Times of Oman
Improving higher education system in Oman
MUSCAT: It is well known that the health of the nation and its higher education system go hand in hand. And so, with the pressing need to diversify the economy, Oman has no choice but to closely monitor and constantly improve on its higher education system.
High on the list of immediate concerns is how to balance a university’s resources to serve both research and undergraduate studies? Is there a way to do justice to both at the same time? What is the purpose of undergraduate education? Is it about building student character? Is it about preparing job-ready graduates? Is it about nurturing the souls and minds of young students?
We must admit that universities are probably the only institutions that have defied the law of evolution over the second millennium. Most universities today continue to operate very much like the universities of the past, where students in large numbers are crowded into closed halls to listen passively to their professors.
Why we grade student work? Ask professors about the thing they dislike (not to say, hate) most about their job, and you would almost unanimously get a reply related to grading student work. On one hand; for most professors, grading is tiring and frustrating, and it is one of those things they wish they didn’t have to do. On the other hand, most professors know very well that grading is an integral part of the student’s learning process; and when done correctly, it provides important feedback that the student can then use to better reflect on their true learning.
What is the purpose of grading? That is, why we grade student work in the first place. For one thing, everyone, including parents, seems to agree that unless professors give exams and assign grades, students won’t take their studies seriously. And for another, conscientious professors use exams as a vehicle to provide important and sometimes personalised feedback, which helps them and their students to reflect on their teaching and learning, respectively. The problem is that there is so much subjectivity on the part of professors in the way they teach their courses and the ways they make and grade their exams. And unfortunately, this status quo seems to be acceptable by everyone including deans and vice-chancellors.
This being the case, students are left with no objective guidelines as to what to expect from a course. The natural result of this is a 4-way classification of professors by students as being good and hard, good and easy, bad and hard, or bad and easy. To make matters worse, students tend to focus their attention on their grades more so than their learning, and as a result, most students tend to favour a bad but easy professor over a good but hard one.
In the minds of many employers, though without any supporting data, the quality of university graduates in the last two decades is not a match to the quality of graduates from the second millennium. Most significant, that kind of criticism is no longer limited to voices from outside academia. The recent books by Harry Lewis, a former dean of Harvard College, and Derek Bo, a former president of Harvard University, confirm those views. How can universities do better? Probably it is high time to go back to the advice of University of Chicago physicist Frank Richter when he called to ‘create a culture in which teaching matters’.
Why we haven’t been able to teach critical thinking successfully? While everyone in the academic world agrees that critical thinking is one of the oldest and most agreed-upon purposes of undergraduate education, somehow universities don’t seem to get it right when it comes to teaching students how to think critically.
Universities and sustainable development
There have recently been several conferences in Oman and elsewhere discussing the role of a university in the 21st century and the changes that a university must undergo to meet the challenges brought along by the fourth industrial revolution.
A common belief implicit in the themes of those conferences is that universities are under attack from many constituencies and that universities have no choice but to adapt to the changes brought about by new technologies.
Questions thrown at universities nowadays include “What universities do for us?”, “Can universities explain their impact on society?”, “Can universities demonstrate their direct impact on the economy?”, and “Are universities providing advice to governments to make the right decisions about issues that matter most in today’s world?” I believe that a roadmap to answering many of these questions can be found in the sustainable development goals (SDG) adopted by the united nations in 2015.