GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Negotiation between the Global Standard of Education and Islam: Higher Education in Iran and Saudi Arabia
Paper Proposal Text :
Over the past few decades, Gulf countries have invested enormous efforts into opening universities that provide advanced education to their nationals. This is especially evident in the field of science, technology, and business. The purpose is to make their economy sustainable by reducing dependency on oil, diversifying the economic structure, and replacing foreign workers with nationals.
In addition to meeting domestic needs, Gulf countries have also invested in activities that strengthen their country's cultural soft power, especially by enhancing the international reputation of their higher education institutions. It is widely believed that having globally acknowledged universities that can attract foreign students is essential to survival in a knowledge economy. The presence of such institutions is also believed to enhance national prestige.
Countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have opted to meet their needs by establishing foreign branches of world-class universities based in the United States and Western Europe. These countries have opened more than 40 branches of foreign universities, that attract a large number of students from abroad. In contrast, Saudi Arabia and Iran prefer to maintain tight control on their higher education systems and significantly restrict the operation of foreign universities within their territories. However, this does not necessarily mean that Iran and Saudi Arabia are indifferent in hosting overseas students. On the contrary, both countries are eager to invite overseas students to expand their cultural influence through graduates.
These differing approaches originate from the historical relations between the state and ‘ulama of each country. Iran and Saudi Arabia are deemed as “religious states.” The Iranian regime is known as “the government of Islamic jurist” (velayat-e faqih), and ensures the domination of high-ranking ‘ulama over state affairs. In Saudi Arabia, monarchal rule heavily depends on the legitimacy provided by the support of the religious establishment.
Additionally, both Iran and Saudi Arabia have a long-standing history with Islamic higher education. Cities such as Isfahan, Mashhad, and Qom in Iran, and Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, have assumed importance as centers of Islamic learning. These centers have attracted scholars and students from throughout the world, and the existence of these centers ensured the ‘ulama’s strong influence over education affairs. Even though the ‘ulama seem to have acknowledged Western universities’ systems as a “global standard,” they have questioned the universality of curriculum, classroom arrangement, and idea of academic freedom as presented in Western models. They were especially concerned that many aspects of Western university models were culturally irrelevant and believed these aspects must be amended to better align with Islamic norms. As a result, both Iran and Saudi Arabia have produced universities with locally relevant classroom arrangements and “Islamized” curriculum, even while adopting aspects of Western higher education systems that ensure these institutions issue internationally recognized academic degrees.

By focusing on Iran and Saudi Arabia’s distinctive approach for higher education, this paper will explore why and how Iran and Saudi Arabia try to mix secular subjects with religious teachings to make education culturally relevant despite the fact that they have accepted the system followed by Western universities as a “global standard.”
First, this paper starts with a brief overview of the current landscape of higher education in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and investigates the basic mission and agenda of higher education using official statements issued by the ministries of higher education and universities. Special attention is given to the extent the transmission of Islamic values is deemed essential in these various statements.
Second, the paper looks into major universities in contemporary Iran and Saudi Arabia and identifies the ways each university tries to “Islamize” their education, as well as ensure a culturally relevant environment. These case studies provide examples of how Iran and Saudi Arabia try to balance between global and local demands.
Third, among these universities, special attention is given to two Islamic universities dedicated to the religious education of foreign students in both countries. In both cases, their global strategies to diffuse their religious teaching through graduates are examined.
Finally, this paper argues the implications of Iran and Saudi Arabia’s approach of mixing and balancing “global standard” and “Islamic norms” for higher education.