July 08, 2006

dim times for bright minds

A mind may be a terrible thing to waste, but that’s a wasted reminder to the brilliant folks of the Ministry of Education. Next to how it treats its economically disadvantaged, a country is judged by how it treats its intellectually endowed. Sadly, this country gets the red mark on both tests. If you need a certificate of that, then look no further than the plan of scholarships for high school achievers announced by the Ministry over the last two weeks. It is a dim attestation, duly stamped and notarized, of the state’s complete neutrality toward the future and well-being of the country, and a Ministry’s on long leave of absence from modern times.

For a starter, you would expect the boom in oil prices to be reflected in more offerings in range and in number of scholarships this year. In fact -when it comes to coveted fields and countries of study- the reverse is true. The number of sponsored students to Britain for example was almost halved this year (in comparison to 2003/2004). This year, there are six sponsorships, two each in Building Services, Welding (at one Adam Smith College), and Auto-Mechanics. You can’t get a more liberal education than that.

Much of the hyped 1700 or so scholarships and sponsorships plan is essentially a miserly imitation of what is known as a loan and bursary scheme elsewhere. A scholarship here amounts to only BD 600 per year. The cost of the program for new students is under 2 millions BD. Add to that cash strapped University of Bahrain saying they are sending no postgraduate students abroad this year, and you get the fully dim picture. (For a fuller picture, BNA is pleased to report that the full and complete musical band of BDF is currently in Paris to perform in the 31 Expo of Martial Music in Albertville. Yesterday, they played the tune of “Hamad, You Are the King” to the enchanted crowd of a French Republic. To a tune of a million BD perhaps?).

As for the actual distribution of these scholarships, the girls are dealt the Shia treatment (as in distributing electoral constituencies). Regardless of the girls sheer numbers and grades, the boys are always guaranteed more than their fair share and then some. Certainly, the vast majority of these seats are destined for the University of Bahrain. Not to belittle the struggling U of B - with all due deference to those amongst staff and students who are doing a heroic effort in the face of extremely adverse situation- but U of B is simply not known as good nurturing place for young minds. At best, it can admirably serve as an intellectual hibernation phase.

Even at that, the program comes with heavy strings attached. You are in a bind to work for the Ministry of Education numerous years post your graduation. You are not allowed to change your field of study. And you are made to sign a paper declaring yourself and family open to all legal liabilities in case of breach of contract, and to acknowledge (at least in years past) that tour scholarship is a royal Makramah conferred on you.

Yet, the most detrimental thing about the program is its fantastic detachment from modern academic times. You may have entered a new millennium, but the Ministry is yet to. You don’t want to be in the shoes of those young students who descended on the registration hall at Umm Salamah School this past week…

You thought the most vital –and exciting- research is being done in genetic engineering and microbiology? You aspired to be part of a preparedness plan for what the future holds in genetic screening, cloning or biological threats? Forget about biotechnology and settle in for one of 15 places for a general biology course available only at the U of B, and strictly to become a teacher at the Ministry’s schools (to date, 12 of these remain naturally vacant).

You heard a great deal about the McKenzie advisory study, and you wish to become a top-notch economist from a world-class university to save the state millions in advisors and consultants fees? Your chances are scarce indeed. There is none. Political Economy, Public Administration? International Relations (oops, there are two for IR at University of Qatar, of all places).

You read a lot about financing agreements in hundreds of millions, all in English and all entrusted to the pricey hands of foreign law firms, and you seek to become as good as them by going to the likes of Yale? Why raise the bar too high when U of B is your best training bench.

You always dreamt about tipping the balance in this country in favour of capable physicians whose diagnosis stands a better chance than flipping a coin? You may have homeopathic medicine left as an option if you are out of the precious 19 sponsorships to study medicine this year. Five of these highly coveted places went (judging by name) to students from the frantically naturalized category (who are entitled to scholarships from their home countries no less). One is apt to be more openhearted and less intolerant, until you see a Zahrraa, a Fatima, a Leila, a Maryam and a Hawraa, with grades above or close to 96%, registered under a nursing course. Obviously, the door to medicine was slammed shut just before them. The same door was kept –exceptionally?- open to a student with a grade of 91% albeit from a private school. These same private schools got seven out of the 16 available sponsorships to yet another coveted country of study: New Zealand. This may not be the best case of proportionality, but it is a beautiful odd of a statistics nonetheless.

The good folks at the Ministry of Education have no time for any of this of course. They heard it all before. They are on record as saying they are not in the business of satisfying the whims of particular students, but only care about the greater public interest, which happens to coincide with the Ministry’s. How about other ministries’ then? They have their own plans as well. However, these are closely guarded secrets for the certifiably more loyal, not necessarily the brighter, minds of their own.


At 6:39 PM, Blogger BuZain said...

Praises for such a detailed insight. One thing though, UoB may such but goods still come out of it.

At 9:55 PM, Anonymous Mahmood Al-Yousif said...

I was one of those students, with mediocre grades mind you, who opted to go into the educational streams offered by corporations, rather than stand in line for the benevolence of the Ministry of Education, even in 1979!

Aren't there any opportunities for these high-graders in the private industry's sponsorship schemes? There must be...

I agree with you however that the education ministry, just like almost all ministries, if not all, is a failure and a bane on the nation's psyche and finances. Close it, and outsource. Maybe then we'll get into the real educational pursuits which should be coveted and sought after.

At 4:38 AM, Blogger jeff said...

Greetings sir!

I am saddened to hear of the poor financial support the ME is willing to offer Bahraini schoolchildren. Whilst welding and auto mechanicancy are no doubt important skills (and lucrative!), I find it disappointing that the disbursement of funding for educational programs abroad seems so paltry.

Alas, for the female youth of Bahrain, who may reach for the stars, just so long as there arent men in the way and a gender barrier in place!

At least your government is not seeking to actively cut money for higher education to finance tax cuts for the 1% who dont qualify for need-based aid anyway.

At 12:49 PM, Blogger tooners said...

I've heard that the Bahrain Youth & Sports program offers scholarships. I know that a woman I work with has gotten scholarships from them for her children. One of her sons is studying in London on a table tennis scholarship.

At 3:39 PM, Anonymous chanad said...

Just the other day I was talking to one of the recipients of the UK scholarship, in which he had to study carpentry or something of the sort at a mediocre university. It was quite sad hearing about how he had dreams of studying Artificial Intelligence or other emerging technologies, but he had to settle for this.

At 12:07 AM, Blogger MR said...

Buzain, I agree. There is a good number of good minds coming out of U of B, despite it. I don't relish talking in the negative about it.

Mahmood, the country bears no resemblance to 79 as you know. As for corporate opportunities, you only need to look at the names of who get employed these days at the big 4, or the names of their heads of HR departments. And thanks for the enormous plug, لا عدمناك

Jeff, at least your upper 1% do pay taxes.

Tooners, those who get scholarships from the likes of GOYS, likely have brighter connections, not brighter bulbs.

Chanad, the first of the technical stream resignedly accepted the building services course only not to lose the UK and for U of B.

At 12:06 PM, Blogger tooners said...

MR, yeah it's the parents who have the "brighter connections"! one, specifically, does.

At 6:28 AM, Blogger jeff said...

Bahrain is, as they say, at a crossroads; it would be interesting to see what the kings salary is these days -- also to see where state revenue comes from (taxes, import duties, state-invested industry, etc.) compared to outlays.


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