From spiraling student numbers to funding shortfalls, Jordan’s Higher Education Minister, Adel Tweissi, is under no illusions about the size of the challenges facing our university system.
With graduate unemployment at worryingly high levels, many wonder where the disconnect lays between the needs of employers and Jordan’s universities. Having an inverted pyramid, or more people in universities rather than technical colleges, has resulted in a workforce incapable of matching market demands.
This is just one of several interconnected problems facing the Kingdom’s higher education system, which is under more pressure than ever before. Here, Minister of Higher Education Adel Tweissi lays out the issues that Jordan’s universities are facing and how he intends to solve them.
Can you give us an overview of the higher education system in Jordan at the moment?
Our current higher education system is suffering a lot from a number of challenges and these challenges have passive reflections on the quality of education ultimately.
However, we are tackling these issues, especially after the launch of the Human Resources Department by His Majesty. Of course, this department initiated this strategy and I, myself, put forward the strategy and not only for higher education, but the other two pillars of education and labor, and technical and vocational training. As a result, now there are three ministers; the Minister of Higher Education, the Minister of Education, and the Minister of Labor involved in improving the human capital and human resources in Jordan.
What sort of challenges are we facing in improving higher education?
First of all, we need to talk about the over admission of students in universities. We have about 48,000 students over the capacity. That is 48,000 students out of the 284,000 who are enrolled in universities. This is a major problem now and it affects adversely the quality of teaching because we have crowded classrooms. That is challenge number one, the growing demands on higher education.
How can we tackle the issue of increased demand on universities?
One thing is to face the social value ascribed to the university degree. All parents want to send their children to university and we have to change that perception. The other thing has to do with the financial challenges that the universities also face. Funding from the government is unstable and limited. The government provides around JD72 million for all 10 public universities each year. Now not all of this amount goes to universities directly, part of it goes to the student fund here and to other locations to cover university debts. So, we are working on encouraging universities not to admit any more students, because universities compensate for the lower resources by admitting more students in order to have more tuition.
How can we address these funding issues without universities having to enroll more students?
Increasing tuition fees is a taboo now. So, this is something we are trying to convince the society that without doing this the quality of education for your kids will remain as is. But I think, and this is my view, that the government has to contribute more by increasing the fund.
But will they actually increase the fund?
I think in the coming years they will have to because, in order to implement the human resource development strategy, we have to allocate more money. Without the necessary funding, we can’t work on this.
Is there a way for universities to start generating funding on their own?
Well we are always encouraging universities to do this, however, university means to increase their own resources are very limited. With investment, for example, not all universities are in areas where they can make investments. But universities in big cities like Amman and Irbid can invest in some projects that produce money for them. It is part of the responsibility of universities to increase their own funding.
This goes back to the issue of Jordan’s ratio of student to faculty which has also reached a larger percentage. This affects the quality of the international percentage of faculty to student. Now in humanities, internationally speaking, it is 1 to 30 students and in science it is 1 to 20. However, Jordan has a much higher percentage than this. How can we change this? By increasing the number of faculty members or reducing the number of students or both and, again, all of these options will result in the need for more money.
What is the quality of students that enroll under Jordan’s quota system?
The quality of students tends to match the quality of free admission, with some even surpassing expectations. Around 20 percent of students apply through these types of quota systems. If we talk about 150,000 teachers on pensions or an equal number of those who are working for the army and security forces, you are talking about large numbers of their children applying for 5 percent of spots offered by the Ministry of Education. For example, the Makroma is based on competition but, in the past, there used to be what is called Ashaer, a tribal code, which is mainly the tribal quota and the quota for underprivileged schools. This, however, is now organized because it has been brought in by a royal order. It has been brought under the umbrella of a unified admission here. So, now it is well governed and it undergoes the same process as we do with the unified admission.
Going back to the initial question, what is the quality of these students coming in on the quota system?
The quality is low for these forms of admission and that’s why there are quotas. They are underprivileged and that is why they have allocated a quota for them. We had to find a way to compensate for the bad school environment they were given.
Yes, but does that require these students to enroll in universities?
That’s another issue that we have already started addressing. We are directing 10 percent of the funds for the army and 5 percent for the teachers for their children to go into technical education. And this will start this year, 2017-2018. So yes, we are considering this.
Another way of addressing this also requires us to look at the amount of students in universities. The extra admission that we have in universities at the moment requires that we reinvert the inverted pyramid that we have now.
For two decades now we have been talking about the inverted pyramid in Jordan, which has to do with the percentage of students who go to universities as compared to those who go into technical education. The percentage of those that enroll in technical education is only 8 percent. Only 18,000 students are in technical education compared to 284,000 students in universities. There is a stark difference in this percentage in advanced countries where 60 percent or 65 percent of students who graduate from high school go to technical schools and only 25-30 percent go to university. This is what we mean by the inverted pyramid. We are working on that by raising the percentage of students who go to technical education by 45 percent.
It is a big challenge, but we have started. We have frozen 10 percent of unemployable degrees at the bachelor level. We started doing this last winter by reducing the 10 percent of these degrees over the next five years. This means that in five years from now we will only have 50 percent of the current capacity of such faculties and specializations.
Another way that we will contribute to reinverting the pyramid has to do with bridging between community colleges and universities. For the time being we have a bylaw that allows 20 percent of graduates from community colleges to go to universities. A decision has been taken by the Higher Education Council to reduce this to 5 percent in three years. This started this academic year of 2017-2018. So, how is this going to contribute to the issues we are facing? This encourages community college graduates to go into technical schools instead. This means that students who graduate from technical colleges will go into the labor market.
There has been a lot of criticism that the university curriculum does not match the market needs. What are we doing to tackle that?
There are reasons why they don’t match. First of all, colleges will provide technical education, not taking into consideration upgrading and developing as new areas of technology emerge. For example, we have quite a few electrical and hybrid cars; however, we have very few mechanics in Jordan who can deal with these cars. The community colleges have not introduced these areas of specialization in their programs. So, the first responsibility actually falls upon the community colleges or technical colleges themselves.
That is one thing, but we also have to help community colleges and universities by encouraging students and parents to consider other areas of study. We have to work on changing the culture, the part where all parents want their kids to obtain a university degree. We are working on increasing the number of students in technical education and developing the types of specializations required to match the labor market needs. This is not only the local market needs, but the regional market needs, too.
Will you ever produce university league tables that rank universities based on quality of teaching and research?
Universities in Jordan have been struggling to obtain higher ranked positions in internationally recognized ranks. It is not because our universities are not developing and increasing their capacities as global requirements and criteria change, instead, it is because the other universities are advancing faster than we are.
Now, on our side, for the first time we have introduced the Jordan National Rating System of universities. This will be applied in August and we will rate them rather than rank them. There are two systems in the world, ranking and rating. In my own opinion, ranking will result in stigmatizing certain universities, because we are not looking to promote a best and have other capable universities at the bottom. What we would like to produce are programs based on a five-star system, just like hotels. For example, a program in medicine at university ‘x’ could obtain 4 stars out of 5 stars and university ‘y’ could obtain 5 stars out of 5.
Do you think this will encourage universities to work harder?
That is the purpose of the whole thing. It is to encourage universities to do more in order to achieve higher international ratings. The exit exam accreditation department has been doing a similar type of rating. It has created some competition amongst universities but this only tests students. We would like to test the whole system altogether.
Are we satisfied with the quality and method of teaching among our professors?
No, we are not satisfied. Most faculty members adopt the indoctrination of our culture as Arabs and Muslims. So, what we are doing now is integrating technology and changing the methodology to be used and adopted by faculty members. So, we are now establishing a center for electronic teaching and using the open education resource. This will be under the umbrella of Ministry of Higher Education but it will have satellite centers in universities. By using these two types of teaching, the electronic and the open resources, I think faculty members will have to work on themselves to develop their own skills in teaching. Additionally, universities might have to take it upon themselves to introduce some bylaws or regulations that will force faculty members that may initially resist to develop their skills.
Do you think faculty members are open to change?
We have an issue of generations in universities. The older generation has been resisting change. I headed three universities in Jordan and I found the same thing. At the Al Hussein University when I arrived it was still new and all the faculty members were graduating from the United States, Australia and other countries so we did not have these issues. But in an old university like the University of Jordan, yes, the generation problem and resistance exits. Like I said, like I over say, those resisting are usually those who dwell in their comfort zones. They are the ones who don’t want to work.
Do you think we need to establish more technical and vocational universities?
Yes, we do and we have already started working on this by involving the private sector. We actually announced three months ago and opened the door, as they say, for the private sector to establish new technical colleges. We have received 15 applications from the private sector who are Jordanian investors here in Jordan or in the Gulf. We are now studying these 15 applications. I think, and this is the first time I am announcing this, that we may take five out of them and allow them to establish new technical universities. But we will only select the applications that have introduced new programs that match the labor market needs.
Also, violence has plagued the university scene for years now. I must say it seems better. What have we done and how are we tackling that?
Since 2013 student violence in universities has reduced a lot. It disappeared completely before the incidents that happened at the beginning of this year and the end of last year. There were two tracks we were taking at that time to mitigate violence at universities. The first track has to do with preventing student violence at universities by having programs that change their mindset and tribal way of dealing with issues. So, the first track is preventing violence. The other one has to do with dealing with violence after it happens. And here universities have been very tough in applying rules. This has been done by suspending and dismissing students, and not accepting wasta at all.
The main thing is to not accept wasta, because before 2013 wasta was used to wave away punishments that already had been handed out to students. Now this has disappeared and students have come to the conclusion that there is no wasta regardless of whether they have reconciled off campus.
Do you think the quota system plays into that?
There used to be a link, but as I said the quota has been organized now. Over the past two years this has contributed in students having higher grades and reflects better behavior in the students that were involved in such violence. Unfortunately, students that are involved in violence are all from the humanities. They are not well occupied and that is why universities have worked well on filling their time with extracurricular activities.
What is the Ministry doing to increase research in our universities?
We produce a lot of research, but not the right one. We produce theoretical research, the so-called supply oriented research that only seems to serve the needs of the faculty member for the purpose of promotion. That is why 90 percent of research is theoretical research. What we need is what is called demand-oriented research. This is the research that is oriented according to the needs of factories, according to the needs of the market. In other words, we need research and development, the research that produces patents, etc.
I found out the money is not the problem when it comes to research. The money is available, not by the government, but by the international organizations that support research if you do the research that goes with the right priorities, the priorities of your country. So, it was not the money back then and it still is not the money now. It is the capacity of our researchers instead. One way we plan on addressing this is to alter the research fund that we run here in the ministry to be changed into a fund supporting innovation. We are working on the legislation now, so maybe it will be in full effect in 2018. I would like to add that even in the humanities there is applied research to be done.