Nathir Obeidat took office as president of the University of Jordan in August, and immediately began working on solutions to a number of problems confronting the 59-year-old institution. Those include managing an ongoing financial crisis, overseeing efforts to resume on-campus study while maintaining safety during the Covid-19 pandemic, and dealing with concerns over faculty salaries and new academic programs.
Obeidat, who is a medical doctor and a former minister of health, talked about these issues and others in a recent interview with Al-Fanar Media. Following is a summary of that conversation.
Back to Face-to-Face Instruction
The University of Jordan is the kingdom’s oldest and largest public university. It has about 50,000 students in 150 academic programs offered by 24 different colleges, about 1,700 faculty members, and about 3,300 staff members.
In the current academic year, which began in October, the university has adopted a new policy for students to return to in-person classes. The university launched an online questionnaire to ascertain the Covid-19 vaccination status of students and faculty members, and established a vaccination center on its main campus. It also required every unvaccinated student to present a valid negative test, every 72 hours, upon entering the university. (See two related articles, “Algeria Requires Covid-19 Vaccine as a Condition to Attend Universities” and “Libya Lets Universities Reopen Based on Their Covid-19 Preparedness.”)
Obeidat said that returning to classrooms and adapting to the new epidemiological conditions were necessary after a year and a half of distance education. He noted that 95 percent of the staff and 79 percent of students have received the vaccine. He added that the university has designed technology-based halls that allow live broadcasts of lectures to students, who will be distributed inside and outside classrooms.
The Financial Crisis
The university’s debt has reached about $25 million, and Obeidat has launched an emergency plan to deal with it. The crisis has been reflected in increased tuition fees, the need for paid “parallel” education programs, and a shortage of teaching staff.
“There is a financial crisis, but it is not a problem that hinders the current development process, or affects the quality and outcomes of education.”Nathir Obeidat
Obeidat’s plan relies on employing the university property in commercial investments to reduce financial pressures. However, he played down the crisis’s influence on academic activities.
“There is a financial crisis, but it is not a problem that hinders the current development process, or affects the quality and outcomes of education,” he said.
Obeidat explained that most of the university’s revenue goes to pay the wages of professors and staff members. The university is trying to reduce the number of administrators, in return for recruiting more faculty members, whose shortage caused the suspension of some programs.
However, Obeidat believes that the salary of a professor at Jordan’s public universities is “reasonable and moderate.” Faculty salaries range from $282 to $1,210, depending on the job title held by the professor, he said.
In this academic year, the University of Jordan introduced seven new study programs, in the disciplines of public health, artificial intelligence, and political science. At the same time, it suspended the admission of new students to 15 other programs. Obeidat attributed this reshuffling to a shortage of faculty members and low enrollment rates in some programs, and the need to update educational offerings in other areas.
Reconsidering the academic programs offered at the university is necessary from time to time to keep pace with the rapidly changing labor market, inside and outside Jordan, Obeidat said. It also helps the university attract more international students and professors, a factor in strengthening the institution’s academic ranking in international comparisons, he said. (See a related article, “Jordan Looks to International Rankings to Improve Universities.”)
Reconsidering the academic programs offered at the university is necessary from time to time to keep pace with the rapidly changing labor market, inside and outside Jordan, Obeidat said.
Six majors in the university’s various study programs, such as computer sciences, nursing, business administration, engineering and medicine, were among the top 500 study programs around the world in one recent ranking, Obeidat said. The absence of humanities faculties from the list, he said, could be attributed to faculty members’ writing their research papers in Arabic.
Obeidat is also seeking to reduce the number of medical students at the university. “This can have a positive impact as the number of medical graduates has exceeded our absorptive capacity,” he said. The educational outcomes of the medical school are “excellent,” he said, and can be noticed in Jordanian medical school graduates ranking second in a list of recipients of specialization grants at American universities last year.
Parallel study programs in Jordan and some other Arab countries allow students who fail to win admission to a free place in a public university program to gain access to a “parallel” place by paying substantially higher tuition fees. Critics see the practice as a threat to the equal right to education. (See a related article, “Who Should Pay for Education?”)
Obeidat defended the University of Jordan’s use of a paid parallel study program, saying the university was “forced to design parallel programs as a source of income.” He added, however, that “the regular programs still accommodate the largest number of students.”
“Our goal is not to increase the number of students enrolled in the parallel program. It is about using it as a means to improve the university’s capabilities rather than profit.”
“Our goal is not to increase the number of students enrolled in the parallel program,” he said. “It is about using it as a means to improve the university’s capabilities rather than profit.”
In recent years, the number of private universities in Jordan rose to about 19, compared to 10 public universities. Some see the increase as a threat to the quality of public higher education, fearing the private sector will attract faculty members away by providing more financial benefits.
But Obeidat does not see the sector as a threat. “Private universities have no negative impact as they do not compete with their government counterparts in the first place,” he said. “They rather play a supportive role.”
Despite the financial difficulties facing the university, funding scientific research did not stop over the past years. Funds from the Scientific Research Support Fund helped in this regard. Moreover, the university administration allocates about 6 percent of its budget to fund research (about $8.4 million).
“The Scientific Research Support Fund is a national institution that funds researchers in all Jordanian universities, besides the efforts of faculty members to finance their research from bodies at home and abroad,” said Obeidat.
He added that he believes increasing the number of foreign scholarships, raising the capabilities of faculty members, and improving the education environment are the main means needed by Jordan’s university education system.