Jordan needs to reform its higher education system
Jordan and Palestine, as well several other countries, continue to suffer from the remains of an imported education system that was addressed in its home of origin but remained unchanged in these countries.
The system’s most tangible conclusion is the general secondary examination, commonly referred to as Tawjihi, is a rigorous national exam given at the end of the 12th grade that decides whether a student can pursue higher education and in which area.
The tawjihi test is the same for every student in Jordan; students are judged by the combined results in all exam topics.
All topics are mandatory: English, Arabic, history, geography, math, biology, physics, chemistry and Islamic religion (for Muslim students).
Students have to take these tests within a very short period, which created a sense of high emergency for most families who have a 12th-grade student.
Universities accept students solely on the results of this single end of high school exam.
Very few faculties take into consideration other results, tests, interviews or volunteer activities when they take the decision on who can study what.
Demanding subjects such as medicine and engineering require astronomically high grades, often nearing 98-99 per cent. Other topics require lower percentages.
Various attempts to reform this system failed in the past. No attempt has been made to allow universities to create their own requirements for admitting students.
Added to this is the societal, often irrational, thinking that a student’s future is determined solely by pursuing college or university regardless of whether he/she has the talent or is interested in the particular subject the grades qualify him/her to study.
This obsession with pursuing university studies has given the government the opportunity to make some money or lessen its contribution to higher education.
The government has introduced a system that many consider corrupt and discriminatory.
It allows families to make up for their sons and daughters not getting the grade that qualifies them to study a particular subject to pay more money to be admitted to that topic.
The scheme, called muwazi (or parallel), allows, say, a student who received a grade of about 80 per cent to join medical or engineering schools that require a much higher result.
This scheme has also benefited many for-profit higher education establishments, which have made millions as a result of a totally bogus education process.
The worst part of the muwazi, of course, is that it forced educators flooded with less adequate students to lower their standards and tailor their tests to accommodate the large number of students.
At times the muwazi applicants are a majority, making the attempt to take only top students a joke.
Attempts to reform the system have fluctuated.
The most recent effort by the former minister of higher education ran into trouble.
While a higher education reform strategy was adopted last September, the attempt to implement one of its major components, ending the muwazi scheme, ran into problems.
The government could not accept the plan that would have made public universities lose much income and thus would have forced it to subsidise them from the national budget.
The architect of the strategy, Dr Wajih Oweis, was thus sacrificed and relieved of his duties, but appointed senator, in a clear statement that he should not be punished for adopting the reform plan.
Higher education, which was once an attractive gateway to good jobs, has been failing many students who are unable to join the workforce because of lack of basic skills, as a result of the lowering of standards at various colleges or universities.
What is needed is a plan with resolve that helps separate students at an early stage and guide them towards vocational training.
But with vocational training there is another problem: the very low wage and the fact that the minimum wage only applies to Jordanians.
As a result, many vocational jobs are being taken by Syrian refugees and Egyptian labourers.
If the minimum wage was raised to a reasonable level, Jordanian youth would become interested in these vocational jobs. But Jordanian businessmen who want cheap labour are obstructing any serious efforts to raise the minimum wage and to ensure that it applies to everyone, and not just Jordanians, so as to have a level playing field.
As tens of thousands of Jordanians join the army of unemployed every year at this stage, delays in reforming the educational system and the labour market can no longer be brushed under the carpet.
Serious strategic thinking is needed and strong, undeterred resolve must be applied if the employment problems facing our young people are to be solved.