Times of Oman

Improving higher education system in Oman

- Prof Fouad Chedid is currently the Vice-Chancellor at A’Sharqiyah University in Ibra. He has taught at several universiti­es in the USA, Japan, Lebanon, and 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.

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