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Traditionally, the main goal of education is to help people grow as independent individuals. But in the era of globalization and a knowledge-based economy, the goals and functions of education are changing. Dr. Eugenie Samier, Associate Professor, Administration and Leadership Studies at the British University in Dubai shared her views on trends in higher education in a changing world and in particular, in the Middle East and Gulf region.


Traditionally, the main goal of education is to help people grow as independent individuals. But in the era of globalization and a knowledge-based economy, the goals and functions of education are changing. Dr. Eugenie Samier, Associate Professor, Administration and Leadership Studies at the British University in Dubai shared her views on trends in higher education in a changing world and in particular, in the Middle East and Gulf region.

Dr. Eugenie Samier, Associate Professor, Administration and Leadership Studies at the British University in Dubai

What is education in the modern world, is it ‘a product to sell’ or is it ‘an experience to give’?

Traditionally I think there were about four different things that education is supposed to do. One is to help people grow as independent individuals and that includes their personal development. The second was to help them with their formation as citizens and the political, cultural and social system that they are part of. The third was to prepare people for the economy and that would include both vocational education and higher-professional training, and for many it was also to develop their critical capacity so they would be able to critique the social and political systems they live in so they can change and reform them. One example of that would be in the gender and racial equity area, where a lot of critique came out of universities. I think people in many countries analyse that equality and equity problem.

That’s one side that has been there for a long time. There is another side that has become more dominant since the 1980s, in the West particularly: looking at education as a product you sell to the consumer. For some people this is seen as a natural part of modernization in critical literature. I don’t quite take that view. I see modernization as a very complex development. It includes that kind of modernization and economic development, but it also carries a very strong critical tradition within it. I see modernization more as complex opposing forces in a dialectic relationship.

The process of globalization of education moves very fast. What positive and negative impacts does globalization have on higher education?

Dr. Eugenie Samier, Associate Professor,
Administration and Leadership Studies at
the British University in Dubai

Globalization has allowed a number of things. One is mobilization. It involves a lot of people moving around the world: students, professors, and other people connected to education. And one of the things that it could do, that I’ve seen evidence of, is build a more international and inclusive scholarship, a broader scholarship, especially in western countries – so that the scholarship they produce and the curriculum they develop for education is less ethnocentric. That has been challenged a lot: there is discussion within American, British, Canadian and Australian academia about their tendency to be quite isolated from conditions in other countries. Globalization can allow for internationalization, for a dialogue between different parts of the world. That is mostly what I see on the positive side.

The negative side, though, is looking at globalization in a very specific sense, and that is as a narrower economic phenomenon where internationalization is much broader. So, as an economic phenomenon, it has largely been pushed ahead through neoliberalism – which began in western countries (that is why I mentioned the 1980s, because in 1979-80 there was a huge shift towards more conservative positions in several western countries). The globalization phenomenon that came with neoliberalism, including new public management, regards the public sector as something to be run on the market model. Education, then, becomes seen as a product you can export to another market, to other parts of the world – including developing countries – because they have been targeted as a place where education as product can be sold.

Another negative influence I think has to do with university’s transition or transformation into a corporate model. So it can be described as being part of an education industry – and that changes all the roles and relationships of the educational institution. For example, presidents and vice-chancellors are increasingly becoming CEOs. The other major change at the center of discussion in a lot of literature for quite some time has been that professors are becoming employees or laborers in an education industry and the educational corporation, and then students are seen as consumers. This brings a very important concept back into the discussion – alienation and the economic market – faculties are increasingly becoming alienated from their own intellectual achievement.

The third piece of the problem is that knowledge itself is standardized and prepackaged for delivery. Knowledge is no longer something that happens among and between people as part of a social construction with a critical side, something that includes complex perspectives. So, the whole character of knowledge is changing.

And the fourth main negative effect: Globalization can be seen as a new form of imperialism, where colonies buy the products of the western developed world. It is an intellectual imperialism of a market kind that is very similar to 19th century imperialism, when the colonies were used for their natural resources and then as a market to sell the product back to.

Given globalization, should and could the university act as an instrument of a state’s cultural security? And does a state need such an instrument?

Map of scientific collaborations

Universities, professors and the students who travel internationally have always been a part of the security system, depending on the type of degree, on the country, and on how the institution of education or higher education connects with the security institution. If you are looking at globalization, the market principle of educational commodification is a standardization of the product based on what the producers and sellers understand. That means that knowledge in curricular form is produced in the west and then delivered to other countries without significant change to reflect local conditions, like the political, cultural or economic system of the country it is delivered to. In that sense, because it is intellectual imperialism, it automatically creates a cultural security problem. Part of this problem is that other countries then become assimilated into some western models and students are educated on this exported (or imported) curriculum. They absorb and internalize foreign values and concepts. Even their understanding of what knowledge is becomes based on somebody else’s definition of what valuable knowledge is, what is an appropriate form of leadership or authority, or how to structure and administrate society. Globalization can produce a larger level of alienation. People in other countries become alienated from their own traditions, by which I mean culture, society, politics, and economics. One factor is that people teaching in higher education in developing countries, like those in the Gulf region, come from western countries, mostly English-speaking. So the faculty gets all of their education in their home country and then takes their curriculum with them, often delivering it unchanged.

That also creates a cultural security problem, because people who are teaching and creating knowledge are using a foreign model for it. This is a topic in my own research using the Copenhagen School’s concept of cultural security but expanding it to look at the role of higher education in both creating and addressing cultural security problems.

These factors are not only important in the Middle East, in African states and other parts of what we call the developing world. The impact is felt in East Asia and in Central and Eastern Europe, although they may be far less affected since they have their own history of universities. From what I’ve been seeing, Central and Eastern European faculty members who want to be published on an international level pretty much have to conform to standardized practices in other parts of the world.

Dr. Samier, you are working at the British University in Dubai. The Middle East more broadly is quite an unstable region at the moment (though the UAE is stable). Do the conflicts have any influence on higher education trends and education process in the region? Do you see any student flows from country to country in the region?

Labor force, female (% of total labor force) in
the United Arab Emirates

I don’t know what the long-term influence is going to be, because the dynamics of the Arab Spring and its instabilities are complex and will produce challenges that will play out for the long term. In the shorter term, there are certainly many people coming into the Gulf region because it is relatively more stable than other areas around it. So there are flows of people moving from unstable conditions into the stability of the Gulf, particularly the UAE. But I think there are many more people who would probably want to come but who are unable to move. People in Iraq, and especially Syria, have very few exit avenues. But the movement that is taking place is not just educational. It is connected not just to economic development, which attracts people to the Gulf region in search of jobs, but it also involves a risk to the political dynamics and there are many security considerations involved. And by this I mean security in the broad sense, not just military and policing kinds of security, but also social, economic and environmental security.

Connected to this, my main concern is that higher education here in the region needs to develop a curriculum and the scholarship capable of addressing these conditions and concerns. This includes international, regional and local approaches and content that has to take notice of Arab scholarship and others who produce scholarship on the Gulf and the larger region. This is the one area that has to develop in relation to what I’ve already mentioned about a foreign curriculum and education being brought into the country. Much of it does not integrate scholarship that has to do with the Middle East. This takes a huge investment in time and further education for faculty on both personal and organizational levels.

Whoever is teaching here really has to understand and appreciate the history of the region. They also should recognize that the history of Islamic and Arab scholarship has been in this part of the world for a very, very long time, and they should also recognize that the West built much of its intellectual tradition on Islamic and Arab scholarship in the first place.

How would you assess the development of higher education in UAE? Does Dubai have the potential to become an educational centre for the region? A global educational centre?

Public spending on education, total (% of GDP)
in the United Arab Emirates

The UAE, and Dubai, could become a very important regional and international center, partly because it is building the infrastructure to accommodate this. The UAE, since it was formed as a country, always had a view to being involved internationally. It is building the social, political and economic capital necessary to turn it into an important educational center. It is vital to understand that the country’s political leadership has always had this vision. They are very sensitive to local issues, values and culture, but also to the role that UAE can play in the region and at an international level. Its development, and the success so far in building a very strong economic system, provides the foundations upon which you can build a very important higher educational center.

There is a point I want to make here, because it is not understood in Western countries very well. Women in this country are very active – they drive, they work, they travel a great deal and in very large numbers they are going into higher education and pursuing advanced degrees. It’s a very important feature of this country that allows it to build capacity to become not only highly developed, but also to provide a new level of international research.

And there is something else that comes with this, that is important to appreciate and that I don’t think is emphasized enough: the country is in the process of creating a modern state. It is still in transition from a traditional society into a highly developed and highly technological one. If you look at this in terms of world history, this country is doing this in a very short time period. The degree and scale of change and modernization have come about in a far shorter time than other countries had, especially if we compare it to western countries that had a couple of centuries to build their modern institutions. And the UAE is also doing it in an extremely high level of multiculturalism and multi-nationalism. This also brings a problem with it, but I think this is a problem that could become a benefit and that can be resolved somehow – conflicting and contradictory ideas about institution building. Even people from English-speaking countries have different institutional traditions and think in different ways. And despite all that, if you look at the entire context, both regionally and the UAE’s own internal dynamics, it is an extremely successful country. I think that success, building and investing so much in infrastructure and also devoting a lot of programs to the development of its own citizens creates the foundations for the UAE to become a very important international center.

Interviewer: Natalia Evtikhevich, RIAC program manager

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