Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros131Discourses of reforms and questio...

Discourses of reforms and questions of citizenship: the university in Jordan

Daniele Cantini
p. 147-162


Cette dernière décennie, l’enseignement supérieur jordanien a connu un considérable développement quantitatif et qualitatif à l’instar de la majorité des pays du grand Moyen-Orient. Cet article est fondé sur une enquête de terrain d’une année menée de 2003 à 2005, ainsi que sur une enquête ultérieure menée en Égypte à fin comparative : il analyse l’importance sociale et politique de l’enseignement supérieur en Jordanie, un petit pays souvent considéré comme exemplaire par les agences internationales en ce qui concerne ses politiques éducatives. Au moyen d’une analyse ethnographique en profondeur, j’y montre comment ce système fonctionne, comment il construit une population éduquée, et quelles sont les significations et conséquences de la forte différenciation universitaire observée.

Haut de page

Notes de l’auteur

I wish to thank Vincent Romani and all the friends and colleagues at CEDEJ, where I first presented some parts of this paper in March 2007 at the start of my stay there as an associated researcher. I am particularly indebted to the late Alain Roussillon for having invited me to present such a paper, and to Iman Farag and Ala al-Hamarneh for having commented and criticised previous versions of this paper. I presented earlier versions of this paper at different international conferences, and I am indebted to all the colleagues and friends who had helped me at the various stages of my research; My thanks go to Seteney Shami and the participants in the research project on the Arab Universities. I also wish to thank the REMMM anonymous reviewers for their precious insights.

Texte intégral

1The sector of education, and particularly that of higher education, plays quite a fundamental role in Jordanian society; it is considered by the King and by the government as one of the main resources that this small country has to offer to the broader Middle Eastern region, and it is the subject of a lot of investment and special care. It is, moreover, one of the main tools the regime has in order to modernize the country, as well as to keep its commercial balance. At the same time, it is one of the principal loci in which some form of opposition to the regime might emerge – and therefore it is at the same time sponsored and censored, developed and yet kept under quite tight control.

  • 1 The data presented here results from the research I carried out for my PhD, with some fieldwork tha (...)

2In this essay I will try to explore the dimensions within which higher education in Jordan is developing. At the same time, I will also attempt to clarify the characteristics that are occurring in other regions of the world and the specificities of the local context. The main point I would like to make here, and I am stressing this from the very beginning, is that if an ethnographic understanding of how universities concretely work in developing countries is all the more crucial, in order to situate not only discussions on state power and economic and social reforms, but more importantly from my own point of view how all of these have an impact on the lives of youth. This category is quite relevant for the study of Arab societies, mainly due to its demographic importance – in Jordan alone, almost half of the population is below 25 years of age. From a theoretical point of view, thus, I am following here the suggestions given, among others, by Dale Eickelman (1992) regarding the ways in which mass higher education is changing not only the religious imaginary of the youth, but indeed its entire social life. As the Comaroffs (2000) suggested, it is what has been defined the “crisis of the youth” that is one of the most spectacular phenomena in the Arab region (Bennani-Chraibi and Farag, 2007). It is therefore necessary to have a situated understanding of the educational sector. This is especially so in non-liberal countries in which education’s general aim of spreading a modern notion of citizenship, critical thinking and shared values seems to be sponsored and yet negated by state power. These are, moreover, countries in which students feel more acutely these contradictions. As I will try to show, state policies towards the educational system are, to say the least, contradictory, ranging between strong control and a certain amount of liberalisation; at the same time, however, students use their spaces not simply to protest against educational policies but state ones as well, especially given that venues for political participation are rather limited1.

3I will start by trying to situate the object of analysis within its context – the importance of higher education in Jordan, from an historical, social and political point of view, before turning to a discussion of its actual meaning in the context of liberalisation and internationalisation reforms, and the consequences they have for the financial condition of the university itself. I will then turn to an analysis of my case study, the University of Jordan - the oldest institution of learning in the country and the most prestigious - in order to show the concrete consequences of these policies in the public sector, the impact that these are having on the students, and these latter reactions to the reforms brought forth by the regime

Higher education in Jordan – a “success story”

4The process of state formation in Jordan has not been easy. This has been due to many factors – the small population, mainly tribal, and the contrast with the vaster Palestinian population of the West Bank (until the war of 1967 part of the then Kingdom of Transjordan), troubling neighbours, as well as the very position of the country, in the midst of many structural tensions, and all the difficulties in establishing a state where there has almost never been authority of this kind. I will limit my attention here to the educational sector, for it has been quite crucial for the development of the country.

  • 2 As for the following figures related to the University of Jordan, the sources that I quote here are (...)
  • 3 Mazawi (2000), Herrera (2006), and Romani (2009) among others analyse this process, which is indeed (...)

5The university of Jordan, where I carried out my fieldwork, is the oldest one in the country. It was established in 1962, in what at the time constituted an area outside the capital Amman. At the beginning it counted on only one faculty, that of literature, with 167 students only 18 of which were female and 8 professors. In the academic year 2009/2010 there were 37,692 undergraduate students of which 2,716 were foreigners, mainly coming from other Arab states, and women constituted about two thirds of the total; there were 1,431 professors, only one fifth of which were women but more than half of which had graduated directly from the University of Jordan; there were 19 faculties (24 if we consider also those in the newly opened UJ branch in Aqaba)2. As is true for almost all countries in the MENA region, over the last decades institutions of higher education have witnessed a real boom, impressive both in quantity, in its internal differentiations as well as in its increasing internationalisation and in the partial liberalization of its funding – which is all the more surprising if we consider the fact that most Arab countries are still kept under tight political control3.

6As a consequence of these changes, the University of Jordan is no longer alone in the national landscape. Demographic pressures associated with a disproportionately young population, coupled with the response of the private sector in accommodating the rising number of eligible students by creating private higher education institutions, has led to a dramatic increase in the number of universities in Jordan. Today there are 10 public and 16 private universities in Jordan offering a variety of four-year degree programs. At the same time, the urgency to develop a vibrant higher education sector, compounded by Jordan’s lack of natural resources and its subsequent reliance on human capital to remain competitive, has led Jordan’s leadership to place significant attention on this sector and push for concrete strategies to support and expand its performance. As a result, Jordan has witnessed a large expansion in its education base with enrolment rates more than doubling over the last five years. In 2007 there were almost 200 000 university students in Jordan, and this number is expected to rise to 270 000 over the next few years (Kanaan, 2010).

7If we consider where Jordan stood in the ‘20s, the data regarding levels of education, at every stage, are astonishing, and usually referred to either by international actors or by the government in rather enthusiastic terms. According to the Jordanian Human Development Report 2000, a research project organized by the Jordanian Ministry in cooperation with the local branch of UNDP (United Nations Development Programme), Jordan is one of the Arab countries with the best literacy rate, 87% (while the average for other Arab countries is 59%), and where illiteracy is confined to the older strata of the population. Among those who are from 15 to 30 years old, the illiteracy rate is only 3%, and there are no relevant gender discriminations. Primary education is virtually universal, and this has continued to be the case over the last years, the impressive population growth per year notwithstanding (UNDP 2000: 53-61). Many of these policies were, and still largely are, financed by the World Bank and other international donors. This international dependence contributes to the enormous relevance of education in the Jordanian public discourse. In one of the first speeches after his coronation, King Abdallah II declared that “the first and more urgent national priority is the reform of the educational system, which should produce graduates able to compete at the highest levels in the global economy, technological and information-based” (UNDP 2000: 51).

8To give just some figures, in order to further highlight the importance of education in Jordan, in the year 2000 almost one third of the population, that is to say 1,6 million out of 4,6, was enrolled in the various stages of the education system. Just over 2.5% of Jordan's total population is enrolled at university, a proportion comparable to the United Kingdom (World Bank, 2009).

Political importance of the university in Jordan

  • 4 Susser (2000) has focused on what he calls “the Hashemite success story”, that is the Hashemite, th (...)

9Coming back to 1962, the year in which the first university was founded, we should notice that at that time the West Bank was still under Jordanian control, and Jerusalem was the true cultural capital of the country, rather than Amman. The decision to establish a university in Amman, at that time actually in its outskirts, was thus mainly a political one, to set up the eastern bank as the centre of the country. Thus, since its very inception, the University of Jordan has been one of the distinctive signs of the new King’s will to “stand up on his own”, to use an expression employed by Asher Susser4.

  • 5 It is worth mentioning here that in 1922, when the Emirate of Transjordan was created under the Bri (...)

10In his influential study on the tools that the Hashemite Kings had used to establish and then maintain their power in the newly created state, Joseph Massad focuses on the army – in which the tribes, the sole inhabitants along with some ethnic minorities such as the Circassians of the almost desert land of Transjordan, were integrated5 – and on the judiciary system. Yet I believe that it isn’t mistaken to state that the true effort in trying to set up a country begun after Hussein came to power, that is to say after the end of the mandate period and after the establishing of Israel. Within this process, the setting up of the first university, alongside a coherent educational sector at the school level, was as such rather relevant (see Roy and Irelan 1992 as a sample of “expert” literature).

  • 6 I do not have the time to enter here in the discussion of ethnic and political identities in Jordan (...)
  • 7 As Reiter points out, quoting Laurie Brand, “the appointment of professors is also contingent upon (...)
  • 8 The recent (2008) establishment of a UJ branch in Aqaba is to be seen in this latter perspective, t (...)

11During the ‘60s, about 95% of the academic staff of the University of Jordan were of Palestinian, rather than Jordanian, origin (Reiter, 2002: 139)6. This percentage should not come as a surprise: at that time the population of Amman was around 70-80% of Palestinian origin, and they were living in urban areas much more than the Jordanians. This came to a sudden end with the bloody events of what is usually known as the “black September”, in 1970; from then on the Palestinians’ status in all sectors of public life, and academic life made no exception7, started to decrease. Reiter acknowledges that in the mid-‘90s the number of Jordanians reached that of Palestinians as faculty staff in public universities – now the estimates indicate that 50.5% are Palestinians and 49.5% Jordanians. This was mainly achieved by the institution of public universities in the areas of the country, notably the south, where Palestinians are less present – even if there were also other reasons behind this choice. In particular, the rising numbers of students to such a degree that the older universities could no longer handle and the prestige associated with having a university, as well as the actual impact universities had on the local labour market8.

  • 9 For a brief introduction to private universities in Jordan, see Burke and al-Wakid 1997.

12The other factor that has had quite an impact in this regard is the mushrooming of private universities – again, a phenomenon that applies to the Arab region as a whole – since the early ‘90s, with the returning from the Gulf of some 300 000 Jordanian passport-holders mainly of Palestinian descent due to the first Iraqi war – many of them were quite educated, they had university degrees and had gone to the Gulf to teach; they were therefore expecting to find some similar form of job at home, but there were none9. The opening of private universities needs to be put in this geopolitical context, as Bader notes, since the government somehow thought that “if young people want to study despite the fact that the labour market could not absorb them, then they should do so at their own expense and not at the one of the government” (1994: 93, quoted in Reiter, 2002: 143). In these universities the percentage of staff of Palestinian origin in private universities is quite high – around 70% – and this might have something to do with the fact that 11 out of 13 private universities (as in 2002) were owned by Palestinian entrepreneurs.

13Given the political dimension of being Palestinian in Jordan, as elsewhere in the Arab world, it should come as no surprise that the “private” sector is heavily controlled by the state, not simply in the usual political control but also at the level of which courses are to be taught, in which faculties, with how many students, and the like and this is done mainly through the activity of the Higher Education Accreditation Committee, founded in 2007. That is to say, private universities are part of the national landscape of higher education, and therefore their being “private” refers mainly to their ways of financing themselves – with some exceptions – but not to academic freedom, both regarding faculty staff, on the one hand, and students’ activities on the other. The same holds true for public institutions, as I will elaborate in what follows; the university was, and still largely is, albeit formally independent from state power, under the control of the King, and usually quite directly. Until now, the graduating ceremonies at the University of Jordan are celebrated in the presence of the King himself or some other members of the royal family, and in 2004, while I was there, the head of the university was changed in one day, directly by the King; moreover, as I will mention below, members of the royal family do have an active role within the university, other than in the so-called “civil society”.

Processes of liberalisation and internationalisation

14From what has been introduced so far, the recent liberalisation and internationalisation processes might seem rather out of sight for a nation-state jealous of its sovereignty, and not quite eager enough to give away portions of power. If the actual degree of freedom that is enjoyed in private universities is debatable, the internationalisation processes are rather interesting for a discussion about what higher education is in contemporary Jordan, what is valuable and what is sought after. Within the campus of the University of Jordan there has been a mushrooming of international institutions or foreign governments that install their own branches in the country, within the public university – therefore seeking legitimisation, accepting a certain degree of control, other than contributing to the financing of the university. Other than this, in recent years courses have been opened designed to attract expatriates students within the public system as a private option, a development again that is not to be found in Jordan alone (see Farag 2009 for a discussion of similar developments in Egypt).

15It should be mentioned that the campus of the University of Jordan is a prestigious place in the city of Amman, and it is frequently used, both in media and in the national discourse, to portray an image of the Kingdom associated with knowledge, innovation, and technology. The campus area is on one of the highest hills at the northern edge of the capital, and it is surrounded by walls and its entrances are controlled by unarmed guards. This idea of separateness, of a discontinuity that characterizes the green and well-kept area of the campus from the chaotic city is a marker of the social significance of the university. Even inside the campus differences between the different faculty buildings are quite clear, and lots of visibility is given to the externally funded institutions that I will mention below.

  • 10 Brand 2003 (159-162 in particular) analyses the effects of the presence of the royal family in Jord (...)

16The width and scope of the international intervention in this regard is quite different and depends on several factors. Within the faculty of advanced studies, for instance, there are some programs funded by some foreign governments, such as a master programme in Women Studies and in American Studies. At this level there is also some form of cooperation with the so-called “civil society”, with centres like the Princess Basma Bint Talal Centre for Women’s Issues10 and the Queen Zein Al-Sharaf Institute for Development. There are programmes of cooperation with well-known international research programmes such as the Fulbright.

  • 11 This closed down a couple of years ago, due to budget problems. I am grateful to Mona Taji for the (...)

17Moreover, the University of Jordan hosts the International Leadership Academy, a branch of the United Nations University, the headquarters of which are in Tokyo11. In recent years many governments have sponsored particular centres for particular purposes – as in the case of Japan, which has set up a building for the study of the exact sciences. The United States has also financed the construction of a new building for foreigners who want to study Arabic, especially Americans, with the understanding that no Jordanian will be allowed in the building, officially for security reasons, if not involved in the teaching/learning process – something rather common for these new buildings, which from a theoretical point of view belong to the scheme of gated communities, exclusive places quite representative of the social and economic developments of the last decades.

18The universities in Jordan – at least until the ‘90s – had been financed by the State, and in so doing it retained the control over this potentially subversive institution. It did this by carefully looking after what was taught and how, who had access to the professorship and even, to a certain extent, of who could enter the university as a student and who could not, and so on. The massive growth of private universities over the last decades has been due to pressures from the IMF in order to ease the state control over all sectors of the economy, but privatisations have only been partly implemented (until now, almost half of the total workforce in Jordan is hired by the state) and especially in the education sector the state retains its control in many ways, through a check on the actions of employees and students on the one hand, but also through the accreditation system, by which almost every significant change in the curricula has to be approved by the ministry.

19The privatisation that indeed took place has been the one at the budgetary level; in recent years there have been substantial cuts in the state budget for education and higher education at large – the Ministry of Higher Education started financing also the private universities, in a context of general cuts in the budget (Rashdan and Hamshri, 2003: 380) – and even the first university of the country, the University of Jordan, has been targeted. As a direct consequence of this, there have been some changes in the admission procedures to the university, which I will mention in the next session, along with some marketing activities – such as a “student village”, in which university gadgets such as t-shirts, cups and caps are sold, but in which also “traditional” handicraft products may be found – two new buildings just outside the campus in which “university” supermarkets and other shops, and similar activities are located, to “make money” as one administrator told me quite overtly. These strategies notwithstanding, the effects of a shrinking budget are heavily felt, and they are contested even at the senior administrators level – on the 8th of August 2011, press agencies reported that dr. Al-Ajluni resigned from the UJ board of trustees against the strategies of the Ministry of Higher Education, that on the one hand reduces the funds and on the other prevents the university from deciding freely students’ fees, thereby “leaving it the impossibility of planning its own future” (Thabahtoona, 8th August).

The University of Jordan - admission to the university

  • 12 I should again make clear that I am referring to the University of Jordan, a public institution; th (...)

20I will now turn to an analysis of my case study, focusing on the practices of admission to the university, for they are quite apt at showing ways in which policies and reforms are affecting the educational realm, and what impacts they are having on students12. It is not among the biggest changes that are occurring within the higher education sector in the country, and maybe not even at the level of the University of Jordan, but I argue that it is indeed relevant for an understanding of the changes in the system, for it shows one of the ways in which state intervention is actually succeeding in shaping students’ lives and expectations, and faculty life, and at the same time it indicates clearly the direction which the reforms are moving toward.

21The choice of faculty is not free, since it depends on the grades the students get in their tawjihi (the final exam at the end of secondary school, expressed in hundreds). Faculties are divided into scientific and humanistic ones, and they are ordered by the majlis al-jami’i (the academic senate) from a first to the lower rank. Every year there might be some changes, yet in the scientific curriculum the most demanding faculties are medicine and engineering (followed by pharmacy, the newly established information technology school, sciences, agricultural sciences) while within the humanities literature gets the first place.

22For the average students, the faculty in which they will be enrolled depends on the grades they get at the tawjihi, as mentioned above. To give an example, in order to enter the faculty of medicine in 2003 the minimum required was 95 out of 100, while to enter literature a grade of 92 was necessary. The minimum required to enter the faculties at the bottom of the scale was slightly more than the minimum required to pass the tawjihi itself. The tawjihi is widely perceived to be one of the very few collective moments in which an individual is evaluated in a way considered “objective” and fair – usually idealised to be in sharp contrast with the neo-liberal policies, which as I will show in what follows, are rather perceived to be class-oriented and discriminatory by large strata of the population.

23What I have briefly described above is just one of the ways to get into the University of Jordan. There are two other ways, one established over the last years and the other as old as the university itself. The latter is the one of the makrumat (roughly translated as categories, or more precisely privileges). If a student is son/daughter of a teacher or an employee at the university, or if he/she is the son/daughter of someone working in the army or belonging to the diwan al-maliki (a kind of royal court), then he/she belongs to the makrumat which are granted an easier access to the university by way of their relatedness to the state. The mechanism works as for regular students, that is to say the access to the different faculties is not free but since the students of the makrumat are fewer the competition is not as strong: for example in the year 2001 the daughter of a teacher got admitted to literature even if her grade at the tawjihi was just 69 (the minimum for “normal” students was 92). In addition to this, makrumat students don’t pay university fees – which for the regular ones are around 150 JD per semester, with the average salary being somewhere around 200JD.

  • 13 The issue is quite contested; some claim that through these quotas the percentage of Palestinian st (...)
  • 14 I am indebted to Ala al-Hamarneh for pointing this out to me. Professors of different faculties at (...)

24These advantages reflect the general attitude of the Jordanian state toward its employees: to guarantee them easily accessible services, such as schools, hospitals, supermarkets with prices lower than the average, and other benefits in return for low salaries and for their loyalty. This is one of the ways in which the state tries to get the control over its population, by giving them work and means of sustenance – an attitude which over the last years has been weakened by the massive intervention of the IMF following the economic crisis of the late ‘80s. However, this attitude still retains its strength as a factor of social cohesion and political stability in a state that can be described as neo-patriarchal and having a rentier economy (see Bank and Schlumberger 2004). Reiter argues that the makrumat are one of the most important ways in which state power exerts its authority over the higher education system, and through which, more precisely, it pursues positive admission policies towards social groups that are to be favoured – in his words, “these quotas unofficially amount to affirmative action for Transjordanians at the expense of Palestinians. This is because the proportions of Palestinians in the security forces and among students in the peripheral schools are very low” (2002: 152)13. As for many things in Jordan, statistics are not easily available on this issue, yet it is perceived that at least 37% of the students admitted to the university is selected through the privileged quotas, or makrumat (even if Reiter places this esteem as high as 60%)14. It should be noted that the admission committee for the quota for members of tribes from periphery schools is headed by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, who serves as the King’s counsellor for tribal affairs.

25A third category of students has to deal with the aforementioned processes of liberalization that are occurring in the country especially since the beginning of the reign of Abdallah II. Since 2002 the “parallel system” has been introduced (al-nizam al-mu’azi); students in this category get admitted to any faculty (with the notable exception of the faculties of the medical area) with only 65% of the grade of the tawjihi required for the “normal” students. This of course makes it easier to get admitted to the faculty that one chooses. Some of them are called “evening” students because in the first year of this reform it was planned that they would have done their classes after 5pm, a measure taken in order to weaken the opposition to their admission. Yet as early as the second year they were perfectly assimilated into the institution, and as with the other students, followed the same classes and contributed to the worsening of the problem of the registration to courses. The main explanation for them being admitted is the change in the financial situation of the universities, whose budgets over the last years have not been fully covered by the state, as was the case before. Therefore they have to seek some other source of income, and the “evening students” are a major part of this. They pay approximately 850JD per semester, more than seven times a “normal” students. It is of course a sum which is unaffordable to the vast majority of families, and much nearer to the sum required by private universities – but the prestige of the University of Jordan makes it a much more preferable choice for many, especially for those who are not willing to send their offspring to study abroad.

26These categories are examples of the politics of the state in years of economic reforms. The makrumat student is then to be seen as “protégé” by the state, at least as far as education is concerned, while the “parallel system” is the new category that is coming from the new liberalizing policies brought forth by the regime, sometimes against its own desires. The “normal” students are those who more overtly denounce this trend. As Foucault noted, “the political praxis doesn’t have a thaumaturgic creative role” (Foucault, 1991:68), so we should be careful about the danger of generalizing their effects. Yet it seems to me clear that state power in the modern age does not control its citizens through repression but mainly through a production of them as subjects used to submitting themselves to the power of the state. This idea is completed by Antonio Gramsci’s notion of hegemony, which he sees as having the function of producing a “spontaneous” consensus among the masses for the policies brought forth by the elites. “Schools and media, through which education becomes institutionalised, become […] privileged ways to strengthen the disciplined normalization of the population” (Massad, 2001:4). Therefore, I argue that the admission policies briefly described above are managed by the state, in its attempt to have an impact upon the population – both the students and their families – indicating that the private is looked upon much more favourably than in the past, and thus that it is possible to secure access to the best faculties, those associated with prestige and more likely to be helpful in finding a job after graduation, simply by paying, or in the language of the “experts”, by helping the state through a cost-sharing operation.

Rhetoric of modernisation

27Differences among faculties are coherent with the distinction I made earlier between more and less privileged disciplines, alongside an overall preference of the system for the scientific curricula, which is coherent with the strategic goals of higher education in Jordan as set by the government. This latter point was made clear by a former head of the University of Jordan, who in an academic article stated that there is an essential difference between the students of the humanities and those studying sciences. According to him, the scientific student is interested in learning and willing to promote change even at a societal level, while the humanistic student is less motivated and interested, since the only reason to pursue this career is to have failed the access to the scientific one (Khasawneh, 2001). From a social point of view it might be indeed argued that students of the more privileged scientific faculties are less differentiated among themselves, coming from a broadly defined middle class and mainly from Amman; in the humanistic faculties, on the other hand, there seem to be more discrepancies among students of different faculties, and more geographical diversification.

28I am not interested in discussing the validity of such a thesis, but I have reported it here since it is rather representative of the discourses of reforms. Reforms, that are seeking to modernise the country and its youth, with the aim of attaining a higher degree of development. From a theoretical point of view, this distinction operates a cut between what is new, valuable and noteworthy, and what is old, less interesting and less important. The fact that scientific lessons are taught entirely in English – while the humanistic ones are mainly in Arabic – might well underline the idea that English is the language of science, technology and development, in a country where the king speaks English better than Arabic. Put in less drastic, and more “expert” terms,

“another challenge for the higher education system in Jordan is the saturation of students in certain disciplines, particularly in social sciences and humanities. This is becoming a problem as graduates of these disciplines are not finding employment in the country. The proportion of enrolment in university in science and engineering versus humanities and social sciences could be viewed as an index of the “quality” of human capital at the level of higher education” (Kanaan 2010: 34).

29The underlying assumption here is that scientists and engineers are likely to contribute more to economic growth than are social scientists and students of humanity because of the increasing importance of technological innovation and adaptation in the development process.

Students’ voices

  • 15 The debate over what the university is about, as referred to teaching methodologies, relations with (...)

30Let’s now turn to an analysis of the student’ perspective; they are quite aware of many of the discussions that I have just examined, especially as far as concerns admission to the university and the overall strategies for higher education as they directly affect them. Due to space constraints I cannot discuss students’ behaviour, self-representations and patterns of socialization, that somehow reflect students’ reactions to the policies that I have been trying to describe so far15.

31At a more political level, many students fear that the university is likely to become “something for the wealthy” (Thabahtoona, 27th July) in which increasing attention will be given only to students who will be able to pay the raising fees, and all the others will be left behind. If the public university, before the advent of the reforms mentioned above, could have been conceived as a place in which there was a certain mixture of the population, in the last couple of decades the situation has changed dramatically. There are surely external factors that can be held responsible for this, such as the huge demographic pressure that created unparalleled conditions for the youth, but I argue that the reforms that are being implemented are heavily affecting the ways in which the educated youth are becoming citizens, and the very meaning of this.

32Over the last years, though, a number of social and political campaigns and movements have been launched in Jordan, mainly through the web, as a way of resisting these changes but also as a way of raising students’ awareness of their rights and duties as citizens, pointing to higher education as a “mutual interest” between the state and the citizen. Among these movements Thabahtoona (you have slaughtered us), the national campaign for defending students’ rights, is surely the most relevant (Adely, 2009). The usual harassment and repression of student activism on campus hasn’t managed to stop the activities of this group of students, who started their campaign against the raising costs of higher education but have now become “a public voice for issues and concerns of university students in Jordan” (ibid.:1), defending their academic and political freedoms on campus. A typical example of their activity is their criticism of government policies (Thabahtoona, 24th July as a sample) regarding cuts in university funding. They also denounced the appointment, by the Head of the Yarmuk University, of 80 administrative staff in his last month in service, despite the huge deficit accumulated by the university. The article has a sarcastic tone regarding the countless higher education plans made over the last years which all, this is the claim, fail to address the main problems of students, namely poor quality and above all the corruption of the system.


33I have attempted to describe the importance of higher education in Jordan, to be understood in the broader context of the Arab region and at the same time with its own specificities, which I have tried to underline. The discussion of the reforms that are shaping the public debate in the country, and especially the emerging of private universities and the internationalisation processes, was intended to show the political connotations of these apparently neutral terms. The analysis of the case study and a brief overview of students’ reactions have helped to further contextualise the consequences of these reforms, as well as in order to hint at some of the possible future developments.

34From the point of view of citizenship, it is quite evident that a shift is occurring in contemporary Jordan, again not unlike other parts of the world, partly due to the effects of the abovementioned reforms, from an older model of state-supported citizen to a newer one of the citizen as consumer. And yet, since the old model of citizen is not fading away, quite the contrary it is still an integral part of the regime’s survival, the consequences of the implemented reforms have still to be fully seen, as indeed to what extent spaces of dissent will be opened up.

Haut de page


Adely F., 2009, « The situation of student rights and autonomy in Jordanian higher education: the case of the national campaign for defending students’ rights », unpublished paper presented at the SSRC sponsored workshop Governance and Autonomy in the changing Landscape of Higher Education in the Arab World, Beirut, 10-11 Jan.

Bader M., 1994, Al-ta’alim al-‘ali fi-l-urdun (Higher education in Jordan), Beirut, Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches sur le Moyen-Orient Contemporain.

Bank A. and Schlumberger O., 2004, Jordan: between regime survival and economic reform, in V. Perthes (ed.) Arab Elites. Negotiating the Politics of Change, Boulder: Lynne Rienner, p. 36-60.

Bennani-Chraibi M. et Farag I. (eds.), 2007, Jeunesses des sociétés arabes. Par-delà les menaces et les promesses, Paris / Le Caire, Aux lieux d'être/ Le CEDEJ.

Brand L., 1999, « Al-Muhajirin w-al-Ansar: Hashemite Strategies for Managing Communal Identity in Jordan », in L. Binder (ed.), International Dimensions of Ethnic Conflict in the Middle East, Gainesville: University Press of Florida, p. 279-306.

— 2003, « Women and the struggle for political opening: the case of Jordan », in E. Doumato and M. Posousny (eds.), Women and globalisation in the Middle East, Boulder, Lynne Rienner, p. 143-68.

Burke D., and al-Wakid A., 1997, « On the threshold: private higher education in Jordan », International Higher Education 9, p. 2-4.

Cantini D., 2007, « Higher education as formation of the self and citizenship. An ethnography of the university students from Amman, Jordan », EMIGRA Working papers 6 ( retrieved on the 28th April 2011).

— 2012, « Describing religious practices among university students: a case study from the University of Jordan, Amman », in B. Dupret et al. (eds.), Ethnographies of Islam, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

Comaroff J. and Comaroff J., 2000, « Réflexions sur la Jeunesse, du Passé à la Postcolonie », Politique Africaines 80, p. 90-110.

Eickelman D. F., 1992, « Mass Higher Education and the Religious Imagination in contemporary Arab societies », American Ethnologist 19, p. 643-655.

Farag I., 2009, « Going international: the politics of educational reforms in Egypt », in A. Mazawi and R. Sultana (eds.), Education and the Arab world, World Yearbook of Education 2010, London, Routledge.

Foucault M., 1991, « Politics and the study of discourse », in G. Burcholl, C. Gordon, and P. Miller (eds.), The Foucault effects: studies in governmentality, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, p. 53-74.

Herrera L., 2006, « Higher Education in the Arab World », in James J.F. Forest, P. Altbach (eds.), International Handbook of Higher Education, Dordrecht (The Netherlands), Springer, p. 409-421.

Kanaan T., 2010, « Financing Higher Education in Jordan », in A. Galal and T. Kanaan (eds.), Financing higher education in Arab countries, Cairo, the Economic Research Forum

Khasawne S., 2001, « Waqa’a al-ta’alim al-giami’i fi-l-urdun min munzur al-‘ulum al-insaniyya wa al-ijtima’iyya » (Higher education’s condition from the perspective of the human and social sciences), in al-Ta’alim al-jiami’i fi-l-urdun (Higher education in Jordan), Amman: Shoman Foundation, p. 29-38.

Massad Jospeh, 2001, Colonial Effects: the making of national identities in Jordan, New York, Columbia University Press.

Mazawi A., 2000, « Aspects of Higher Education in the Arab states », International Higher Education 18.

Rashdan A.Z. and Hamshri A.A., 2003, « al-Ta’alim al-‘ali fi al-‘urdun » (Higher education in Jordan), in al-Nizam al-tarbawiyya wa al-ta’alim fi al-‘urdun 1921-2002 (Educational system in Jordan 1921-2002). Amman: Dar Safa’ li-l-nashar wa at-tawzi’, p. 355-387.

Reiter Y., 2002, « Higher Education and the socio-political transformations in Jordan », British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 29, 2, p. 137-164.

Romani V., 2009, « The geopolitics of higher education in the Middle East: frame and prospects », Middle East Brief 36, Crown Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

Roy D. A. and Irelan W.T., 1992, « Educational policies and human resource development in Jordan », Middle Eastern Studies 28, 1, p.178-215

Shami S., 2000, « Prehistories of globalization: Circassian identity in motion », Public Culture 12, 1, p. 177-204.

Shink L., 2011, « No support in taking care of our universities », 7iber Dot Com, 10th August.

Susser A., 2000, « The Jordanian monarchy: the Hashemite success story », in J. Kostiner (ed.), Middle East monarchies: the challenge of modernity, Boulder, Lyenne Rienner, p. 87-116.

Thabahtoona, 24th July 2011, « Government policies have weakened the universities », Thabahtoona.

— 27th July 2011, « Sit-in in front of the University of Jordan; Tawjihi students shouting: ‘universities are not only for the rich’ », Thabahtoona.

— 8th August 2011, « Ajlouni submit his resignation from the presidency of the Board of Trustees in protest at the Jordanian National Strategy for Higher Education », Thabahtoona.

UNDP and Ministry of Planning, Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (2000). Jordan Human Development Report 2000; “the youth of Jordan”, Amman.

University of Jordan, 2002, al-Kitab al-sanawi (annual yearbook), Amman, UJ University Press.

World Bank, 2009, Education reform for the knowledge economy (ErfKE II), Project Appraisal. (retrieved on April 28th 2011).

Haut de page


1 The data presented here results from the research I carried out for my PhD, with some fieldwork that lasted almost one year and a half in Amman between 2003 and 2005; over the following years I have continued working on higher education, mainly in Egypt but keeping an eye on developments in Jordan, and this accounts for the more recent information presented here.

2 As for the following figures related to the University of Jordan, the sources that I quote here are Rashdan and Hamri (2003), UNDP (2000) other than University of Jordan statistics provided on its website (lastly accessed 15th September 2011).

3 Mazawi (2000), Herrera (2006), and Romani (2009) among others analyse this process, which is indeed one of the most visible phenomena over the last years throughout the region. Especially after the last events in Tunisia and in Egypt it will be quite interesting to look at potential changes in this sector, and how this will reflect in other countries in the region.

4 Susser (2000) has focused on what he calls “the Hashemite success story”, that is the Hashemite, the Kings of Jordan, successful struggles to maintain their power. Indeed, Jordan is the only place in the Mashreq that has not changed its ruling system over the last (almost) ninety years.

5 It is worth mentioning here that in 1922, when the Emirate of Transjordan was created under the British mandate, the population of the land on which the Emirate was created did not exceed 200,000 with Salt (now little more than a village incorporated by the ever-expanding capital Amman) as the more populated town with around 20,000 inhabitants. On the Circassians see Shami (2000: 179-81).

6 I do not have the time to enter here in the discussion of ethnic and political identities in Jordan, and especially on the long and disputed issue of Jordanian-Palestinian relations, for which, as an introductory reading, I refer to Brand (1999).

7 As Reiter points out, quoting Laurie Brand, “the appointment of professors is also contingent upon receiving clearance from internal security, and dismissal is also used as a political weapon against faculty” (140).

8 The recent (2008) establishment of a UJ branch in Aqaba is to be seen in this latter perspective, that of supporting the economic growth of marginal areas.

9 For a brief introduction to private universities in Jordan, see Burke and al-Wakid 1997.

10 Brand 2003 (159-162 in particular) analyses the effects of the presence of the royal family in Jordanian civil society, with particular emphasis on women studies.

11 This closed down a couple of years ago, due to budget problems. I am grateful to Mona Taji for the remark.

12 I should again make clear that I am referring to the University of Jordan, a public institution; therefore what I will expose here is to be considered valid only for public universities. I have attempted in Cantini (2007) to show in some details the ways in which the university works for students, with reference not only to the admission procedures but also on the differences among faculties and on the quality of the education.

13 The issue is quite contested; some claim that through these quotas the percentage of Palestinian students in public universities had declined from a supposed 90% in the ‘70s to less than 50% nowadays, while others claim that the quotas are an important tool for reaching social justice, since they privilege people from less affluent areas. As Mona Taji pointed out to me, one category is also for Palestinians of the refugee camps, for instance, but in general it would be correct to say that most makrumat refers to Transjordaniens.

14 I am indebted to Ala al-Hamarneh for pointing this out to me. Professors of different faculties at UJ will give different proportions, and in one case I was told that the main privilege is the one regarding the diwan al-maliki. It should be clear, howewer, that the makrumat do play an essential role in shaping higher education policies in the country.

15 The debate over what the university is about, as referred to teaching methodologies, relations with professors, with the administration and with the state, can be found partly in Cantini 2007. For a good example of students’ discussions of the shortcomings of the education they get, see Shink 2011. In Cantini (2012) I discuss differences among students with a particular reference to religious behaviours.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Daniele Cantini, « Discourses of reforms and questions of citizenship: the university in Jordan »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée, 131 | 2012, 147-162.

Référence électronique

Daniele Cantini, « Discourses of reforms and questions of citizenship: the university in Jordan »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 131 | 2012, mis en ligne le 13 juillet 2012, consulté le 22 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Daniele Cantini

Graduate School for Society and Culture in Motion, University of Halle/Wittenberg (Germany).

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

Haut de page
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search