The view from here middle east - A little more stability may herald new reform

19th October 2012 at 01:00

Attendees at a recent conference in Beirut who wanted to know the effect of regional turmoil on British schools in the Middle East should have asked the delegation from Libya. Except, of course, they couldn't. Only 10 days after protests against an American-made film led to the killing of the US ambassador, a strike by the country's air traffic controllers left the attendees from the local branch of UK Trade and Investment trapped in Tripoli.

The Building Knowledge, Creating Opportunities conference, organised by the British embassy in Lebanon, sought to encourage links between British schools and universities and their Middle Eastern counterparts. Yet in a region beset with crises, from last year's Arab Spring to the recent anti-American protests, encouraging investment is easier said than done.

Amanda Selvaratnam from the Training Gateway, which helps to facilitate partnerships between British educators and those in the Middle East, admits that a few deals were scuppered when the uprisings broke out last year. But she believes that the potential market is huge, as previously stale dictatorships are replaced with democracies seeking educational reform.

"The desire for partnerships is there in the Middle East, and there are successful examples," she said. "But it is difficult as every time a situation occurs like the recent protests it has a big effect on UK schools and universities feeling comfortable coming (into the market)."

There are some reasons to be cheerful. In Libya the reconstruction efforts have led to more prominent roles for UK education institutions, while in Egypt the British Council reported a 35 per cent increase in the number of Egyptians taking UK qualifications in the past year.

The fundamental changes that have rocked the Middle East in the past two years have altered societies for ever. What British schools looking at the market are wondering, however, is whether those changes are closer to 1989 in Eastern Europe, which ushered in Western investment, or 1979 in Iran, which slammed the door shut.

Tom Fletcher, British ambassador to Lebanon, falls into the former camp. "Across the Arab world you see an overall trend towards openness," he told TES. "There are obviously going to be moments where we all have to hold our nerve, but for me there is no choice but to accelerate that process. The best way you can help that is by opening up our education."

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