Higher Education reform in Bahrain: 2008-2011
“In failing to differentiate Bahrain Polytechnic’s relationship with the Ministry of Education from the University of Bahrain’s relationship with the Ministry, the BICI have been complicit in the extension of state power into hitherto legally autonomous institutions. I’m sure that this was done unwittingly on the Commissioners’ part, but at the professional level at which they work there can be no excuses — they have helped facilitate a slide towards totalitarianism.”
Student-centred, discovery-based, professionally relevant, non-gender segregated, non-sectarian, inclusive,empowering: Bahrain Polytechnic’s teaching and learning ethos was an anathema to regime hardliners like the “Prime Minister” and the “Minister of Education”
Evidence has come to my attention which has two important implications. Firstly, it helps set the record straight on what has happened at Bahrain Polytechnic 2010-2012. Secondly, it sheds light on how the BICI report was put together, suggesting ways in which – the eminence of the BICI commissioners notwithstanding – the inquiry’s report may have fallen short of the standards that might be expected of comparable inquiries in the UK and elsewhere.
Back in March 2012 I wrote on the regime’s resort to — through its tame Arabic and English language media — smears against the former management of Bahrain Polytechnic. These smears, I argued, were part of an on-going violation of the high professional standards upon which the Polytechnic was founded in 2008. Bahrain Polytechnic was about the transformation of Bahrain higher education, an alternative to the sclerotic Ministry of Education and University of Bahrain.
While the MoE and UoB promoted, and continue to promote, a social control and surveillance role for education, BP was about student empowerment. This was perfectly in tune with the Bahrain Economic Development Board’s “2030” vision, which rightly understood that real economic diversification in Bahrain depended on the graduation of students who were intellectually empowered and professionally skilled in the kinds of ways that are demanded by blue-chip employers in dynamic, market economies.
Since the likes of the MoE and the UoB were utterly clueless as to the empowering role of education, the Polytechnic was founded to provide a necessary alternative. The reactionary and kleptocratic elements within the Bahrain regime had every reason to fear the social and political empowerment that was a logical and necessary consequence of educational and professional empowerment. Thus, they did their damnedest to undermine real reform during their 2010 arm-wrestle with the reformist wing of the regime.
However, their real opportunity to turn back the clock of progress came with their suppression of the 2011 uprising. I concluded back in March that:
“The rape of Bahrain Polytechnic provides yet more evidence — as if more were needed — as to why no respectable international higher education institution, professional body, or accreditation agency should have anything whatsoever to do with Bahrain until fundamental social and political change has happened there.” http://mikediboll.com/2012/03/14/the-rape-of-bahrain-polytechnic/
A typical, teacher-focused, rote-learning learning environment at the University of Bahrain: sit still, men apart from women, Sunnis apart from Shia, keep quiet, pay attention, MEMORISE! — and stay awake at the back!
It is in this context that the regime’s smears against former Bahrain Polytechnic senior management must be seen. Any international higher education institution of repute risks — if it gets into bed with the Bahrain regime in current circumstances – exposing its stock of academic, ethical and professional capital to unacceptable risk, and putting at risk the reputations and livelihoods of its practitioners.
Information has come to my attention which provides new perspectives on the smears, and in doing so casts doubts on the rigour of the BICI evidence-gathering process. This information is only gradually coming to light because some of the key players have expressed real fears about the reach of the regime to harm their friends, valued associates and families. A further concern has been not to further compromise the hand of Bahraini individuals who are still trying to fight a rear-guard action in defence of reform in education and the economy.
Bahrain Polytechnic’s founding CEO John Scott, formerly CEO of Christchurch Polytechnic — BP was founded to bring the highly successful New Zealand “polytechnic” model of higher education to the GCC. Not considered important enough for the BICI.
Through sources connected to the Polytechnic, I have had sight of correspondence exchanged between former Bahrain Polytechnic CEO John Scott and the BICI commissioners. The BICI report says:
The Commission also met with the Presidents of the University of Bahrain and Bahrain Polytechnic University to discuss the expulsion or suspension of students and the revocation of student scholarships (p.7)
As revealed by its organigram, Bahrain Polytechnic does not have and never has had, an officer entitled as ‘President’:
Self-styled “His Excellency” Dr. Ibrahim Janahi, President of the University of Bahrain. Munchkin.
The University of Bahrain, however, is headed by someone with that title. Scott’s letter to the BICI Commissioners, sent shortly after the publication of the BICI report in November 2011, vigorously refutes that the actual management of BP had anything whatsoever to do with the BICI.
Stressing that he was the CEO of BP throughout 2011, Scott makes plain that at no time was he ever spoken to by the Commission, nor that he ever made any submission to the BICI because he did not want to make any comments which might ‘ … endanger me, my staff, or the students of the BP.’
Clearly, Scott had concerns about the security of the BICI evidence-gathering process, specifically that information sent to it might be leaked to the Bahrain government, of ‘loyalist’ vigilantes who might have endangered students. On page 5 of the BICI, BP is mentioned as one of the Bahrain institutions from which the BICI gathered evidence, on page 356 it says:
Bahrain Polytechnic also formed an investigative committee. This was constituted on 9 May and comprised two members of the university administration. The committee investigated students suspected of having participated in protests at the University of Bahrain campus. Bahrain Polytechnic investigated a total of 81 students and took disciplinary action against most of them. By 13 June, a total of 54 students had been expelled, 12 had been suspended for periods ranging from a semester to a year and a further five had been issued with “final warnings”.
The committee mentioned in the report – in effect an ad hoc and extra-procedural disciplinary tribunal — consisted of one senior Bahraini Sunni Staff member — Dr Alaseeri — and two legal advisers from the Ministry who were all appointed by the Minister for Education. The final total of student expulsions from BP was in fact 59 students, not 54 as stated in the BICI report.
Dr.Mohammad Alaseeri — currently “Acting CEO” at BP
Scott’s letter to the BICI Commissioners stresses that this was done without his authority as CEO of BP. While he was aware of the expulsions, he was not privy to any of the evidence against the students, to the above-mentioned committee’s interrogation of students, nor to any subsequent discussions by the committee regarding individual cases. All these were conducted entirely in Arabic, a language which Scott, an expatriate New Zealander, could not understand. No attempt was made to provide translation or interpretation. This is despite the fact that this committee seems to have had no difficulty in submitting detailed materials written in English to the BICI, as confirmed on page 359 of the BICI report.
Scott goes on to suggest that the BICI Commissioners had been ‘misled’ by the Minister of Education, Dr. Majid Al Naimi, and Dr. Mohammad Alaseeri — a Ministry of Education appointee imposed upon the Polytechnic at shortly after the 2011 uprising — as to the actual actions of Polytechnic’s legally-appointed management were, describing Alaseeri’s input to the BICI as ‘unauthorised’.
November 2008: Crown Prince Salman formally opens Bahrain Polytechnic; Bahrain’s “Minister for Education” is on the extreme right. Not sure who the pair of hands are to the right of His Excellency!
As this blog post is being written, in late November 2012, nineteen months after the events described in the reports and a year after the BICI report’s publication, Alaseeri is still currently described only as ‘Acting CEO’ of BP:
Just as the Minister of Education is a former Brigadier in the Bahrain military with precious little insight into education, so Alaseeri is an engineer –supposedly specialising in reactor design — with very little preparation in education reform and management.
The BICI report describes in a series of footnotes the supposedly ‘joint’ UoB-MoE-BP committee sitting in judgement of the accused students. The first of these appears on page 357:
727. Meeting at the MoE, 21 August 2011. Commission investigators met with senior administrators from Bahrain Polytechnic at the MoE. At the meeting deans of the university and the President of the university, Dr Ibrahim Janahei [sic], presented the university’s version of the 13 March 2011 events and explained the university’s reasoning for the expulsion and suspension of hundreds of students.
A second is on page 360:
733. Commission investigators met with senior administrators from Bahrain Polytechnic at the MoE on 21 August 2011. Administrators submitted a list of the names of all students whom Bahrain Polytechnic had investigated and those against whom the university had taken disciplinary action. The list was entitled “List of the Student Investigative Commission: Final expulsions from the University”
A third on page 361:
734. According to reports submitted to Commission investigators during a meeting with Bahrain Polytechnic administrators at the Ministry of Education on 21 August 2011.
Finally, a fourth appears on page 363:
737. The MoE issued this report in conjunction with Bahrain Polytechnic and the University of Bahrain, in direct response to the 21 August 2011 meeting between university administrators, the MoE and Commission investigators. The first section of the report underlines the former position of the universities and the GoB on the expulsions and justifications for their decision in expelling and suspending students, whereas the second section of the report expresses the new position of the universities and the GoB concerning the disciplinary decisions.
Footnote 727 displays a total ignorance of BP’s institutional autonomy from the MoE, which at the timeframe referred to in the footnote was still legally constituted. It appears to confuse BP with the UoB, and makes no mention of the fact that the ‘senior administrators’ it refers to did not include the COE of Bahrain Polytechnic! The BICI’s negligence is compounded in footnote 733, and the ‘list’ document handed to the BICI by ‘senior administrators’ of BP also seems to conflate the Polytechnic with the University. In 737 these errors are compounded again.
This sloppiness casts doubts over the rigour of the BICI process, and reveals the way in which even the most senior expatriate managers can be shunted to one side at times of crisis by the Bahrain regime, to the extent that even the CEO of a college does not count as a ‘senior administrator’, and is not provided with English language versions of crucial documents. When is a CEO not a CEO? When he or she is an expatriate, perhaps? The implications for the integrity of ‘reform’ in Bahrain under the current regime are very serious.
In his letter, Scott reminds the Commissioners of Bahrain Polytechnic’s institutional autonomy from the MoE, stressing that ‘ … the Minister of Education … has no direct authority or involvement in the running or management of the Poly.’ Thus, Scott’s letter suggests that any information given to the BICI about BP by the Minister or his appointee is not based on any direct knowledge of or involvement in the management of the Polytechnic, and is a ‘distortion’ aimed at misleading the Commission about the activities of Bahrain Polytechnic students.
This distortion involves the Minister pretending to the BICI that he had the sort of managerial role in respect to Bahrain Polytechnic that he had in respect to the University of Bahrain. This not only casts doubt on the quality and reliability of the information given to the BICI, but also on the quality of the information upon which the actions taken against Bahrain Polytechnic students was based.
Scott’s letter further emphasises the inclusive and empowering ethos of BP in particular the Poly’s ‘values and approach’ which has encouraged students’ ‘free expression’. The Minister of Education, fixated with a model of higher education based on surveillance and control ‘resented’ this, leading to the ‘targeting’ of BP students.
On page 361, the BICI report makes the following statement about text messages sent to BP students by the CEO of BP — so obviously the Commission was aware that the CEO existed:
Students from Bahrain Polytechnic claim that the CEO of the school sent a series of SMS messages to the student body throughout the events. One of the messages warned students not to post statements critical of the [Government of Bahrain] on social networking websites. The message allegedly stated that such critical comments would be referred to the police for investigation. While the Commission was able to confirm that Bahrain Polytechnic does send out text messages to students on behalf of the CEO, investigators were unable to verify the source and content of messages described by witnesses.
Scott’s letter to the BICI Commissioners provides the following clarification:
Throughout the period of closure I personally sent text messages to all students almost daily with a very clear message. I assured them … that we were a neutral environment and that they should remain safe by being careful about what they sent out in the social media. I warned them of the consequences as the Ministry was monitoring all social media and was checking through face recognition software all the faces in crowds. The Polytechnic never identified a student or went into Facebook pages.
The difference in emphasis is telling. While the BICI version reproduces something of the atmosphere of fear and paranoia pervading Bahrain government institutions at that time, Scott’s version reveals the legitimate professional-ethical concerns of an experienced higher education manager anxious to maintain in a crisis the independence and neutrality of the organisation he headed. Significantly, Scott again makes clear that, unlike the University of Bahrain, the legitimate management of BP never allowed their institution to become an arm of state repression.
Students protest at the University of Bahrain, Isa Town, 9th March 2011
On page 363, the BICI report says:
On 5 September 2011, the MoE submitted a report to the Commission regarding the events of 13 March 2011 at the University of Bahrain and the ensuing disciplinary action. The report presented the joint position of the MoE, the University of Bahrain and Bahrain Polytechnic.
This so-called ‘collective view’ of the UoB and BP in fact marks the moment at which BP’s much-valued and hard fought-for institutional autonomy ended, and the Polytechnic’s subordination to the MoE/UoB system began.
Moreover, in taking this so-called ‘joint position’ at face vale, and failing to differentiate BP’s relationship with the MoE from the UoB’s relationship with the Ministry, the BICI have been complicit in the extension of state power into hitherto legally autonomous institutions. I’m sure that this was done unwittingly on the Commissioners’ part, but at the professional level at which they work there can be no excuses — they have helped facilitate a slide towards totalitarianism.
Thus wholly appropriately, Scott’s letter to the Commissioners casts doubt on the legitimacy of this report, ‘As CEO of Bahrain Polytechnic this is the first knowledge I have of any such report and furthermore from your summary I disassociate myself from the contents.’ The BICI report continues that the supposedly joint BP-UoB report:
… stated that they believed that the events of 13 March were driven by illegal political organisations that sowed seeds of sectarian division between the students, and that this gradually led from frequent small demonstrations to the largest and final university protest on 13 March. Furthermore, they stated that they believe that the protest and clashes of 13 March were fostered and encouraged by university faculty members, employees and students who facilitated the way for armed thugs to enter the campus and destroy property and attack students. In response, the University of Bahrain, under the supervision of the MoE, established a committee to investigate these events.
I was a faculty member at Bahrain Teachers’ College at that time. Like BP, BTC was founded as a key part of the Economic Development Board’s ‘2030’ vision for economic and social reform in Bahrain, and ultimately was an initiative of the Crown Prince. BTC had never achieved the complete autonomy that the Polytechnic had achieved – or was through to have achieved – from the MoE and the UoB.
At the time of BTC’s start-up in late 2008 I was Academic Head of Continuing Professional Development there, a member of the College Heads’ Council, and was active in framing bye-laws and procedures to launch the college on a trajectory towards complete institutional autonomy. However, I saw the original vision of BTC systematically undermined during the politically tense year of 2010, during which the ‘reforming’ wing of the Al Khalifa regime seemed to lose out in an internal power-struggle with hardliners around the Prime Minister, and the original management of BTC was sidelined in favour of outsiders deemed acceptable to the hardline faction that now had the upper hand.
By early 2011 I was no longer an Academic Head, and had been told by the newly-hired Dean of BTC that my contract would not be renewed – no reason was given, despite repeated requests. Fortunately, I had just earned a Distinction at Master’s level for an award in Academic Practice that had been delivered on-campus at BTC by a British university as part of the ‘2030’ reforms. This involved extensive observation of my work as an educator-manager, and led to a full Fellowship of the UK Higher Education Academy, the UK’s lead body for ensuring excellence in teaching and learning in Higher Education. As a result of this, I had been able to negotiate an extension to my contract.
I was an eye-witness to key events of the 2011 Bahrain uprising, and took it upon myself to bear witness to events at the UoB on 13th March 2011. I took a photographic record of events, and submitted my own testimony, running to over 11,000 words, to the BICI. This makes plain that on that day while there was unacceptable violence perpetrated by all sides:
(a) The first use of violence was by the ‘loyalist’ vigilantes who arrived on campus deliberately armed with weapons such as swords and iron bars
(b) This first use of violence involved an unprovoked attack on a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration
(c) The ‘loyalist’ vigilantes who attacked the demonstration were supported by the police
(d) While subsequent violence by people who entered the campus to support the attacked protesters was wrong, it was in the eyes of perpetrators aimed at protecting the largely female demonstrators who had been attacked.
A ‘loyalist’ thug waving a spear and armed with an axe — picture snapped as I escaped from the UoB campus,13th March 2011
My full testimony can be found here: http://www.bahrainrights.org/en/node/4862 In May 2011 the UoB refused to accept my resignation, alleging that surveillance of my Internet activity had shown that I was participating in “illegal political activity” a lie and a smear. The last official document I received as a faculty member of BTC was an Order of Communication dated 3rd May. This confirms the kinds of measures taken by the MoE against BP students:
- Action taken by MOE/Gov’t.
- Over 30 BTC students have been detained, including 3 females
- The vocational education program is terminated; the students dismissed or detained.
- Several staff members have been investigated; their computers searched.
- Mr. XXXXXX has been dismissed.
- Student, staff & faculty Facebook pages have been reviewed; as have postings on Utube [sic].
- 6 foot metal web fencing to be topped with wire has been erected around student parking lot; access to campus via tunnel. All buildings to be fenced/cameras installed.
Most disturbingly, it contains the following item:
4. Discussions regarding students:
- Take advantage of the events to dismiss all failing students (Dean Ian).
Ian Haslam, Dean of BTC: hired in August 2010 as the Bahrain reform movement stalled. A Canadian citizen with a distinct Northern English accent. MBA from some British “branch annex” university in Singapore, PhD in Sports Science from somewhere-or-other. Interestingly, Haslam qualified as a teacher in the UK in the mid-1970s, then relocated to the Caribbean before the end of the decade.
It appears that BTC’s new management were prepared to ‘take advantage of the events’ to boost its perceived academic success rate — and thereby the reputation of its new management — at a time when students were being sentenced to up to 15 years in prison by sham military tribunals
While the BICI Commissioners chose not to refer directly to my BTC testimony, they seem to have been over-eager to accept at face value a supposed ‘joint position’ of the University of Bahrain and the Bahrain Polytechnic, about which the highest executive officer of the BP had no knowledge whatsoever, and from which he utterly disassociated himself. Again in his letter Scott stresses:
These reports do not represent the view of the Bahrain Polytechnic but the Ministry, or more correctly the Minister of Education. I have no knowledge of what was said or purported to have been the position put forward by the Minister. Again all decisions and discussions were in Arabic. My senior staff were not involved apart from Dr. Alaseeri. Anyone else purporting to be a member of the Polytechnic Management would be misrepresenting themselves.
In the aftermath of the suppression of the 2011 uprising, the Minister of Education was appointed ‘Responsible Minister’ for BP, thus establishing for the first time in its organisational history direct link between the BP and the MoE, effectively drawing the Polytechnic into the orbit of state control. Scott’s letter details the consequences of this co-option. This is worth quoting at length:
I was presented with a list of staff to remove. They were all Shia in management positions. I refused and then moved the most high profile people out of the limelight to protect them. This was done in full consultation with those staff persons. A ministry official was appointed to my staff as my deputy. He immediately commenced investigations of staff and students. These were conducted in Arabic and one of my nominees who was Shia was excluded. All the panel were Sunni … When I requested the evidence from the minister I was told it was secret and I was not allowed to see it … Lists of staff (and students) regularly appeared with photographs or a social media reference and instructions to investigate them and then subsequently to remove them. I replied there was no evidence to justify dismissal of staff and continued to seek written justification for why I should take action.
Scott’s letter has a realistic, credible feel to it; it feels familiar too, a hitherto idealistic HE reform manager charting the descent into totalitarianism, resistance to the co-option of an institution of higher learning by the oppressive arm of the state, the last-ditch bid to pit professional ethics against utterly ruthless, unprincipled mercenaries:
A staff member burst into tears when told of the students to be expelled. Within minutes an instruction arrived from the Minister’s office that instructed me to have her disciplined for sympathising with the students.
John Scott’s letter to the BICI Commissioners sheds further light on the machinations by which the much-valued institutional autonomy of Bahrain Polytechnic — established specifically to provide an alternative to the MoE and UoB perversion of education — was destroyed. It shows how institutions of higher education were turned into instruments of state surveillance and oppression.
More than that it casts yet further doubt on the credibility of evidence presented against protesting students, and the BICI report itself does not emerge unscathed. The eminence of the individual Commissioners notwithstanding, they seem to have been at the very least naïve and slapdash in taking information from the MoE and UoB at face value. A quick look at the BP website would have told them that the BP didn’t have a ‘President’ and who its CEO was.
BICI brought the regime very valuable breathing space, and allowed foreign supporters of the Bahrain regime such as the UK’s FCO to claim that ‘reform’ was underway and begin a PR narrative aimed at decoupling Bahrain from the ‘Arab Spring’. If the BICI was so easily ‘misled’ in the relatively marginal field of higher education, how was it misled elsewhere? John Scott says he didn’t submit testimony because he was afraid it might be used against students, and the ease with which the Commission allowed itself to be misled suggests he had good reason to suspect the rigour of its procedures.
While the BICI report was harder hitting than many imagined (how could it have been otherwise?), the regime’s compliance with its key recommendations has been selective, partial, and on certain central issues non-existent. http://bahrainwatch.org/govinaction/
Bahrain Polytechnic was a central part of an ambitious reform agenda, supported by the Crown Prince of Bahrain and the para-state institutions, such as the EDB, he established to ensure implementation of real reform in the teeth of the existing ministries and government institutions.
While many of the reforms that ultimately were the initiative of Crown Prince Salman were laudable, there were key weaknesses in their implementation. However well-intentioned, they were nonetheless implemented in an authoritarian, top-down ‘Theory X’ manner. This meant that very little field research was done at grassroots level to try to understand ordinary Bahrainis’ expectations of reform. There was little or no consultation of communities, nor any real attempt to communicate the reform message effectively, nor get commitment to it. In this regard the reforming elements of the regime displayed many of the same assumptions, blind-spots and weaknesses as the hardliners – only their agenda was different.
Foreigners like John Scott or I, who were bought in to try to make the changes happen were not properly briefed – could not have been properly briefed — on the internal tensions within the regime and the distrust between the regime and the wider communities in Bahrain. As a result, we had to think and learn on our feet on an incredibly difficult journey for which no road map existed – some things we got right, some we didn’t. 20-20 hindsight isn’t much practical use, but at least we were sincerely committed to trying to bring about a real transformation. There were those working for ‘brand name’ HE institutions in Bahrain who were simply interested in selling product with little if any concern as to whether any real change was taking place. BTC’s, Singaporean consultants should, for example, hang their heads in shame in this regard.
If reform faced obstacles such as these in the comparatively calm context of 2008-2010, what hope is there of meaningful reform in the far more violent, polarised and distrustful context of 2013 and beyond? If Bahrain Polytechnic – and the parastatals that were supposed to give it back-up – were so easily undermined by the forces of reaction in the Bahrain regime, how credible is current FCO policy predicated upon the idea that ‘reform’ is possible under Bahrain’s current circumstances. Behind-the-scenes UK initiatives to strengthen the hand of moderates and reformers are all very well. But without some strategy to put the forces of reaction in check, they amount to little more than support for the status quo.
Yet higher education can play a positive and progressive role in the building of civil society and democratic, legitimate, representative polities in societies damaged by dictatorship, civil conflict and sectarian division. In this regard, the study of the failed ‘2030’ reform initiatives of Bahrain 2008-2011, and the challenges faced by reformers at organisations like BTC and BP can make a valuable contribution to existing knowledge and expertise in fields such as education reform and higher education internationalisation. If HE is to make a positive contribution to the societies currently emerging from dictatorship in the Arab world and elsewhere, we need to be able to learn from past experiences.
As for Bahrain, meaningful reform of the economy, education, the legal system, the police and so forth are only possible in Bahrain once more fundamental political reforms have first taken place. Until that happens, Bahrain’s youth — who on campus at Bahrain Polytechnic until 2011 were able to catch a glimpse of what a future, freer Bahrain might be like – will continue to be sold down the river.
Bahrain Polytechnic’s original vision for teaching and learning remains a tribute to the vision of 2008 — BP survives as a brand and a building, but the founding vision and ethos are all but destroyed