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In pursuit of the public good, state governments in the United States have historically authorized, regulated and supported public higher education. In recognition that a higher education additionally benefits the individual who receives it and not another taxpayer who also pays for it, students have been charged a tuition, traditionally less than private institutions charge. In a rare exercise of wisdom, government created private organizations and charged them with evaluating the quality of the education universities provide by providing accreditation.  This system has worked well over the years and provides a balance of control, independence and freedom to pursue academic issues sometimes in conflict with the political objectives of the state.

Over its 1,140 years of existence Al-Azhar has been subjected to many different types of influences from the state. As a religious institution it has been a target for non-Muslim occupiers and as a scientific body it has been curtailed and limited by those who feared science. It has never received state support, although it has received some benefits of significant financial import, the states have never paid for students to attend.

Today in Egypt, higher education is free for students. Students take a national exam at the end of high school and, depending upon how they score, become eligible to attend one or another university or pursue one or another career. The higher you score the better the university you are allowed to attend for free. The higher you score the higher the level of the profession you are allowed to pursue.

The state supplies public universities a budget and they pay all expenses from there. I call that supply-side funding. Recently public universities have begun to pursue outside income by engaging in health ventures, for example and this has become the generalized imperative and seen as a way to escape total government control. The government encourages this entrepreneurship in other words it is “allowed” which in arabic is “halal.” Halal but closely watched.

In arabic the word for forbidden is “haraam” and when spoken by a person in authority, it sounds like an iron door slamming close. The current government of Egypt is not too happy with things outside of its control. American University in Cairo, for example, exists nominally outside its control but depends on government cooperation to bring in students, faculty and other resources from outside Egypt.

Al-Azhar, which has been run by an Academic Council for the past 600 years, is slowly loosing its control. Its current President was subject to government approval this last time and its coursework must now subject itself to accreditation by a national agency of the government. No one knows how these measures will affect Al-Azhar but everyone I’ve talked to agree that Al-Azhar is no longer independent.

This is not the first time Al-Azhar has gone under the control of Egypt’s rulers. At times they have had to exile dozens of scholars and administrators in a effort to keep them alive. For twenty-five years during the rule of the Ottomans, its campus was closed and classes were held clandestinely and there were other instances under other occupiers and rulers. There’s no doubt that in the survival wars, Al-Azhar is the expert, still they are worried. “In the modern world” –my tutor explains- “instant communications, shared knowledge gathering and other tools, universities need more than ever to be allowed to go wherever knowledge leads. If some subjects become taboo and if some ways of teaching are accredited out of existence, it is like banning books and arresting dissident professors. We are very concerned unofficially, but officially we are going along.”

Several months ago I received a survey from a doctoral student in the U.S. about quality improvement in teacher education and the state’s involvement in accrediting Colleges and Schools of Education. Some of the questions emanated –he said—from a prior qualitative study, which interviewed faculty and deans sounding them out for salient issues. One of these questions particularly caught my attention. “What do you think is the primary motivation of state’s increased interest in controlling teacher education?” My choices were 1. Appear to be doing something about education. 2. Perceived poor quality of current programs. 3. Watching out for the consumer.

I called the researcher and asked him if he could share with me what the central tendency was on this question. “Most people believe it is just political, in other words response number one.” When asked about the survey as a whole the researcher commented that there’s a feeling that the new controls are moving us into an era of mediocrity where everyone who prepares educators must respond to state concerns, which are consensus-driven. “My personal opinion is that State education agencies must be perceived to be doing something in order to justify their salaries, but I believe that once everyone agrees on anything, it is probably not true anymore.”  Smart fellow.

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