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Globalisation and Higher Education in the Arab Gulf States
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Globalisation and Higher Education in the Arab Gulf States


2010 paperback 176 pages, £30.00, ISBN 978-1-873927-31-1

However, it is still available immediately as an eBook: please click on the links below to Amazon Kindle and/or Google Books.

About the book

In our knowledge-based world, the societies that prosper are the ones that generate knowledge - through research, through the interwoven relationship between the academe and funded research bodies and with industry.  They are the new ‘centre’. 

It is strange indeed to think of the countries of the Arab Gulf States as the ‘periphery’.  But, as the authors of this book argue very persuasively, by importing a ‘baroque arsenal’ of increasingly sophisticated and costly educational programmes, the Arab Gulf States consume other countries’ knowledge and products, all of which are of declining utility and sustainability.

Whilst universities contribute to the culture and political life of modern society, the authors ask - where in the Arab Gulf States is there capacity building, knowledge generation and the culture of imaginative ideas that lie at the root of any civilisation? 

By following a ‘magistracy’ on a global journey through regions, nations and into institutions, their answers are intended to inform and to urge the Arab Gulf region into promoting education for its own self determination and even its survival.


Introduction. Forms of Governance

Globalisation and its Influence upon Higher Education in the Arab Gulf States

The Arab Gulf States: an outline portrait of six countries

Labour Markets in the Arab Gulf States

Higher Education and Curriculum Reform in the Arab Gulf States

The ‘Magistracy’ at Work: the G8 and the Broader Middle East and North Africa

Globalisation and Magistracy in the Arab Gulf States



By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, we have become accustomed to seeing, across the continents, similarities in education policies: almost identical policies exist in relation to curriculum development, higher education institutional development, administrative practices and financial management systems - for all levels of education. Pressures exerted by globalisation seem to have conditioned the context in which educators operate, homogenising strategy, policy and reform. Indeed, the challenge of a rapidly changing world has prompted governments everywhere to consider how well their existing educational institutions are preparing the citizens of tomorrow to respond effectively to the opportunities provided by globalisation (Broadfoot, 2001).
   Reforms in any system, Apple (2000) suggests, are necessitated by inadequacies observed in the existing arrangements. He notes that global markets have found fault with education systems which, historically, have been based on egalitarian norms and values. We can state that universalistic and communitarian education is incompatible with the values that characterise global markets, with their promotion of competition, choice and diversity. Market-led attacks on ‘education for social justice’ are often couched in the debate of maintaining competitiveness, increasing numbers of jobs, raising standards and improving quality in an educational system that is seen to be in crisis. They are driven by the market philosophy of neoliberalism, which, as Harvey (2005) says, is
   in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human beings can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade. (p. 8)
   We are sceptical of a neoliberal approach, noting that educational reforms are being driven by what is now apparent is a failing economic agenda. We are critical of these global education reforms because they tend to generate inequalities.
   Indeed, through this neoliberal political economy of globalisation, profound stratification and inequity are legitimised across societies; globalisation, in fact, becomes a new form of colonialism (Hoogvelt, 2001): neoliberalism promotes competition and, as any competition tends to produce winners and losers, those who lose are told they should not blame anyone since equal opportunity was made available to all competitors. Neoliberalism links education directly and explicitly to the world of work. Our view is aligned with the South African John Pape (1998) when he states:
   education does not equal job training. It includes preparing people for jobs but also preparing learners for all aspects of their life - not simply how they are going to become profitable working units for their bosses. The ‘core business’ of education is not job training - it is educating human beings to be fully human - to practice democracy, to be non-racist and non-sexist, to learn to work well with others - to not become perpetuators of super exploitation or violence - either in the streets or in the home. (p. 3)
   Castells (1998), writing on globalisation, draws attention to widening inequalities and polarisation, the latter being
   a specific process of inequality that occurs when both the top and the bottom of the scale of income and wealth distribution grow faster than the middle, thus shrinking the middle, and sharpening social differences between two extreme segments of the population. (p. 69)
   And, as Rizvi & Lingard (2000) state:
   There is an emergent binary divide between those who are able to enjoy the new cultural goods and services exchanged in the global economy and structuring of work induced by new communication technologies and fast footloose nomadic capital ... Against this backdrop the divide between the global rich and the regional and local poor has never been so great. (p. 420)
   Further, as Sen (1983, 2002a) indicates, the market, based as it is on exchange mechanisms, cannot be relied upon, ever, to provide and distribute scarce (and not so scarce) resources. He argues that the issue of distribution of economic gains and losses from globalisation, and the sharing of potential gains from globalisation between rich and poor countries and among different groups within countries, needs serious reassessment. This is especially the case when it comes to education.
   Yet, in spite of the different views regarding the current education reforms, the reality is that many governments have found themselves implementing market policies in their education systems as a response to forces of globalisation (Whitty et al, 1998). This governments do, even when the key players in government recognise that there is no chance, whatsoever, that their policies for education will result in greater equal opportunity or equality in provision. We are aware that there are powerful influences, structural, procedural and personal, exerting pressures on nationally defined agendas and concerns for curriculum, institutional development and administration. As Altbach (2002a) notes:
   A revolution is taking place in education. Education is increasingly becoming an internationally traded commodity. No longer is it seen primarily as a set of skills, attitudes and values required for citizenship and effective participation in modern society. Rather, it is increasingly seen as a commodity to be purchased by a consumer in order to build a ‘skill set’ to be used in the market place or a product to be bought and sold by multinational corporations, academic institutions that have transmogrified themselves into businesses, and other providers. (p. 2)
   Of course, there are some countries which, sometimes, do manage to implement education policies to the benefit of their populations. Frequently, we suggest, these are the countries already in the lead when it comes to global education developments - in ICT, entrepreneurship, skills and training. King & McGrath (2002) help us to understand this:
   At the heart of any positive response to globalisation are likely to be knowledge acquisition and use. Learning systems can take on even greater importance in a globalised system. ... Whilst national responses will need to find their own specific forms, these will inevitably require emphasis on education, training and enterprise to be successful. (p. 206)
   Later in this discussion, in Chapter Three, we will indicate that Finland has been one country to adopt progressive educational developments and thereby maintain a lead in its ‘learning systems’, especially in education, training and enterprise. We will indicate that Finland, unlike the Arab Gulf States, has developed an indigenous ‘knowledge economy’. Chapters Three and Four will show how in the Arab Gulf States there has been an intense process of ‘policy borrowing’ with economic and educational policies often imported from outside the region.
   However, even with a focus on education, training and enterprise, there is no guarantee that policy borrowing, or newly established ownership arrangements in education, will have positive effects. In a study of European education systems in the early days of the neoliberal agenda driving our global world, Green (1990) drew attention to the problems of motivating nations into conducting harmonious relationships regarding their educational developments. He noted that European post-compulsory systems comprised three types of courses: the general and academic; the broadly vocational or technical; and the vocational, which prepares students for particular occupations. He suggested that the tripartite relationship between courses would have profound implications on educational policies in decades to come. That indeed has been the case, not just in the countries of Europe and the Northern hemisphere, but throughout the world.
   Tripartite curriculum developments have been noted in post-secondary sectors in the Arab Gulf region. The six countries of the Arab Gulf have introduced immense education policy changes over the past decade. In the United Arab Emirates, notably Dubai, and in Qatar, developments include Education City and the Knowledge Village. In a study of Oman (Donn & Issan, 2007), the authors drew attention to the curricula of the newly diversified colleges of applied science, the former colleges of education. It was found that their curricula were identical to those of most of the private-sector colleges and universities. Further, the role of the labour market was seen to define what was deemed ‘acceptable’ in higher education for policy makers, students, parents, and for the population of Oman. The UNESCO country report on Oman (UNESCO, 2000) states that for the new system of education, Basic Education, to be achieved, certain goals have to be assiduously pursued:
   Sustained effort, galvanised inter-institutionalisation of major functions and continuous activities, strengthening of focused research capacity, promotion of data-based decision-making, innovative searches for new partners, and an encouragement of the private sector’s involvement in education. (p. 15)
   In their article on Oman’s fast-developing higher education sector, Donn & Issan (2007) also refer to policies which ensure that 50% of matriculants at Sultan Qaboos University, the only state university in Oman, are male. Similar policies exist in the other Arab Gulf States of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain. In all these countries, nuancing gendered access to higher education is seen as socially responsible. How a society responds to global competition as it impacts upon its education and social systems, is often a test of whether growth outplays equity as a policy rationale. These are issues addressed by King & McGrath (2002):
   Globalisation also points to the need to rethink development. ... Should skills development be marginalised as at present, and seen as largely irrelevant to both equity and growth strategies? Can a new and broader, commitment to skill development be developed that can improve employability and/or allow better insertion into quality self-employment? (p. 206)
   It would appear that education policies directed by economic exigencies and developed for the labour market may be made legitimate, almost regardless of their impact upon social and human interests. Economic and labour-market needs seem to take precedence. The United Kingdom is no different to many other countries in this respect. As the government noted in what are now the early days of the current form of globalisation:
   Skills formation has been a major objective of education for governments both in the developing world and in the advanced nations. For the newly industrialising nations it is frequently seen as a condition of economic development ... (national) wealth is more and more dependent upon the knowledge, skills and motivation of our people. (Green, 1997, pp. 181-182, quoting Her Majesty’s Government, UK, 1994)
   In Europe, countries have sought to meet the anticipated need for more multi-skilled employees through strengthening provision at the technician level with more theory-based, generic courses and fewer specialist occupational subdivisions. In France, for example, occupationally specific CAP courses (certificats d’aptitudes professionnelles) (250 types) are being superseded by BEP courses (brevets d’enseignement professionnel) (35) which have higher general education requirements and broader vocational studies based around ‘families of occupations’. Green notes that these are developed as a means of supporting entry into higher education (Green, 1997, p. 176). He adds:
   Many of the differences in education and training systems derive from deep-seated historical traditions now institutionalised in structures, practices and institutional cultures which are peculiar to each nation. Efforts by the EU, for instance, to harmonise vocational qualifications and to enforce the opening of European labour markets to those with equivalent qualifications have failed dismally ... . Further research needs to be done to establish these trends with any certainty. (p. 179)
    Green argues that globalisation and internationalisation do not necessarily result in the demise of local, national and regional education systems. But there is so much evidence in the Arab Gulf States, especially in Oman and Bahrain, to indicate that in the years since Green wrote his book, the world of international education has changed. Would he be so calm and positive if he were writing at the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century? We think not. Whereas, yes, policy borrowing has been around for centuries (Green, 1997, p. 173), the nature of the tightening ligature of the internationalisation of education policy makes the current situation quite different.
   This book explores these differences and the impact of the ensuing changes upon higher education systems in countries of the Arab Gulf region. We argue that, because globalisation impacts significantly upon education and, particularly, higher education systems, it is important to see how this process is ‘embedded’ in practice. Personal and collective mental cameos allude to the personnel of global and international organisations descending aircraft steps all over the world, with backpacks of funds about to be exchanged in agreement for instigating or strengthening certain educational developments in-country. Usually, these funds are exchanged when ‘externalities’ and ‘conditionalities’ are met by national governments. But how does this actually happen in practice?
   Lawn & Lingard (2002) write of the policy space which needs actors to network, share ideas about education development, discuss and generate policy discourses. In their study of the EU policy space, they draw on Shore’s (2000) anthropological study of how Europe is being built through the work of EU officials, ‘professional Europeans’. He calls these people a ‘new class of de-territorialised, trans-national policy actors’ who are central to the project of creating ‘a de facto European state’ (Shore, 2000, p. 34). Lawn & Lingard locate their study in the education policy space of an emerging Europe. They suggest that the ‘new class’ has consensus on shared ideas and reasoning, translation, mediation and engagement so that they become (regardless of national official designations) a ‘de-territorialised’ ‘magistracy of influence’ in the European educational policy and policy space (Lawn & Lingard, 2002, p. 292).
   According to Lawn & Lingard (2002) the ‘magistracy’ are involved in ‘bureaucratic interpenetration’ of a ‘habitus’, a living and working space for global educational elites. Bauman (1998, p. 88) writes of this ‘policy space’, this habitus, having lost its constraining quality and being easily traversed in both its ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ renditions. As Halpin (1994) notes:
   The ‘magistracy’ deal in policy borrowing, modelling, transfer of knowledge, diffusion, appropriation and copying. (p. 204)
   Our study takes the view that it is not only in Europe that one can find the ‘magistracy of influence’; there may be similar key players, elite bodies, overseeing education in the Arab Gulf region also. We look to recent developments in the region, notably in Oman and in Bahrain, to delineate and examine the key decisions about higher education and institutional reform in tertiary education in these fast-changing states. We locate the role of local and global discourses and reflect upon whether these have been instrumental in higher educational policy developments.
   Our intention is to see whether Lawn & Lingard’s (2002) approach makes sense in the Arab Gulf region: are there key players, a ‘magistracy of influence’, and, if so, what vision of education are these people upholding, communicating and disseminating? Also, we ask, how is it that their views become - and are embedded as - ‘the’ definition of higher education? In other words, what are the policy processes by which hegemony develops in higher education in Arab Gulf countries?
   We argue that there are competing definitions of education and, as globalisation becomes an ever-increasing economic, social and political influence on all forms of behaviour, including education, realignment of definitions occurs. So we look not only to how an hegemonic definition of ‘education development’ arises, is maintained and sustained, but we ask whether alternative definitions (‘counter-hegemonic understandings’ of education) may provide us with equal, if not better, conceptions of the role and importance of higher education in the Arab Gulf states.
   A close inspection of a nation’s curriculum and administration of education enables one to see that education is not just about preparing citizens for their roles in a market society but can also provide them with the tools to engage in a process of liberation, empowerment and emancipation. When Green conducted his research on the EU, these were his concerns. Are they still our concerns a decade on?
   The major dilemmas for governments and educationalists in the coming decade will revolve around how to reconstruct cultures of citizenship and nationhood in ways which are appropriate to modern conditions ... many difficult problems about the competing claims to loyalty of the local community, the region, the nation and the supra-national world ... . Education has a major role to play in all this. ... Education must remain the public arena where tolerance, mutual respect and understanding and the ability to cooperate are cultivated. Just as it offers opportunities for individual development and advancement, it must also strive to promote civic identity and civic competence and to make possible a democratic and cohesive society. Education cannot ignore the realities of the global market. But nor can it surrender to global commodification. (Green, 1997, p. 186)
   It is our view that these early warnings about the impact of globalisation must be revisited. Now, global commercial enterprises - usually of the ‘North’ (i.e. the Northern hemisphere), the ‘First World’, the ‘West’ – produce educational commodities in the form of higher education institutions, curricula or administrative practices. Financial transactions occur between the North/First World/West and the Rest. This reinforces commodity relations of seller and buyer, with not just the education products of the seller being valued, but, inherently, also cultural, political and social formations. In this research we indicate that, as purchasers of ‘First World’ educational products, Arab Gulf states are buying into inevitable contradictions.
   However, we argue that a second manifestation of this commodification of higher education is even more important. As the North/First World/West (North/West) sells its higher educational institutions, curricula and administrative practices, it clears ‘shelf space’ for new policies and products. It sells off what has already been used in its own countries and what has probably become outdated; it sells a ‘baroque arsenal’ of educational products. It therefore gains twice - once in the financial transactions, obviously to its benefit, and, secondly, by gaining funds which it, the North/West, can use to support the development of new generations of knowledge about institutions, curricula and administration. Most worrying, we argue, is the fact that the purchaser has bought into the role of subservience; that country will be less likely to acquire its own indigenous knowledge-based educational developments. The gap between the North/West and the Rest deepens, widens and is consolidated.
   Our commitment, as educationalists, to social justice, equity in provision, and equality of opportunity being embedded in education policy, is undiminished. Yet, we see all around us that education, especially higher education, has become a much-vaunted commodity: in becoming so defined, we argue that higher education is in danger of losing the principles of empowerment and emancipation once at its core. In supporting a neoliberal market approach to higher education, countries may lose not only the economic race in our knowledge-based world, but also lose the, equally important, sociopolitical competition.
   In recognising education policy as a process that is contested and negotiated (Yeatman, 1998), it becomes important to locate higher education policy making in terms of those participating in conception, operational formulation, implementation, delivery, consumption and evaluation. This has the effect of removing analysis of policy from bureaucratic logics (Lingard & Ozga, 2006, p. 67) and focusing instead on the people, principles and practices of policy making. In the context of higher education in the Arab Gulf States, recent institutional changes provide evidence of the ‘hard’ (the material) and ‘soft’ (the language and rhetoric) governance forms of globalisation. An examination of higher education in this region is therefore an interesting as well as an essential undertaking.
   In light of these concerns, we discuss, in Chapter One, the various understandings of globalisation and its importance for higher education in the Arab Gulf States. We discuss what is meant by globalisation and examine its impact on higher education generally, and in relation to the Arab Gulf States. Chapter Two provides cameo portraits of the six Arab Gulf States. As we are focusing upon the Arab Gulf States, we outline their history, current sociopolitical and economic concerns and their education systems. Chapter Three examines the impact of global pressures upon labour markets in these countries. We discover the burgeoning growth of labour markets and delineate the increasing international interpenetration of national economic and political systems. We provide an account of recent developments in higher education in Finland as a means of drawing attention to key issues which we address in relation to the Arab Gulf States.
   The implications of labour markets for education reform policies are discussed in Chapter Four. We explore both public and private provision in greater detail in one Gulf State, the Sultanate of Oman. We ask where the momentum for the rapid commercialisation of higher education in the Gulf States has come from. The answers discovered through interviews with key decision makers form the basis of the second half of Chapter Four; our study reports on interview data with key policy makers from the region. In Chapter Five, we present findings concerning the origins of and trends in higher education policy in the Gulf and discuss whether key players representing global institutions do, in fact, generate agendas and commitments to particular visions of higher education: are they part of a ‘soft governance’ of education policy making.
   Our initial thesis is debated and discussed in Chapter Six when we conclude our study by reporting that higher education in the Arab Gulf States may come to be seen as a baroque arsenal, a valuable economic and political cargo for the sellers/exporters but of little educational value to purchasers/importers. We discuss the ramifications for the social stability and politico-economic development of the Arab Gulf States as they continue to purchase a baroque arsenal of outdated education. As noted, this discussion is embedded in conceptions of globalisation, and it is to these conceptions that we now turn.


GARI DONN works at the University of Edinburgh where she lectures and supervises PhD and MSc students in all fields of international education. Dr Donn is also the Executive Director of Edinburgh International Associates. She is an active Committee Member of Soroptimist International, of UNESCO Scotland and is the Chair of the United Nations Association (Edinburgh). Through these academic and civil society affiliations, she has worked and travelled widely in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa.

YAHYA AL MANTHRI is the Chair of the State Council of Oman, having been previously Minister for Higher Education, Minister for Education and Vice Chancellor of Sultan Qaboos University in Oman. As a senior diplomat in the 1970s, Dr Al Manthri was a member of the Omani delegation to the UN and Deputy Governor of Dhofar, the Southern Province. He has represented his country at international events organised by UNESCO, the International Arab Union, and the Arab Bureau of Education for the Gulf States.

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