Interview: Professor Labib Khadra
How should policymakers in Jordan address the rapidly increasing demand for higher education?
LABIB KHADRA: Access to higher education is the right of all Jordanians; however, overcrowding is becoming more of an issue, especially in our public institutions, many of which are now facing extreme financial difficulties. One way to solve this problem is by raising student fees. Yet, due to rising living expenses and social pressures, this is nearly impossible. Another very important point is for universities to strengthen their partnerships with private industries. Public-private partnership is very important to help bridge the gap between educational outcomes and industrial needs, and will open financial avenues for higher education institutions.
To reduce costs, many schools will need to become more efficient, in part by reducing staff. Public universities in Jordan have roughly five administrators for every one faculty member, an unsustainable ratio. The government must also ensure that all higher education revenue collected by the state is allocated back to the sector and not redirected to other programmes.
To address overcrowding, and give students the skills they need to enter the labour market, the education sector must strengthen the quality of its vocational programmes. It must do a better job of ensuring vocational training is tied to the needs of the private sector, otherwise it will be difficult to convince learners that this is a pathway to a career. Right now, many students view vocational colleges as a bridge to more traditional universities, rather than a final destination.
How can the university system be strengthened?
KHADRA: First, universities must work harder to create an integrated network of research and development. Most academic institutions are conducting theoretical research in isolation, rather than undertaking applied research that can be commercialised in partnership with the private sector. To be fair, one reason research centres in Jordan have difficulty in this regard is because local businesses often have limited investment capital.
Second, Jordan has 28 universities, 18 of which are private and 10 of which are public. These schools need to complement one another, and not act as competitors. Currently, institutions are duplicating each other in academic offerings, which makes it more difficult for the university system to make a holistic contribution to the national economy. This also produces an excess of students in certain industries, which increases the difficulty for graduates to find gainful employment.
Third, although universities are putting more of an emphasis on connecting curricula to employers’ needs, they are not providing enough career guidance. Students need help preparing for interviews, searching for positions, and drafting cover letters and CVs.
Fourth, universities should establish centres of excellence in growth industries and niches that have the potential for innovation, such as renewable energy, pharmaceuticals engineering, design and logistics.
What potential does Jordan have to become a regional centre for higher education?
KHADRA: If you compare Jordan with neighbouring countries such as Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, all of which have faced unrest in recent years, you see that we benefit from a key marketplace advantage – political and social stability. Our education system faces several challenges, but we still have a reputation in the region for the high quality of our offerings. Moreover, it is quite easy for foreign students to enter Jordan and acquire visas, which is a key point of attraction for Arab students in particular. Many of the country’s foreign students are from the Syria, Iraq, the Palestinian territories and the six GCC member countries.
Lastly, it is important to note that by frequenting our stores, shopping malls and restaurants, and by supporting retail consumption, international students help create jobs and add tremendous value to the overall economy through multiplier effects. Ultimately, we should not miss the window of opportunity to gain a strong foothold in the international education business.
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