x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

A millennium of tradition conveyed by every new diploma

The UAE's booming higher-education sector stands on the shoulders of many centuries of scholars and benefactors.

Fatima and Mariam Al Fihri were born into a wealthy business family in 9th century Qayrawan, in what is now Tunisia. The family moved west and settled in the newly founded city of Fez, in modern Morocco.

On the death of their father, the two sisters used their large inheritance for major works of philanthropy. One of their projects, Al Qarawiyyin mosque, founded in 859AD, soon grew into a degree-granting university that many - including the Guinness Book of World Records - consider to be the oldest continuously operating university in the world. It predates by over 200 years the University of Bologna, Europe's oldest still-extant university, founded 1088.

I was fortunate enough to take a summer course at the Qarawiyyin, studying Arabic grammar from a textbook written more than 700 years ago by a resident scholar, Abdullah ibn Muhammad ibn Dau'd as-Sinhaji, known as Ibn Ajrum. It was an awe-inspiring experience.

During some lessons my mind would drift, naturally, to imagining the generations of students who had preceded me. There I sat, a student from England, more than 1,100 years after the institution began, benefiting from the generosity and foresight of Fatima and Mariam Al Fihri.

Many of the young women who lined up to receive degrees from Zayed University earlier this month were also named Fatima and Mariam. And although much has changed in the world of education since the founding of Al Qarawiyyin, much has remained the same.

The tradition of seeking knowledge and celebrating those who take up the challenge of acquiring it is both timeless and universal. So are the emotions family members express, as they watch their sons and daughters walk across the stage to receive their degrees.

My favourite aspect of any degree ceremony is when the master of ceremonies calls out a graduating student's name and a small group of family, friends and well-wishers spontaneously erupt in an irrepressible demonstration of pride, joy and love.

For me, the annual graduation ceremony, is made more remarkable when I consider the broader educational journey of the UAE and its GCC neighbours over the past few decades. The development of education, like many aspects of life in the GCC, has been breathtakingly rapid.

Education in the pre-oil era generally was characterised by limited opportunities, heavily reliant on the efforts of religious figures called the mutaawa, with a curriculum centred almost exclusively on Quranic studies. There were a few "secular" schools, generally established by wealthy merchants. But access to those institutions was limited.

In the 1960s Kuwait, with its nascent oil revenues, became a regional patron of education, assisting other Gulf nations to set up modern schools. This Kuwaiti initiative paid the salaries of the mostly Arab expatriate teachers charged with inculcating a Kuwaiti curriculum.

In spite of the this assistance, however, by the 1970s only a fraction of the Gulf's young men - and even fewer women - were receiving a modern education. In 1971, the literacy rates for men and women in the Gulf region were reportedly about 50 and 30 per cent, respectively.

In the early 1970s - and the 1980s in Oman - the first modern universities appeared. Four decades later we read of literacy rates of 89.1 per cent in Qatar, 85 per cent in Bahrain, 81.7 per cent in the UAE, 71 per cent in Saudi Arabia, and 67.2 per cent in Oman.

Furthermore, males and females across the GCC today are receiving secondary education at roughly equal rates. And at the postsecondary level, females outnumber males, making up 60 per cent of the student body. (However, this imbalance is arguably due, in part, to more young men travelling overseas for tertiary education.)

At the Zayed University graduation ceremony this month, the sense of progress and achievement was palpable. Along with the celebration and sense of achievement there was also an air of ambition, a desire to further improve and to achieve more. Many of the students I spoke to told me they planned to undertake masters degrees and PhDs.

Among all these fresh graduates, I also saw the Fatima and Mariam Al Fihris of the future; individuals whose achievements, values and determination will surely generate lasting legacies of benefit to humanity.


Justin Thomas is an assistant psychology professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi