It took a challenging and very special project to tempt John Scott, the former chief executive of the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology, out of semi-retirement in his native New Zealand.
But the chance to establish and run a new multimillion-pound polytechnic in the Gulf state of Bahrain was irresistible.
“Very seldom as an educator do you get the opportunity to implement what you would desperately like to and what you know has to happen,” he said. This was it.
In 2005, Bahrain’s government launched a national debate about education.
“Before then, nobody was talking about it,” according to Kamal Ahmed, chief operating officer of the Bahrain Economic Development Board, the body charged with implementing the country’s Vision 2030 national economic strategy.
“We were number one in the region and people were happy with that.”
But a survey of business leaders indicated widespread dissatisfaction with the communication, technical and problem-solving skills taught by Bahraini universities.
The country’s rulers decided they needed to act. They concluded that only a new state-of-the-art institution – Bahrain Polytechnic – would deliver the desired change, and appointed Mr Scott as chief executive to oversee the project.
“It is clear what the world needs in terms of tertiary education, but [the system] has hardly changed for generations,” he told Times Higher Education. “We want to establish something different.”
That something centres on what Mr Scott calls a “universal curriculum”: a “raft of capabilities that apply to successful engagement with work and life, regardless of specialisation”.
Teaching that curriculum involves a problem-based approach that puts the emphasis not on steadily accumulating large bodies of knowledge, but on developing students’ initiative and their problem-solving and teamwork skills in course areas such as engineering, business, logistics, design, web media and office management – all of which are taught entirely in English.
“Content is still important, but it must be used to solve problems in the context of what is required at that stage of the students’ development,” Mr Scott said.
“We confront them on the first day with a problem and tell them: ‘This is what you will have to solve on your last day, when you have acquired all the necessary mechanisms to identify the problem and the expected outcomes, find and synthesise information, test solutions and present and validate them.”
Meanwhile, assessment puts less emphasis on traditional examinations and focuses instead on ensuring that students have “the minimum skills necessary to do the job” while showing “maximal development of the capabilities covered in the universal curriculum”.
Although the polytechnic’s 300 staff hail from 28 different countries, Mr Scott admitted that this approach was unfamiliar to most of them, and some have taken time to adapt.
Some have also expressed concern about whether Bahrain Polytechnic graduates will be accepted on to traditional postgraduate programmes abroad.
Mr Scott believes they will because the polytechnic will have its courses accredited by international professional bodies, such as engineering societies.
“If you can satisfy them about your outcomes, the approach does not matter,” he said.
But will the students come? Mr Scott said that the polytechnic was already heavily oversubscribed, but admitted it would take time to overcome many Bahrainis’ attachment to traditional university degrees.
Both he and Mr Ahmed are confident that when the polytechnic’s first cohort graduates in 2013 and the successful students get jobs, Bahraini parents will sit up and take notice.