of new identities and subjectivities in higher education strategy discourse. This study then applies Bourdieusian concepts to highlight the social responsibility of faculty members in such an era of “supercomplexity” (Barnett, 2000) in higher education. The overall aim is to make an attempt at, as Edward Said once advised academics, “opposing and alleviating coercive domination, transforming the present by trying rationally and analytically to lift some of its burdens ... secular intellectuals with the archival, expressive, elaborative and moral responsibilities of their role” (1993, p. 386). The findings draw attention to the necessity of describing, analysing and critiquing organizational decision-making in higher education and its implications.

In the State of Qatar, the “pursuit of excellence” and the desire to improve rankings in higher education demanded an intensification of internationalization and a move away from the “national development” framework that the state had adopted as part of its nation-building efforts in the late 1970s. Internationalization has come to Qatar’s higher education in various forms, most notably through satellite branch campuses of various universities operating in other countries (e.g., Weil Cornell University, Texas A & M, Georgetown University, etc.). In this presentation, I examine how internationalization unfolded at Qatar’s national university (QU). QU offers a more variegated site of higher education consisting of different constituents – nationals and non-nationals – who have been excluded in the gated satellite campuses of foreign universities. This presentation examines an overlooked dimension of internationalization studies, namely the lived-experience of academics, both nationals and non-nationals, in relation to one another. For this presentation, I use a case study, relying on interviews, document analysis, and occasional participatory observation, to investigate how “internationalization” of higher education creates an academic space governed by differential regimes of (im)mobility and how that may have reproduced structures of dominance and dependency. Using anticolonial feminist traditions and decolonial theory, I question the ways in which policies currently implemented in higher education tend to racialize the non-white academic, while promoting whiteness and masculinity (Takayama, Sriprakash & Connell, 2017; Shahjahan & Morgan, 2015; Ahmed, 2012). In the second part of the presentation I reflect on these current regimes of (im)mobility and power configurations by comparing and contrasting how internationality, and the position of the (inter)national academic, has shifted from the early establishment of QU (1977) to today. The findings show that internationality tended to be driven by the notion of solidarity (South-South cooperation) — unlike today’s internationalization efforts, which tend to be driven by competition. In the latter model, the academic is positioned in a more precarious position, as non-national faculty are present there to serve a more competitive agenda. Hence, while geographic mobility might have intensified in today’s internationalization efforts, this has not translated into more mobility within the institution and academia more broadly, especially for non-white academics who find themselves marginalized further by a desire of their institutions to mimic higher educational institutions in the Global North, in hopes of improving their global educational rankings. This presentation ends with an invitation for (1) ranking entities and other profit-driven entities, governments in the Global South, and university administrators to question their social responsibility when implementing or marketing internationalization policy locally; and (2) academics to reflect on the ways in which internationalization has reconfigured our relationships with one another in this highly competitive educational climate.

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