Yesterday, I received that annual message from Orange Telecom, which I’m sure most of you have gotten by now. The love letter reads:
“Dear Customer, wither reference to the law of the additional Annual University fees, kindly note that 1JD will be deducted from your balance. Thank you for your cooperation.”
What is interesting about this message is that someone at Orange thought it was probably a good idea to be a bit transparent with the customers who have just found themselves inexplicably 1 dinar short this month. I wish this was the same kind of transparency we, as citizens, could expect from our government. No one is told why this money is deducted (1JD for most Jordanians is a lot), and more importantly, where it goes? How much is raised (judging by the incredibly high market penetration I assume it’s a lot)? Who is benefiting?
But I’ll get back to this in a while. Allow me just to back track a bit, because this week there was also another interesting message that we all may have heard, and this time it came from outside the country. From Davos in fact. Where upon Her Majesty Queen Rania, on a panel discussing global education, she said these words:
“There is no better equaliser in this world than education; itâ€™s the greatest justice you can give people.” [source]
The great justice indeed. Without a doubt, Queen Rania has been relatively good on this issue. There are few people on the world stage today that are wielding their celebrity to tackle this issue, and that is something Queen Rania has definitely done. However, as a Jordanian, my focus tends to be homeward bound, and it forces me to wonder what’s been done locally.
Some wonderful initiatives have been set up and our lead by the Queen herself – be it the Madrasati initiative that attempted to bring private, public and civil society sectors together to improve the infrastructure of schools, or even the Teacher’s award that looks to honor the best educators in Jordan, which in itself is setting an experimental incentive for teachers in the country. The Queen has also built an elite private school in the center of the affluent west Amman, as has King Abdullah who also saw fit to allow registered Iraqi children to study in Jordanian public schools a few years back.
There is also quite a bit of royal involvement with Injaz – a USAID-funded project that has done a number of interesting things inside the classrooms of Jordanian public schools. The list goes on and on. The impact of all this is still out as it education is one sector that takes a significant amount of time to demonstrate actual change.
However, what we do know is that little has changed in the educational curricula, i.e. what students are actually studying. We know that the Tawjihi system is a mess. We know that university students who have just graduated can easily find a job teaching 7th graders in public schools even though they have no training in teaching methods and are actually graduates with with low aptitudes when it comes to their field of study. We know that some of the university programs that applicants with low Tawjihi scores can apply to, include Islamic studies as well as journalism and languages. We know that while officials boast about the number of higher educational institutions in the country and the rise in educational tourism, but that few have noted the dwindling numbers of Arab student enrollment or the fact that no Jordanian university has made it recently (if ever) to the globally-compiled list of the best 500 schools in the world. We know that public university classrooms are indeed overcrowded – as are public schools – and that the eligibility criteria is massively flawed. We know that upon graduation from Tawjihi there are students who receive royal grants that vary from the increasing of their GPA to financial scholarship to the reserving of a seat in a university program – and we know that these students can range from those whose parents are teachers, refugees or from the army as well as citizens applying through the royal court.
We know our national curricula lacks any room for critical thinking or even creativity, with the standard ministry textbook being widely accepted as gospel and pretty much the only source of information for Jordanian students expected to eventually compete in the information age as part of a knowledge-driven economy. We also know that while officials boast about Jordan’s high literacy rate that, in reality, measuring literacy in Jordan has never been an exact science (i.e. one that would produce realistic numbers) and, in fact, many, many students cannot read or write at a comprehensible level, while even more drop out in order to work medial jobs – typically in car maintenance.
But above all, we know that there is no money. Teachers are underpaid, schools are underfunded, programs are cut, and any chance of reforming the actual educational curricula, which as at the crux of the issue, is deemed almost hopeless due to the hefty price tag that comes with such a pursuit. In fact, according the minister Walid Maani, a five-year plan to overhaul the entire system will cost JD395 million, which we obviously do not have, and what little comes our way is typically donor-driven and thus unsustainable by mere definition.
â€œLetâ€™s admit it. It is a matter of money in the first place. We cannot make a single move without the necessary funds.” – Walid Maani
The problem is not just a lack of funding but that we are yet to truly come to terms with our status quo. Our national numbers do not seem to reflect the realities on the ground, which many of us are privy to observing or even experiencing first hand. The system is as strained as it can get, not only due to a population of which the overwhelming majority are students, but add to that the many non-Jordanian students, such as Iraqi refugees who now have access to public schools.
And while initiatives that look to upgrade the physical structures of the classroom are indeed important, I would argue that what’s being taught inside the classroom (and how it’s being taught) is just as important. We honor our teachers with competitive awards, but the reality of the situation seems to suggest that instead of awards, the government needs to stop hiring university graduates as teachers and, instead, send them to teaching school, as is the international experience.The lack of proper teaching methods as well as the proper experience is one of the main reasons there is no room for public discourse, critical thinking or creativity inside our classrooms and this due to the fact that teachers were never taught how to teach.
Moreover, what money we do have or have managed to garner, seems to be spent almost haphazardly. These 5-year plans seem to be geared towards upgrading our systems from their current conditions, when in truth, they should be geared towards making us globally competitive within 5 years. Naturally, this is no easy task, but it depends largely on where the money goes and how it is spent. With this in mind, it is perhaps time for the government to bring the public along for the ride. Education is pretty much the number one issue that communities worldwide are heavily involved in but unfortunately, in Jordan, like many other issues, it is one that the public has little involvement in. Even parent-teacher associations seem to be missing, and thus, for the most part, parents are completely uninvolved with their children’s learning and development – a major step that would render them the best advocates for what they are learning to begin with. For this to happen the willingness to be transparent needs to happen and that is something I, and perhaps most, are convinced the government is somewhat incapable of doing – even on the level of informing people where that 1JD goes.
The will seems to be there. The fact that education is highlighted in what I would argue is an unprecedented manner is an important first step. The fact that there is recognition from the very upper echelons of power is something. But it is not enough. The personal involvement of either a queen or a king is not enough to move this particular mountain. Celebrity isn’t going to do it this time; it is a task for communities and their open and consistent discourse with the authorities.
The saying in Jordan since I can remember is that people are the country’s only asset. I would argue that in the 21st century, a competitively educated people are the country’s only asset. For Jordan, education remains the country’s only silver bullet.