I see that Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne recently took offense to the fact that Algonquin College is operating a male-only vocational college in Jazan, Saudi Arabia, calling the arrangement “unacceptable”.
What should we make of this?
First of all, let’s be clear about women and higher education in Saudi Arabia. There are a lot of them; in fact, far more women attend post-secondary education than men in the country. They just don’t – for the most part – attend the same campuses. Often campuses get “twinned”, so you get male and female universities quite close to one another – sometimes taking the same courses from the same instructor, only with the women watching via cctv, and so in effect having a distance learning experience.
Aside: I did some work for a bridging-program for an outfit associated with the country’s only undergraduate co-ed university, Al-Faisal University, which was launched a few years ago. It was “co-ed” in the sense that men were allocated the bottom two floors of the building, while women were allocated the top two floors. Classrooms were on the second floor, but also had balconies that could be entered from the third. So men and women could both be in the same room as the teacher, but could not see each other because they were on separate floors (there are some photos here if you want to get a sense of this). This was deeply weird, but does represent progress in a way.
With respect to vocational training, what the Saudis did was to set-up 37 of these “community colleges” – 19 for men and 18 for women. They then sent out tenders to colleges all around the world to run these campuses. Algonquin won a bid for a men’s college; they bid on, but did not win, the right to run a women’s college.
So, the question is: morally, should Algonquin be running this school, or not? Is it OK to run single-sex schools in Saudi Arabia? My feeling is that the debate is between an uncomfortable yes and a mostly hypocritical no.
Obviously, it would be better all around if the education were co-educational. Other campuses in the region have moved towards a co-ed model. My understanding is that when College of the North Atlantic started running its campus in Qatar, there were discussions about whether the campus would be co-ed (the eventual saw-off: classes are co-ed, but eating and recreational facilities are single-sex). But Qatar is Qatar, and the Kingdom is the Kingdom, and the only place where co-ed is allowed are in select private institutions sponsored directly by members of the royal family (i.e. KAUST, Al-Faisal), not in public institutions. Basically, what you’re left arguing is that these kids are going to get taught in single-sex schools anyway, and if someone is going to teach them, it might as well be a bunch of folks from the Ottawa Valley.
The con case is, essentially: “it’s wrong to teach single-sex, and we shouldn’t muddy our hands with it”. And fair enough. But there are two places where this argument is vulnerable to a hypocrisy charge. First, imagine Algonquin had won a competition for a women’s college but not a male one, or that it had won both competitions. Would the Ontario government still be upset? Unlikely. So the objection is not to working in a segregated single-sex environment, but rather to working in one-half of it. So should Algonquin have quit its male college contract when it didn’t win the women’s contract? That’s just silly.
The larger hypocrisy case has simply to do with our attitude towards Gulf States as a whole, and Saudi in particular. Let’s face it, it’s not education specifically that grates our consciences in dealing with these countries: it’s the whole regimentation of clothing, prohibition on driving, patriarchal she-bang, etc. But either we’re consistent in our application of disgust, or we’re not. Premier Wynne specifically chose not to contest the rightness of Canadians selling armoured personnel carriers to the Kingdom (which I suspect may infringe upon quite a few rights if they get used in Yemen); why apply our disgust to some areas of trade policy, but not others?
As you can probably tell, I lean a little bit towards the pro-side here, though I acknowledge it’s complicated and quite messy. I think an equally important consideration, though, is whether the project is actually a good deal for Algonquin. Note that, at the moment, they are losing money on the deal. And although they maintain they’re on-track to make that money back over the course of the contract, my worry would be that the Saudi government starts “re-interpreting” contracts as their budget woes worsen. I get the impression this may have been on Centennial College’s mind when they recently chose not to re-up their apprenticeship training contract in the Kingdom.
Still, it’s always good to be mindful of the tricky ethics of international education. The situation is often far from straightforward.