According to UNESCO, the education of more than 1.5 billion students in 165 countries was interrupted as a result of university and school closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The global figures and comparable statistics, where available, from the Arab world reveal a new and changing reality for education in the region. But the problem goes deeper than numbers. This is certainly the case in higher education, where institutions are subject to many variables such as sources of funding, academic discipline, student demographics, and the geopolitical environment in which they operate, to mention just a few.
After initial widespread closures imposed by governments as part of lockdowns to mitigate the effects of the first wave of the pandemic, responses to the health crisis varied in universities across the region. Regulations on whether students, faculty and employees were allowed on the premises ranged from national decisions at the governmental level to institutional decisions, in some cases made by individual departments.
In countries where the necessary technological and telecommunications infrastructure was deemed adequate for the task, tuition moved online. Protocols for distance learning, which were hastily devised at the start of the pandemic, evolved and improved gradually, in some cases with long-term implementation in mind.
Top-down decisions reflected the social and economic stability in some countries; in others, the circumstances dictated the actions.
As most universities prepare for the end of the academic year and thoughts turn to final exams and graduations in this third summer of the pandemic, the normal stress of exams continues to be compounded by other concerns.
In the last round of end-of-term exams, students in the region were not always sure what to expect, even when government guidelines had been issued concerning restrictions and vaccination requirements.
In adherence to rules communicated by the minister of higher education and scientific research in Egypt, for instance, unvaccinated students were not admitted to exam venues in January. In Jordan, it was initially thought that the winter exams would not be affected by restrictions given that more than 90 percent of university students were fully vaccinated, including many with booster shots, according to local news outlets. But unvaccinated students, the proportion of which exceeded 6 percent according to the Ministry of Higher Education, were still not permitted to enter the rooms if subsequent resits were allowed.
In Algeria, universities appeared to make decisions on the matter differently and less uniformly: Some delayed end-of-term exams while others allowed them to be taken remotely or to continue with no restrictions at all.
How well universities, and consequently students, are continuing to weather the pandemic storm is profoundly influenced by two major factors: Local security and the local economy.
In countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE, universities are responding through a combination of implementing restrictions on site and reverting to online teaching to minimize disruption to the educational process.
In countries where the security or economic situations are more unstable, such as Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and many parts of Iraq, there are no easy solutions. Students are bearing the brunt of crisis upon crisis, especially when it comes to exam season which is, perhaps, where social and structural inequalities are having the most severely pronounced effects.
I mentioned the need for base-level technological resources and telecommunications infrastructure for universities to be able to switch to online teaching. Such requirements are especially important in the examination process. But in countries, and universities, where internet access is anything but guaranteed and electricity can be a rare commodity, the available technology, be it computing power or advanced internet capacities, is akin to the proverbial icing on a cake that does not even exist.
This painful reality is certainly the case in Syria and Lebanon. With the price of bread now well beyond the scope of the average income, not even Marie Antoinette’s critics could find ways to
empathize with a youth community bracing for final exams in Beirut, Aleppo or Damascus.
No matter how we look at it, trying to shed light on the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the educational lives and realities of university students in the Middle East is a difficult exercise in something I will call “objectifying realism.”
One can only hope that global economic and security crises might somehow stop escalating — some people have exams to worry about.