Thursday, January 27, 2011

GULF UNIVERSITY AND KUWAIT’S INABILITY TO REFORM ITS SOCIETY, THE ECONOMY AND EDUCATIONAL TRAINING

GULF UNIVERSITY AND KUWAIT’S INABILITY TO REFORM ITS SOCIETY, THE ECONOMY AND EDUCATIONAL TRAINING

By Kevin Anthony Stoda, International Educator and Multicultural Education Coach

I have written several articles over the decades on the issues of “wasta”, education, economy, and other needed reforms in Kuwait and the Gulf states. For example, in summer 2007, I wrote on the problem of importing American-style university’s into Kuwait without a commitment to academics and training students and parents, e.g. in terms of what good study habits are required (or need to be learnt) in trying to succeed in western universities generally.

That article was entitled, “SUSTAINABILITY, KUWAIT SOCIETY, PROGRESS TOWARDS DEMOCRACY, LIBERAL EDUCATION SIDELINED DUE TO INTERMEDIARY WASTA”

http://www.opednews.com/articles/genera_kevin_an_070711_sustainability_2c_kuwa.htm

NOTE: The term “wasta” can refer to bribery in the Middle East, but generally refers more often to having and maintaining appropriate social, political, and economic connections to get things achieved in Kuwait and neighboring lands. Such a need of political, social, and economic connections is naturally important in most any country on the planet. In Germany, for example, “wasta” is known as Vitamin B—something you can’t live without. (Vitamin B stands for “Beziehung”, which means “connections” or knowing the right people.) Meanwhile, in Kuwait and more traditional (family-tribally oriented) societies around the globe, “wasta” is required in-the-extreme, in order to get most any major project done—or at least done on time.

Recently, the amount of Arab hooliganism (often involving Kuwaiti youth) has been on the rise. This is certainly one of the results of the lack of reform in the area of “wasta” system in society over the past decade. “Wasta” promotes a sort of “untouchability” amongst Kuwaitis and occasionally includes certain-connected Saudi Arabs (and even a few Americans) in that country. I witnessed this rise in hooliganism myself in 2008 when twice buses I was in were attacked by rock-throwing youth. I am told by Filipinos living in Kuwait today that the danger of being attacked or mistreated in the streets in 2011 is still on the rise.

For more on poverty and subclasses--or nationality castes--in Kuwait, please read my 2008 article, called “KUWAIT INDEPENDENCE DAY, KUWAIT NATIONAL DAY, &THE RISE OF A NEW FACELESS POVERTY ON THE MIDDLE EASTERN LANDSCAPE.”

http://www.opednews.com/articles/genera_alone_080226_kuwait_independence_.htm

IN THE NEWS NOW IN KUWAIT
This past week, I was struck by the increase in editorials, letters-to-the-editor, and news reports in (and from) Kuwait. I thought: Finally, the country is acknowledging the fact that, even after a decade of study and preparation, the problems remain in Kuwait because many Kuwaiti students are still “unprepared to take-on Western-style educational training in their homeland”. Sadly, this wass the first year serious public debate has occurred in that wealthy country. Still more sadly, foreign-born faculty members who have long opposed the Kuwaiti-wasta tradition are now made scapegoats by Kuwaiti students, parents, and tribes.

In short, the issue “wasta versus actually studying” in order to obtain good grades is only now-being discussed for the first time in Kuwaiti (by media and) amongst the political and social elite of the country. Hopefully, the eventual consensus in Kuwait will be that social “wasta” is not enough for Arab youth to succeed in an American or western-style university. However, in the short-term, blaming the messenger is the standard approach in the Kuwaiti press.

This 10-year delay in an important societal discussion is particularly distressing because in the interim many wealthy boards-of-directors at such new private western-style universities in Kuwait have (a) intentionally been hiring registration-officers, recruitment personnel, and student counselors (b) who have been persuading students to believe that the dozen-plus new private universities and schools in the country are to be run like diploma mills—rather than serious universities.

NOTE: This matter of whether the university was to be a diploma mill or an authentic-Western Institution has been of major debate among faculty, staff and students at universities since 2001, i.e. when the first private universities, named Gulf University for Science and Technology (GUST, was opened at just about the time that the horrors of 9-11 in that year occurred.


A SAMPLE LETTER

In the wake of the most recent media-blitz by disgruntled students and Kuwaiti parents, the following letter was written by one faculty member at GUST. Meanwhile, faculty who have felt und fairly criticized for demanding students to study, i.e. in order to pass their courses, have been quitting left-and-right throughout the country. (Others, in the past, like myself, were not renewed contractually because of our due-diligence, i.e. diligence in trying to train and serve students in terms of better study habits, better standards, and in guiding GUST students in self-improvement and career goal setting activities.)

Hello GUST,

I am appalled by the terrible reactions to and comments by some students on the percentage of failed students in the just concluded fall 2010-11 semester. I am also terribly shocked by the way some GUST students, instead of digging out the actual reasons behind failures, have, without a second thought, put the blame on the faculty unilaterally and unfairly. One student in the newly created website ‘GUST fails’ even went to the extent of hoping for an instructor to choke and die, no need to mention numerous humiliating comments made about other instructors.

All GUST faculty members, I have good reasons to believe, are extremely saddened to see that some of their own students have made them the scapegoats for failures, apparently an act purported to win the support of general students and deflect family pressures.

Expressions of frustrations and anger by the failed students may not be unusual since private education requires huge investments in terms of money, stressful time and energy. That explains only one side of the coin; let’s have a look at the other side to better understand why some students fail despite best faculty efforts to face off the same.

Reality Check

1. Statistics tells us that 8.26% students (a total of 990 students) have failed different courses this semester whereas the percentages of failed students in the fall and spring semesters of 2009-10 and 2010 were respectively 8.43% (888 students) and 8.65% (976 students). This is not to justify student failures but one has to note that the percentages of failed students rather highlight a general trend, there has been no big jump. In the last two semesters the total number of GUST students has shot up, so has the number of failed students slightly. A happy point to note, at the same time, is a gradual increase in the number of students credited with A and B grades. This is a remarkable development and we heartily welcome our brilliant students to step into the future to conquer the world!!

2. Failure is unpalatable, often depressing. Blaming someone for failures is easy, the more important thing is to ask to oneself: Why do I fail? There is a definite need for self-criticisms by our students. At GUST, it has been regularly observed and noted by faculty that a good number of students in every class are late by 15 and in some cases by 20 to 25 minutes, and once inside the classrooms many students keep talking to each other while paying the least attention to class discussions and debates. Attentive students who are keen in learning are disturbed by the late comers and the troublemakers. Many students just enter the classrooms with blackberry cell phones in their hands and get involved in text messaging. There are also habitual student practices at GUST of swiping ID cards and leaving the classes. Instructors like me struggle hard to maintain an atmosphere of teaching and learning in the classrooms. Sometimes we go tough to restore class discipline and do not mind if some students find us rude for that. Needless to say such practices largely fail the failed students.

3. I am not complaining that some of our students are disrespectful to their instructors though they show temper and are impolite occasionally. What overwhelms me most is the student culture of grade bargaining. There is an inherent belief in most students that grades are negotiable and that instructors can give them any grades at the end of the semester. Even some parents seem to cherish the same belief since they come to request higher grades for their sons and daughters. Awesome! Indeed. This absurd belief in obtaining a higher grade without proper efforts is corrosive and self-damaging, to say the least. The sooner we get rid of this self-defeating bargaining culture the better.

4. I feel to leave a note of caution for GUST Student leaders, though I believe I should not. I have great respect for student leadership in organizing semester long activities and running campus life smoothly, so take it easy. GUST is your institution and definitely you are proud of it. You are intimately connected to the rise and fall of GUST, its name and fame in and beyond Kuwait, the Gulf region and the whole world at large. It was more than shocking that a few students de-abbreviated GUST in the ugliest possible way (one student wrote: GUST stands for Gross Utilities and Stupid Teaching; another student said: GUST equates to Greedy, Unfair, Stressful and Torture). Such labelling does not help, it only undermines your own institution, creates a climax of mistrust in the general public about private universities and education in Kuwait. GUST is not that a second or third class university, you have got big stakes in its survival and continued thriving.

Need for Policy Initiatives

5. Approximately 95% of GUST students are Kuwaiti nationals. That means GUST is not multicultural in terms of student orientations, competitions, achievements and even failures. GUST students, and for that matter students from other private universities, are not familiar with competitive educational environment, and feel less compelled to enhance educational achievements and boost up their overall standings. Let’s invite Adam Smith to set the rules – survive through competition and excel to your utmost. This is the best way to avoid failures. Let’s open up the doors of GUST to students from other countries, at least the GCC countries.

6. Admission criteria should be reconsidered. We should think a few times whether students with poor knowledge of English and low high school GPA be admitted to GUST. Students who fail usually possess poor English speaking and writing skills which is unacceptable to an elite English medium instruction university like GUST. Let’s raise the admission criteria to arrest the downhill sliding in the rate of student success.

7. There is a need to involve parents in the education process to the extent GUST rules would permit. My personal experience indicates that parents have a general feeling that their kids are doing excellent while instructors fail them. What they obviously do not know is what we know about their sons and daughters. Many parents are not definitely aware of their children who are less interested in classes, like to swipe ID cards and leave the classes, bring fake medical notes to justify absences (some are obviously genuine medical cases), and last but not the least run after instructors to remove FAs. If duly informed, parents can help us out to correct the errant behaviours of their children and help them succeed with the motto: don’t fail, try hard, succeed better, bring glory to the family.

Sorry to send you this long mail. As a faculty member, I believe, I have the right to express my opinion since I am a part of GUST.

Best regards,

----XXXXXXXXXXXXXX
Dept. XXXXXXXXXXXXXX



I had written similar letters promoting reform when I worked in Kuwaiti universities and schools from 2004-2008.--KAS


FINAL NOTE

I want to end this article by noting that when I taught for 5 semesters at Gulf University from 2004- through 2006 I did have a few good students—and had others who learned to study better while I worked with them. In short, during that period, I found upwards of 10% of the students to be diligently working hard towards graduation—and I found that many of these same students wanted their university to become renowned for its rigor.

However, I have been told by GUST faculty over the last 5 years that the standards of student recruitment have continued to decrease while no significant counseling and remedial assistance was implemented (and required of students) across the university, in order to prepare the other 80%-plus of GUST’s students for such rigorous educational improvement ( & achievement).

In short, empowerment did not include a focus on improving student’s achievement—only by flattering many of them and their family’s with ill-earned diplomas. This certainly has left good or hard-working students with a bad taste in their mouths, i.e. concerning their alma mater. That is too bad. Initially, the university had so much potential. Worse still, other universities were forced to decline with GUST and its recruitment tactics driving the standards down for other private institutions over a ten-year period.

http://www.gust.edu.kw/content/gust-welcomes-chancellor-university-missouri-st-louis-thomas-f-george


I hope this next decade, 2011-2020 sees a massive turn-around for my (former) Arab students’ former alma mater’s in Kuwait.

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