As the importance of higher education as both a seriously valuable export and an essential component of soft power is becoming ever-clearer, a number of countries which are not known for being major tertiary education players have set themselves ambitious goals for excelling in this section. Nations such as Russia (Project 5-100), China (Project 211), Qatar (Education City) and Saudi Arabia (KAUST) are lavishing billions of dollars on new and existing learning facilities in the hope of climbing the international education rankings and becoming desirable destinations for the students of the future.
However, can these efforts actually work? After some contemplation, we at Mediolana believe that heavily statist countries need to address the following challenges to ensure that their investments bear fruit:
1. Basic Freedoms. Foreign nationals who have academic appointments in countries with patchy human rights records need to be sure they are not going to get locked up or worse for innocuous actions relating to freedom of speech and similar rights. They should feel at least at ease as they do in their home countries. Amongst other things, this is essential to extracting the highest performance out of knowledge workers.
2. Accepting Diversity. Part of accepting diversity in any context is respecting the fact that there will be people who think and behave completely differently from you. While this does not compel you to agree with them – a distinction which some prominent contemporary thinkers struggle with – it should inspire university administrators and academics to structure their institutions to encourage the blossoming of new perspectives.
3. Money. In the event that either (or both) of the first two points is just too hard to stomach, most people do have their price. Telephone number salaries and all-expenses-paid scholarships can, do and will attract top talent to your shores. However, without structural reforms, what good these high-profile but ultimately neutered acquisitions will do is anyone’s guess.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (‘the KSA’) has a toxic reputation – and, many may posit, deservedly so – in the realm of human rights, and particularly women’s rights. This is not exactly the whole story: while a North Korea-style law prohibiting females from driving is in some ways symptomatic of the position that women occupy within Saudi society, Saudi women are also notable for their significant levels of wealth and, in recent years, tertiary education, with females outnumbering males by 6:4 as a share of the total population of university students.
But in some areas the lot of Saudi women is actually worse than many outside the KSA realise, and one of these is access to physical education. In conforming with the ever-stricter interpretations of Wahhabism that constitute much of official Saudi policy, state schools in Saudi Arabia do not offer PE to Saudi girls, and the predicable result has been an explosion of weight-related diseases: almost 10% of school-age children and a resounding 44% of women in Saudi Arabia are categorised as obese, with these figures only set to increase in the years to come as the full consequences of importing US-style cityscapes and food consumption patterns begin to make themselves felt.
However, the status quo is likely to come under increasing pressure from globalisation. Physical education has been demonised by Wahhabi clerics as a symptom of Westernisation, but this argument is rapidly losing plausibility owing to a stunning but little-recognised development in an influential neighbouring country: the full-spectrum domination of Turkish entities in two of the most popular women’s team sports, basketball and volleyball. On 13th April 2014, Galatasaray were crowned champions of Europe, while fellow Istanbul clubs VakıfBank and Fenerbahçe are between them the current holders of two of the biggest prizes in women’s club volleyball: the FIVB Volleyball Club World Championship and the CEV Cup. Significantly, these successes have come at a time when a ‘post-Islamist’ government has been in power in Turkey for over a decade, and the country’s geopolitical and trade agenda has shifted at least relatively towards the East.
As widely reported in the international media, Turkish soap operas have been a major source of soft power in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia; at a time when Internet connectivity is relentlessly exposing even relatively ‘closed’ parts of the world to alternative ways of thinking, the difference between the KSA and their fellow OIC member in the domain of girls’ access to physical education could not be more stark – and will continue to provoke serious soul-searching until real reform occurs.