A very brief comment I made towards the end of an article last week in one of the leading Arabic newspapers brought me an avalanche of emails. The comment was on news that broke a few weeks ago: a German minister of education had been stripped of her PhD after it was discovered that she had quoted works of other authors in her thesis without giving proper references. And because of that she had to leave her ministerial post as well. My comment on that was: what if this happened in the Arab world? How many people with such degrees would remain in their positions?
The emails I received were quite amazing. Some people referred to certain individuals they knew, holding professional degrees with no knowledge whatsoever, and posing as doctors, teachers, engineers and university professors. In fact, for some of them, holding a higher degree had become a matter of social prestige rather than something to do with knowledge. The issue in not theoretical; the widespread use of fake certificates led to the committee for education at the Kuwaiti parliament form a special panel to look 10 years back for authenticating the awarding of PhDs. And the institutions that awarded them.
Once, a gentleman came to my office at Kuwait University, and presented me with a big volume of bound papers, and said that washis dissertation. He said he wanted me to help him get a post at the university. I looked at the work, and it was on Mahatir Mohammad of Malaysia. So I asked him, “Do you know English?” His answer was “No, I depended on what had been translated into Arabic.” I was shocked; the PhD had been awarded by a provincial university in an Arab country! It did not require any specific hours of attendance or any knowledge of a second language. The only thing that mattered was paying the registration fees, which was a huge sum of money.
During the battle for the liberation in Libya two years ago, a similar scandal had broken out. It was the discovery that a respected educational institution in the UK had granted Saif Al Islam, Muammar Gaddafi’s son, a PhD. It was later revealed that a good portion of his dissertation, which he claimed to have written, had been plagiarised. These days, money and deception have come to the surface of education; there’s no doubt about it.
The phenomena is widespread, whether in rich Arab countries or in poorer ones. Some citizens in oil-rich states are eager to enhance their social status. They look for a higher degree at all costs, and in any specialisation; all they want to do is to exchange their money for a “Dr” before their names. To the poorer countries, the title means money itself, as that secures a good position for the individual, who can pose as a professional in one discipline or another. The issue became serious, with the increase in the number of weak private educational institutions in the region eager to earn money and the lack of government inspections. Some people would travel faraway just to get this prestigious title in exchange for some money under the table. It is not necessary for some to enter into practice of any kind; it is a ready tool to deceive the community, either by doing business or by going into politics. Some of them even get away with practising the professions but are soon discovered fficially or at a social level. They are shallow figures, and nothing more.
For presenters on our TV talk shows, it is safe to refer to the guest as “Dr”, and if they don’t do that, they will be corrected immediately by the guest himself. Once I was engaged in a debate on a TV show, with one of those “titled persons”. It was a heated political debate, and I refered to my opponent, out of courtesy as “Mr”. When I repeated that, he cut the discussion by angrily saying “you are not recognising me as Dr.” I was shocked, as addressing someone as “Mr.” to me is much more respectful. His attitude could be a sign of a possible case of low self-esteem and a non-deserving “title”!
This phenomena in our society needs to be looked into. Soon we will know the results of Kuwait’s parliamentary enquiry. I think it will be hushed up, as it’s hard to judge, and catch some of your colleagues red handed!
Mohammed Al Rumaihi is a professor of political sociology at Kuwait University.