KUWAIT— Ahoud Alasfour, an educational reform activist and researcher, has been president of the Gulf Comparative Education Society since 2018, and the group’s conference this year is more vital for education in the Gulf than ever, she says.
After a year in which educational institutions around the region have been forced to rely on online learning because of the coronavirus shutdowns, she says reforms are urgently needed and now impossible to ignore.
The society’s latest biannual conference, to be held online March 21 to 23, will offer a dedicated panel on Covid-19 to focus on the new challenges the pandemic has brought to education, from psychological effects felt by teachers and students, to learning methodologies. (See a collection of articles about how Covid-19 is affecting higher education, research, and arts and culture across the Arab world.)
Among the top priorities for discussion at this year’s conference is teacher education. “The social recognition of teachers as professionals and teacher preparation programs are key elements to any educational reform,” Alasfour said.
“There are regional experiences in reforming teacher education programs like in Bahrain, and the introduction of teachers’ licenses in Qatar and the U.A.E., to mention a few, so we are hoping to hear more in the conference about regional experiences” across the Gulf Cooperation Council countries.
A Range of Issues to Be Discussed
The conference will deal with issues and challenges for education from kindergarten to higher education, bringing together a range of institutions and professionals of different backgrounds across the Gulf countries. Though the society, known as GCES, is still relatively unknown in the region, Alasfour hopes to bring academics together to encourage dialogue and shared experiences.
The gap between higher education and the workplace, she says, is one challenge which must be on the agenda: Graduates are still seriously under-equipped for the world of work.
Because the Gulf countries provide higher education to nationals free, she says, education is being viewed by governments as “postponing employment problems,” delaying the issue of finding jobs for graduates in a region with a predominantly young population. In Kuwait, more than 60 percent of the society is aged under 25, meaning demand on universities will only increase in the coming years.
“We have a good amount of our society or students getting into university, but this doesn’t mean that we are providing them with good learning.”Ahoud Alasfour
President of the Gulf Comparative Education Society
“This is a problem that we faced in higher education in 2000, where the government allowed private institutions to operate, because we don’t have capacity in our public institutions,” she explained. The quality of programs is another problem, she added.
Call for New Ways of Assessing Learning
Alasfour, who did her master’s and Ph.D. studies in Australia, says that testing and assessment systems are outdated and need reform. Ways of measuring learning outcomes, beyond the standard high school-exit assessments, must be better, and also meet the needs of Gulf societies too.
“International tests like PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment) are giving you a feedback about what K-12 produces or what graduates will look like, but I think what we lack is a learning capacity test.”
The PISA assessments, conducted every three years, gauge the abilities of 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics and science worldwide. Nearly 80 countries, including five Arab nations, participated in the most recent round of testing. (See a related article, “Arab Countries Rank Poorly in Latest PISA Tests.”)
“We have a good amount of our society or students getting into university, but this doesn’t mean that we are providing them with good learning,” Alasfour continued. Rather than waiting until the latter stages of high school, she added, learning assessment must be consistent throughout stages of a child’s development.
Alasfour began her own career as a math teacher before pursuing her postgraduate and doctoral studies at Melbourne University, focusing first on international education and leadership, then on privatization in higher education. Now based at the College of Education at the Public Authority for Applied Education and Training (PAAET) in Kuwait, she is able to channel her experience into bettering the educational system in her home country.
A Critical Role for the GCES
Ibrahim Alhouti, a Ph.D. researcher at University College London who studies comparative education in the Gulf, says he sees the role of the Gulf Comparative Education Society and its president as critical in a region still new to the concept of comparative education.
The role of the Gulf Comparative Education Society and its president are critical in a region still new to the concept of comparative education, says Ibrahim Alhouti, a Ph.D. researcher at University College London.
The topic of educational reform is close to Alhouti’s heart, and at the core of his research work, analyzing Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain. “The education system in the GCC is still struggling with many challenges such as low performance, especially with the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) results in 2019, that were just published in December,” he said.
While the Gulf countries continue to achieve below the international average, he suggested the region must now critically reflect on the last 20 years of reform. “Why haven’t we reached this certain target which most of the International consultants were promising the Gulf?” he asked.
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Too often, Alhouti said, policies are imported from abroad, without giving them the localization needed to ensure their success. The role of the GCES, which unites academics from all of the Gulf countries, allows this blended philosophy, which until recently has not been an active enough process in reform. The role of stakeholders such as parents and teachers must also be stronger, he added.
With so much to still be done, Alhouti says the role of the GCES president is not an easy one. “It’s been quite hard to spread the message of the GCES,” he said. “Obviously that makes Dr. Alasfour’s role a little bit difficult and a bit more challenging, but she’s been an amazing leader and determined to ensure these conferences went ahead in spite of Covid-19.”