Friday, June 25, 2010

Reforming higher ed in Jordan: politicking away

Policy-making is political theatre. No doubt about it. That which is not behind closed doors is posturing. But rather than condemn posturing, we should try to understand it. After all, it serves a purpose. It makes public the intent to create buy-in as well as detect common resistances. Conferences oriented towards policy-making are hardly about making decisions then and there. It's about feeling the pulse, NOT of the generic public per se, but about key stakeholders in the game. So with this higher education reform conference in Amman that I was part of, ministers, deans, professors, private education consultants, ed publishers and others congregated for a period of 3 days to discuss key problems and solutions for higher ed reform. About 500 delegates including from Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and others in the region took part in this process. It was an impressive turn out of card touting and name dropping. It was true to form, a networking event.

All this should not surprise. Jordan is an amazing example of diversity and assimilation as it has one of the highest concentrations of immigrants and refugees and yet is able to provide stability. It could be the center of learning in the Middle East region and beyond. After all, education is big business. It no longer suffices that higher education cater to the local but rather, serve as a global platform and stepping stone to transnational competitiveness. In fact, Jordan is strategically positioned to take on this role, with an extraordinary 20% of the budget earmarked for higher education. No wonder private educational providers turn up to such events from around the world, hoping to get a slice of the educational funding pie.

What is also interesting are the buzzwords that circulate. In spite of the diversity of the crowd, the same themes keep circulating, telling us what's in fashion now: blended learning, student-centric pedagogy, mentoring, outcome based education and the like. Also, there is much emphasis on new media in the classroom, pushing one to wonder why they don't just have that as central to the conference. Audience questions are also revealing. The fact that they are rarely questions but statements of public belief, experience, and conviction feeds into the posturing ambiance. “I have been a dean for 34 years and in my experience…” is usually how it goes. Posturing is the public policy dance after all.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Amman adventure begins...

It’s like a James Bond film really: indoor palm trees, high ceilings, limestone walls, sheiks in long white robes helping themselves to a luxurious breakfast buffet at the Le Royal hotel; the chatty cab driver who tells me that he has friends everywhere and a Maltese girlfriend waiting for him at home. Military men with guns (well, not flowers obviously), guarding precious property…hang on, the property is the American University! Nothing invites students so enticingly as the nozzle of the gun. The only deviation from this sexy storyline is that we are here for a higher education reform conference. From exciting thriller to drama (or documentary perhaps), the term “education” has a way of sobering this momentum. This is a collaboration between Columbia Middle East Research Center and the Jordanian government. Columbia University, much like several universities in the US, is eager to gain an academic foothold in the Middle East and capture a new consumer base of young doe-eyed students while the Jordanian government, as part of its extended semi-love affair with the US, strives for strategic affiliations. I am here as part of the Columbia team to help in creating a policy document for higher education reform with an emphasis on new media, internationalism and the knowledge economy. An adventure awaits, as I wonder how the Jordanians will receive a professor from the Netherlands with a British accent (or so I’ve been told) yet sounding rather American, and wearing an Indian tunic!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Google, the virtuous? Google, the warrior?

At the Thousand Oaks conference panel on Social responsibility of Mass Media, there was an interesting discussion about government regulation. A renowned media scholar brought up the “Google exit from China” as an example of how State regulation can indeed have dire consequences for its own population. This professor regurgitated what most media agencies have been propounding on this issue - Google left China after supposed multiple clashes with the Chinese government regarding censorship of its search engine. The Chinese people lost out and ethics won apparently:

Drummond, the Senior VP, corporate development and chief legal officer of Google announced the following:

We had uncovered evidence to suggest that the Gmail accounts of dozens of human rights activists connected with China were being routinely accessed by third parties, most likely via phishing scams or malware placed on their computers. We also made clear that these attacks and the surveillance they uncovered—combined with attempts over the last year to further limit free speech on the web in China including the persistent blocking of websites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google Docs and Blogger—had led us to conclude that we could no longer continue censoring our results on

This professor is actually in good company: CNN, Huffington Post, to the Hindustan Times, news media transnationally seem to frame this story through one primary lens: the high price China paid due to its State regulation on information. There is much lament on what will happen to the Chinese citizens, on the tremendous loss for China in access to a quality search engine like Google and how after all, there is such a thing as corporate ethics.

Yet, few media stories mention Baidu in the same article as Google’s exit, even in the passing. Strange I must say, given that this home-grown Search engine company has the largest market share in China and is growing, from 64% to possibly 79% and of course, will benefit with Google’s departure. In fact, Google’s share since 2005 has dropped from 33% to 20% . There are a number of reasons for that as I learnt recently from my own students at Erasmus University: according to Jonas, Sonja and Disi, it's possibly due to a host of reasons including user patriotism, State marketing of Baidu, its user-prefered mp3 music sharing device to the fact that most users are less interested in being political online and more interested in social and entertainment oriented activity.

Regardless of why Google has lagged behind so astoundingly in such a hot future market of online consumers, I am more interested in how media across board has gone along with the portraying of Google’s exit strategy as that of corporate ethics. The media has been complicit in simulating a dignified exit for this corporate giant who has failed in its effort at penetrating this Chinese market. In the guise of virtue, this defeated warrior exits, having media lend a halo to this act.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Not quite "up in the air!"

Am on the road right now, but not quite Up-In-The-Air style. From Amsterdam to Thousand Oaks (near LA but as argued by some, “far” from LA as possible), I’m doing the conference circuit, the social life of many academics. After all, here’s a willing audience for your obscure Whitehead reference and hand-punctuated intellectualism. And if you thought Marxism is dead, you’ve evidently not attended enough academic conferences. Impossible ideals are preserved in the confines of academia, a natural fodder for multiple critiques of real world practice, leading to publications and sustenance of passion from the vantage point of the beloved armchair. Don’t get me wrong; I love armchairs. It’s comfortable, and allows for a respectable pause for reflection and pontification. Of course, I like it even better when we’ve earned the temporary rest through actual experience but then, if that were always the case, whom would we have left to mock?

So what was this conference about? Well, besides the usual deep evaluation of hotel rooms and fine dining which is the lifeblood of such conferences, we came together to bond on what’s the social responsibility of mass media, particularly pertaining to contemporary events such as the financial crisis to the oil spill. The term “social responsibility” itself should be up for discussion though as its hard to be responsible to an abstract “social” entity, as if there’s a monolithic group with shared interests. No wonder we can go around in circles sometimes when we’re grabbing trendy terms as a starting point of discussion, without acknowledging that this expectation is in itself problematic. Being responsible to one social group comes at the trade-off of another. The question is, who is the deserving and current chosen “victim” group that is deemed in need of representation and protection?

Also, one can’t help but notice that when critiquing the media, often journalists are badgered to death on their amoral drive for the quick storyline, their direct role in distorting news. So it was refreshing to see a journalist in the audience share her struggles of how hard it is to penetrate the corporate marketing slick that gets circulated to all journalists. It’s so manicured that often she lamented, journalists have little choice but to print what they get from these corporations. Better something than nothing. Now that’s what I like about conferences - when different stakeholders come together and give us their side of things. Unfortunately that does not happen often. We surround ourselves with too many people from academia and too few from the professional world.

Another discussion that I thought was interesting is this demand for “balanced” reporting, this fair share of voices. It seems to me that people argue for an even platform for all parties. There’s this romantic notion that if they all enjoy the “equality” of representation, there will be more diverse perspectives and debates. Hardly. We start from a deeply uneven platform where special interests and lobby groups dominate. So if we’re looking for more “balanced” reporting, we have to first make explicit the dominant views and stakeholders and from that standpoint, advocate for those voices that are less vocal, less noticed, less attended to.