Conference CITEF 2014 - Lebanese University, Lebanon
As a PhD student I try my best to surround myself with other researchers, experts and pioneers and when I am notified of a conference nearby, I try my best to find space in my calendar to attend. Now some might debate that the content of some lectures are outside their expertise and so their presence is of no use, but one cannot deny that science is converging towards multi-disciplinary at a high speed and in a direct or indirect way, your research will reach and become tangent with other fields we might today believe are distant but the future will most likely proof otherwise.
Held at the Faculty of Engineering at the Lebanese University in Hadat, Beirut from the 16 till the 18 of October 2014, CITEF 2014 (Conference International des Formations d'Ingenieurs et de Techniciens) examined the subject of international cooperation for teaching and engineering research. One can only congratulate and appreciate the work of Dean Rafic Younes (Lebanese University, Lebanon) for making the effort of bringing this conference to our faculty. The conference examines three topics:
- Internationalization and Legal Framework
- Internationalization and Education
- Internationalization and Research
I often get posed the following question from family, friends, colleagues or even complete strangers: "After you finish your studies what are your plans ? Teaching ?..." I cannot imagine what other students sense when confronted with the previous question, but I have noticed that there is a pattern on two scales. The first is a psychological, a personal quest if you want, where I am the victim of my own actions by putting myself in a situation leading to the question. This is a matter of privacy control that I am learning to develop and it is not an easy task because you are often fighting against your own greed. The second is at a much larger scale, a lack of understanding of the fundamental principles of education in general and higher education in particular. Let me first make the claim that I am not preaching a general mass but from a personal experience I can postulate with a safe certainty that this hypothesis derives its origin from my experience with the Lebanese educational system.
Much like most "under-developed" countries (a metric which I'm not in total agreement with), Lebanon's educational systems, either elementary, high school, college and post grad institutions credit their origin from across the borders. They are simply imported from Europe, mostly from France, or from North America, and some have tried a Europe - North America hybridization. Much like our daily needs, we import the TV, fridge, car, clothe, so why not our education system !!! If we consider our elementary schools, we examine that ours calendars are saturated with courses, written and oral exams in Languages, Math, Science, History and Social Studies. Saturation is an under-statement, our students can barely carry the bag-pack from their door steps to the buses. In a world converging towards "internationalization", we expect our students, our teens to listen to teachers from 8 am till 3 pm, we find our understanding of many of our topics are superficial and misleading in many directions. All of this to say that an educational system that we imported from France in the 70's might have been applicable to their schools at a particular moment in history because experts dedicated to the field of education found the need for such program.
One of the first presentation was made by Mohamad Sawan, a Professor at the Polytechnique Montreal and the director of Polystim Neurotechnologies Research Laboratory. The students at the Polytechnique Montreal are distributed into 5 main majors: 22% Civil, 20% Mechanical, 13.6% Computer Science, 8.6% Electrical and Industrial Engineering 8.4%. A proportional distribution that we don't often notice at the Faculty of Engineering at the Lebanese University where the civil department constitutes more than half of all four majors (Electrical, Mechanical, Petrochemical and Civil). International students form 42% of the students, 1.2% are Lebanese and 10 % from France. Remarkably, 67 % of the students in the Bachelor programs are Canadian, 45% in Master programs and only 25% of the PhD students hold a Canadian citizenship. Much like the Lebanese University, the numbers show that most of the international collaborations are with French engineering schools, with over 75 signed conventions (5 agreements with the Lebanese universities). Polytechnique Montreal annually publishes 200 publications, 10-15 patents and books and receives 12-13 million CAD in the form of National or Providential Grants & Scholarships. Obviously apples and oranges cannot be compared, but they are both fruits, meaning that the Lebanese University and Government are capable (and has proven to have) of funding the Faculty of Engineering threw reinforcing better management, administration, planning and awareness. Most of the Laboratory equipment that were provided to the faculty in 2008 have not been exploited yet and remain untouched in the basement or inside the storage compartments.
During a discussion with Dr Bassam Hussein in the morning coffee break, he stated that in the near future there will be no more need for the traditional student-teacher classrooms, but rather Engineering programs will be oriented towards on-site formations, online courses and exams, an engineering program made to fit the demand of the market. Now I had my share of remarks on such vision, claiming that the universities should not evolve to fit the markets, but rather act as a two way highway system. The institutions should interact with the industry not only threw internships and jobs fairs, but threw research as well. If we take the example of Polystim directed by Professor Mohamad Sawan, his research is mostly funded by the federal or provincial governments because there is an awareness that for the Laboratory to maintain a certain degree of freedom in its research, it must not be totally dependent on industrial funds.
To elaborate more about this point, Dr Nada Chbat the responsible director of International Relations talked about the partnerships and conventions signed with the Lebanase University. With over 150 conventions, from which 95 are with French institutions, Dr Chbat explained how these agreements have sociological and economic benefits for both Lebanon and France (a debatable claim). If we just look at the French engineering schools we would realize that they have opened up, moving in into Eastern and Western schools to expand the radius of the inter-institutional collaborations. Unfortunately, even if the International Relations department of the Lebanese University successfully sign agreements with every university in France, Europe and North America, it is still insufficient. I often use this expression that the Lebanese University is serving as the farm that is supplying the Arab Gulf with Engineers, and the farmers (the staff and the board) are simply providing the land with water and a bit of soil every season or so although there is a possibility to expand into newer and bigger land and feed the poor and hungry people living across the street (the Lebanese market). Unlike Dr Nada Chbat, I don't see mutual benefits in most of the signed conventions. Most of the graduate students pursue a 3 year program between France and Lebanon, completing a thesis proposal made by French researchers, for the French laboratories, industries, while the only benefit the Lebanese student receives is a PhD diploma with 3 to 5 published publications. While the results that he presented are being studied by the his successor, he is visiting Lebanese universities for any teaching opportunity.
This was predictable since there is no clear strategy for the higher education at the Lebanese University. I am not concerned with other universities in Lebanon, someone might argue that they have very successful Masters and PhD programs for many years now. The fact is that the Lebanese University has failed to evolve from a dependent to an independent institution. During another side discussion with the Dean of the Faculty of Engineering Rafic Younes, we discussed on the continuous failure to properly apply the French education system in undergraduate and higher education. Unlike the French system which is able to auto-correct and reassemble itself in the case of a problem, the Lebanese institutions cannot simply import programs. Rather, it should conduct an honest and thorough analysis of its current status and in parallel learn from the African and Asian experiences. A optimal path would be to draw a slope connecting our current system with that of the French or the American boards, however that would be an erroneous. The proper way would be to build a stair that will lift the Lebanese education system towards a newer level, but respecting in the same time the constraints that cannot be ignored such as the budget limit and the security crisis.