Manama // The decision to expel a student activist for circulating a leaflet highly critical of the University of Bahrain (UoB), the country's only public university, has sparked criticism and renewed concerns about the ability of the country's higher education system to meet the needs of the job market and keep pace with social reforms. The controversy over Noor Hussain's expulsion could not have come at a worse time for the education authorities. In recent weeks officials have begun taking action against universities for failing to meet professional and academic standards, temporarily suspending enrolment in some while suing others for allegedly selling degrees.
Although largely welcomed by the public, the move has raised doubts about the government's ability to monitor higher education institutions. Some Gulf countries, such as Kuwait, became so concerned about the drop in quality that last year they barred students from attending Bahraini universities. Ms Hussain, a student at UoB's college of business administration, circulated the leaflet in February to mark "Bahraini Student Day".
While not officially recognised as a commemorative day, ministry of education officials this year came out in support of the idea. The leaflet called for reform of the university's admission process, a rise in the quality of education and wider powers for the student elected body. The statement's sarcastic tone apparently enraged the school's administration. "Shortly after the circulation of the leaflet I was called to meet with a disciplinary panel where I was questioned about whether I was aware of the rules regarding circulating leaflets inside the university and if I supported its content," Ms Hussain said.
"They also asked me personal questions about my political beliefs and my membership in political and activist groups." Ms Hussain informed the panel that she was not fully aware of the regulations covering the circulation of leaflets on campus, but that she supported the leaflet's content. She said she was called a week later to sign the transcripts of the meeting, but refused after a request to make changes was declined. Ms Hussain claims she found some statements in the transcripts which she had not made while others were omitted.
Ms Hussain was allowed to finish her courses but in July was told she would be expelled for a semester and her passing grades would be retroactively annulled. "The leaflet was not political in nature, [and focused] on students' academic concerns, but even if it was, then it should not be something of grave concern because politics is discussed in our daily lives," said the 22-year-old student, who has one term to complete before attaining her banking and finance degree.
In a series of articles published this week in the Al Bilad daily newspaper, the columnist Adel al Marzooq described the university's decision as one that was in line with its "militarisation" policies that had restricted the freedoms of students and professors alike. "Any girl studying at UoB is subject to being stopped by university security because a councillor did not find her clothes decent enough or that she had too much make-up on," al Marzooq told The National.
He said the university's administration was resisting change - which was not in line with the political, economic and social reforms introduced by Bahrain's king, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa, in 2001. Al Marzooq added that a system of education that does not teach philosophy or politics, and has controversial regulations regarding political, religious and personal beliefs, was in need of re-evaluation. "The reforms of 2001 had opened the door for new arenas of political activity, but the education system in the country has not evolved to incorporate them as part of its philosophy," he said.
Concerns over the quality of education at UoB, which falls under the control of the ministry of education, have been raised by the ministry itself. In a curious twist, hundreds of teachers who graduated from UoB were either turned down as job candidates by the ministry in favour of foreign Arab teachers from Jordan and Egypt or had to undergo retraining and qualification courses before being hired by the ministry that oversaw their education in the first place.
Hundreds of others are unemployed and waiting to be hired by the ministry, according to experts. The Bahrain Teacher's Society president, Mahdi Abu Deeb, said they continue to receive complaints regarding employment and the use of foreign teachers. He added that the teachers' society had put suggestions forward to the ministry to help requalify candidates disqualified by the ministry, but revealed that they have refused to work with UoB to address these concerns.
The ministry of education was unavailable for comment. The head of the Shabeeba (Youth) Society of Bahrain, Hussain Ahmed Alarabi, who produced the leaflet Ms Hussain gave out on campus, said that in recent years they had expressed concern about relaxed laws covering the operation of private universities and over the UoB's fee cuts, which allowed more students to be admitted without developing its infrastructure to meet the influx, all of which occurred at the cost of quality education.
"The increase in numbers had placed pressure on UoB, which began to exert pressure on students in the hope that some of them would turn to private universities instead, and we had a situation where those with money could get better education or, in some cases, could buy a degree without qualification," Mr Alarabi said. He also claimed that the clampdown on student activism was the result of the growing influence of Islamists, both among the student body and the administration.
"Officials at UoB had tried to send a message that there would be less freedoms regarding activism inside the campus at a time when it is clear that there is a certain school of thought that had taken control inside the university and was trying to enforce its views on others," he said. "Ms Hussain could have been warned but instead they used strong tactics to scare other students." UoB has defended its position and in a press release criticised local media and political groups for taking Ms Hussain's side before contacting them for clarification.
The four-page statement listed the university's chronology of events and alleged that Ms Hussain was involved in political activity inside the campus and had broken university regulations. When contacted, however, UoB officials declined to comment on what exactly the violations were. "The issue is in the hands of the university administration and I cannot comment any more than what was published in the release," the dean of admissions at UoB, Dr Osama al Jowder, said.