Friday, July 29, 2011

Can new science universities flourish in Saudi Arabia? In Egypt? In China?

I've written before about the difficulties of breaking into the top ranks of universities, and so it will be very interesting to watch what becomes of well funded attempts to create first rate technical institutes that will concentrate on subjects which shouldn't be religiously or politically controversial.

There's a well-funded attempt in Saudi Arabia, and also a post-revolution proposal for something similar in Egypt, although a pre-revolution attempt at a new technical university appears to be running into trouble. And finally there's China, which seems much more likely to succeed.

The Chronicle of Higher Ed reports on Saudia and Egypt:

 Saudi Arabia's $10-Billion Experiment Is Ready for Results

A Promising Egyptian Research University Gets Tangled in Post-Revolutionary Politics

Here's the Saudi story:

"King Abdullah University of Science and Technology is an anomaly many times over: a spectacular campus in the middle of nowhere; an international, co-ed institution in a gender-segregated society; and an aspiring world-class research graduate university created virtually overnight.

"Kaust, as it is known, also faces a unique challenge. It must convince the world that through a combination of wealth and vision, it can flourish in one of the most restrictive countries in the world. Many here believe that the next year will be a critical one in its development.
"King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia's absolute ruler, donated the university's $10-billion endowment in the hope that Kaust will make his country "a player in global science," says Kaust's president, Choon Fong Shih, who formerly headed the National University of Singapore.
"The university is organized around nine research centers, which focus, for example, on advanced membranes and porous materials, plant-stress genomics, and solar and photovoltaics engineering. The work of all these centers feeds into three fields key to Saudi Arabia's future: solar energy, water desalination, and drought-resistant crops.
"Yet while the university has been able to attract established senior academics ready for another challenge before retirement, as well as promising young faculty taking what they hope will be a career-making gamble, it remains difficult to lure tenured professors in the middle of their careers (especially since Kaust, in line with Saudi Arabia's labor laws, can offer five-year rolling contracts but not tenure).
"The university has also made every effort to attract a bright cohort of international students. Admission comes with free housing, insurance and a yearly round-trip ticket home; students receive $20,000 to $30,000 stipends.
"The institution is particularly concerned with attracting Saudi students since one of its main goals is to create a new scientific elite for the country. Saudi students make up between 15 and 20 percent of about 300 students now at Kaust. The university plans to eventually enroll 2,000 graduate and 1,000 postdoctoral students.

"The number of Saudi students with the required English and science skills is limited, and Kaust must compete for them with international universities. And it must teach some of those skills itself."
"Several Saudi observers expressed doubts about the university's future, saying there is no guarantee that whoever succeeds the 87-year-old King Abdullah will share his vision for it."

That last line brings us right into the story about the Egyptian university:

"When Nile University opened four years ago, it offered something unusual in Egyptian higher education. In a country with weak research infrastructure, the small private nonprofit engaged students and professors in applied research in high-demand fields, such as information technology and construction engineering. Over time, it has developed global partnerships and international support.

"But today the university finds itself in the cross hairs of post-revolutionary politics. The government has repossessed its soon-to-be new campus. Uncertain about the institution's fate, many corporate and philanthropic backers have stopped their donations.

"A high-placed government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the state was "rectifying" the improper allocation of public land and funds to a private university. Supporters say the university is a target because it was supported, and is thus now tainted, by the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak.

The story goes on to say that there's a new, post-revolutionary plan for a technological university in Egypt.

"Mr. Zewail, the Egyptian-American Nobel laureate, says he was contacted by Egyptian government officials shortly after the revolution and asked to revive his 10-year-old proposal for a city of science and technology that will combine a university, research centers, and a technology park. In a few months, Mr. Zewail has raised over $100-million in donations. The university that will be part of the planned city will have a different, more ambitious mission than Nile's. "It will be a national project," says Mr. Zewail, "not a private university. But I do feel very strongly we should help students and first-rate researchers" from the troubled university, he says, by absorbing as many of them as possible."

In China, there are also political restrictions on universities, but there shouldn't be any problem finding technically well qualified and motivated students, although there may be other cultural barriers to overcome (aside from political ones). Here's a Chronicle story on that:

News Analysis: China Looks to Western Partners to Reshape Its Universities

"Last year the University of Nottingham, which runs the oldest foreign branch campus in China, was approached by government officials from Shanghai asking if it would consider opening another location, this one 140 miles north of its undergraduate campus in Ningbo.

"The project would involve a substantial donation by a wealthy Chinese philanthropist, along with a host of government perks, including enough land to support an enrollment of 4,000. In return, Shanghai municipal officials hoped Nottingham would build a research-oriented campus in Pudong, Shanghai's major development zone. There, graduate students and professors could work on such subjects as drug development, stem-cell research, and regenerative medicine.
"Through speeches and policy papers, the Ministry of Education has made clear in recent years that it is unhappy with the widespread use of rote learning and narrowly defined academic programs at its universities. Last year it came out with a 10-year plan for educational reform that outlined what it viewed as the system's deficiencies.

"With China's booming and increasingly modern economy as a backdrop, the plan proposed to introduce Western-style critical thinking and interdisciplinary work into the college curriculum, and expose students to other Western concepts, such as experiential learning and professional training. The government also wants to introduce more programs taught in English."

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