Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Gulf's modern Cargo Cult - Educational degrees and diplomas

Image ripped from : rockIguana.com

Reading Misadventures in HR's excellent new blog post on hiring a useless trainee reminded me of one reason why I think education, generally, is such a miserable failure in Oman, and the Middle East overall.

It's what I call 'the cargo cult' approach to education.

From Wikipedia:
...Cargo cult activity in the Pacific region increased significantly during and immediately after World War II, when the residents of these regions observed the Japanese and American combatants bringing in large amounts of material. When the war ended, the military bases closed and the flow of goods and materials ceased. In an attempt to attract further deliveries of goods, followers of the cults engaged in ritualistic practices such as building crude imitation landing strips, aircraft and radio equipment, and mimicking the behaviour that they had observed of the military personnel operating them.

From time to time, the term "cargo cult" is invoked as an English language idiom to mean any group of people who imitate the superficial exterior of a process or system without having any understanding of the underlying substance. The error of logic made by the islanders consisted of mistaking a necessary condition for cargo to come flying in, i.e., building airstrips, control towers, etc., for a sufficient condition for cargo to come flying in, thereby reversing the causation. On a lower level, they repeated the same error by, for example, mistaking a necessary condition for building a control tower, i.e., build something that looks like a control tower, for the sufficient condition of building a genuine control tower.
The inception of cargo cults often is defined as being based on a flawed model of causation, being the confusion between the logical concepts of necessary condition and sufficient condition when aiming to obtain a certain result. Based on this definition, the term "cargo cult" also is used in business and science to refer to a particular type of fallacy whereby ill-considered effort and ceremony take place but go unrewarded due to flawed models of causation as described above.

People see that someone has a good job, and want one too. How did they get this wonderful job, with an office, a desk, a free phone, and money every month? Ahh, they have a degree/diploma/qualification. Ergo, a plan of action forms: get said decree/diploma, and hey presto! The magic piece of paper will secure a life of privilege, wealth, material goods, even a spouse.

Therefore they obtain said paper, in some cases by simply buying one, or by attending a 'college' of dubious quality. Various sources will corroborate and reinforce this theory: unscrupulous college administrators or academics who just want paying students; Government functionaries rewarded for 'number of students enrolled'; parents who want the best for their children. Why even the newspaper regularly describes 'Jobs vacant' every day, with the very pieces of paper required clearly stated.

As it's only getting hold of the fancy piece of paper that counts (and they can look beautifully impressive, with colourful and embossed insignia, latin phrases and even wax seals):

it's therefore totally OK to cheat on exams, pay someone to write your papers for you, and complain if anything such as 'standards' or exam results gets in the way. (eg See this post by Reality in Oman.)

Reality in Oman, August 2009:
Cheating is a common problem within the Omani educational system. It is common throughout the whole Gulf region. Students (mainly males) cheat their way through school and college – and they wonder why no one wants to hire them! - I mean, what a waste!

Students spend more time trying to find out ways to cheat than anything else. They cheat through phones, watches with tiny screens, tiny papers, writing on their knees..etc. I remember when I was in high school and attending my final exams. There were guys honking on their cars outside our classes… honk honk (question 2) *silence* honk honk honk (answer c)… honk honk honk (question 3) *silence* honk (answer a)…

And then, they either don't get a job, or do and loose it.

Or even worse, get a job and continue to screw things up while doing do sweet FCUK all all day. Often holding up a job that maybe someone could do, and the work gets done by expats or other Omani staff. If they are locals, sacking them for incompetence is usually impossible.

I've personally interviewed holders of Maths Masters degrees who can't use Excel; English Literature grads who can't speak English; and no-one, even competent young Omanis, knows how to write a half-decent CV. (or even how to spell Curriculum Vitae...)

Ah well.

So what can Oman do to combat this? One thing being done by the elite and Government Ministers is to have their kids educated overseas in a real University. But it really starts in the schools.

Oman's foreign high schools' exams are sent out of the country to be marked independently. There should be an independently invigilated set of standard exams for Omani scvhools perhaps, to try and purge the rampant plagiarism and cheating. Such exams (at least initially) will apparently need a level of security more commonly associated with printing and distributing currency.

But do the Government, or teachers, or parents, or students actually want to know the real status of their education? I doubt it.

The cult is just too strong...


  1. One problem has seemed to me (though I have no proof) that some recipients of gov't scholarships to study abroad at Univ outside of Oman (in UK or Australia or ???) are not really the highest qualified or highest motivated or have the best aptitude for the field of study. But the recipient may know the right person -- but not be the sharpest candidate -- and receives the scholarship through good connections. I note that recently HM has allocated money (to be administered I think by the Ministry of Nat Economy!!!) to send bright, motivated [and with aptitude that fits course of study] Omani students abroad for post graduate study?? It may be significant that this program will be administered by the Ministry of the National Economy.

  2. Fantastic Blog. My thoughts exactly. I love CVs with primary school results or 'certificates of attendance" for an impressive sounding education course; Abdullah attended the Rocket Surgery & Quantum Physics Double Degree Induction Phase at the Omani & Indian Higher Education and Geophysical Research Polyglot Training Institute (GCC Division). Abdullah's results were that he attended the Rocket Surgery & Quantum Physics Double Degree Induction Phase. Course Duration: 1 Day.
    Apparently this means, as an Omani Abdullah has 'been to college' and is qualified, or nearly qualified, and once you give him a job as a Rocket Surgeon, he will go back and finish his training, at your company's expense, Inshallah.

  3. I was just talking to some Omani teachers the other day. We were saying, what the system needs (besides cheat control, which teachers DO try their best to reconcile) is career counselling of some kind, because not all students are bound to be engineers and doctors, and some training to make CVs, ect... and some actual courses on basic skills for those without the top academics by the later grades. I know some teachers who volunteer for this, but they are few and far between and have no say whatsoever in educational policy.

  4. The cargo cult analogy is brillant and spot on, Mr. Dragon. Unlike the Pacific cargo cults, where the joke is on the islanders waiting around for John Frum to bring the goods, the ME Education cargo cult's joke is often on us employers. Unless I elect to go before the government's workplace arbitration board and risk paying heavy fines and his education fees, I cannot get rid of my useless trainee.

    So long as there is a payoff for the graduates of these programs, I fear the quality of the region's education systems will not improve. Institutes that do attempt uphold academic standards won't be able to attract students so long as there are glorified diploma mills handing out credentials and the region's labor laws prevent employers from holding non-performers accountable.

  5. I have 2 friends who are employed by Omani private schools, one was told to adjust her grades so that everyone in her classes got at least a B+, and the other discovered that her job as a dept administrater was to check that the teachers had given out the "right" grades. So they all think they are geniuses and need the apropriate high grade, high salaried job, when they would probably be better served doing something more vocational!

  6. And this reminds me of my first internship. Sigh. I wonder if I did well!

    A woman who won a scholarship in a UK university sends me some of her writings to correct. My English isn't good enough, but I wonder how she won that scholarship. Her English really sucks.

  7. Great blog post, something a little different. The problem exists, for sure.

    One of the things that got to me personally is that when you're motivated, didn't cheat your way through university, worked hard and got a degree with a reputable university (spending much of your own money along the way because the government scholarships go to those who don't need them), you come back to Oman and you realize that the jobs you're getting asked to do are really better suited to those who cheated their way through university. It feels like a lot of the companies - even in the biggest companies in Oman - don't seem to have the mechanisms to deal with fresh graduates. You get put behind a desk and asked to do a lot of random little things. Very often there is no training, there is no development. Its a waste.

  8. There is also the 'piece of paper' chase where students want to rush through Batchelors, Masters and Doctorate so that they can get highly paid jobs. They have no breadth of experience (sometimes no experience) and gain teaching or management posts to teach a subject they've never managed to earn a salary for actually doing.

    Teechar, I want manajer jop. I am Masters. I speke goodest England.

  9. Welcome to Donkeyville!

    When you take a look at the key channels of information here in Oman, it's little wonder why the situation is so bad. Universities are a crock: the "academic" pursuits - and this is the case in any country ("I'm currently getting my MBA" - Moronically Beloved Accolade) - are shallow attempts at getting a top paying job, and the general levels of exposure amongst the local populace to things that make you question and pioneer in a particular field are so low that it is farcical to fathom the levels of Omanisation already in place. But hey, is the industrialisation of academia any worse than that of the food industry? I mean, heck, if we start feeding hormone infused grain to Omani college kids, we might find in a few years they are immune to stupidity. Like the introduction of the cane toad, mosquito fish, rabbits and tilapia... untested, unmolested... bring it on!

    OK, so that may be a giant leap for a lot of your readers UD, so let me break it down like this:

    Although Oman is facing similar challenges as other parts have experienced before, without a healthy rocking of the boat, how is anyone to influence kids positively? This is such a conservative populace that being intelligent is deemed "dangerous". With the power of thought might come the power to introduce equal rights for abused labourers, start a real media scene, enforce child safety seats, educate people how to drive, develop infrastructure that can support rainfall, have a fair judicial system that remains unbiased towards nationals, setup an animal welfare centre... the list goes on. Also, don't forget, with the power of thought comes the power of soul, and as Jimi wailed with the aid of a Vox wah-wah pedal on a live cut of that particular title: "anything is possible."

    A wise man once said: "If you've got talent you approach everything, no matter how mundane the task, as if it were your art. If you don't have talent, you work in the field of banking and finance."

  10. MiHR

    Employers have to protect themselves. What we ended up doing was having our own multi-stage selection process that included:

    1/ CV screening, grade point average filter, reference check. After all, if they can't get a decent GPA in Oman, they really must be stupid!

    2/ On site administered test, job specific. Pre-determined metrics for pass/fail.

    3/ Structured interview. Test for social skills, ability to hold a conversation, history of goal setting and goal attainment. Objective criteria to enable consistent scoring.

    4/ 3 month contractual probation period and assessment by line manager + HR. Not making the grade? Out.


  11. I have interviewed many graduates from many disciplines, from social sciences to astrophysics, from Omanis to numerous other nationalities, including US, British, Australians, whatever. It never took me more than 15 minutes to recognise either cheats or incompetents. E.g. law degree certificates can be bought (always wondered why these cheats simply did not print their own?!) and even though I am a non-lawyer, I did manage to get the American interviewee to admit that what he had was a useless piece of paper. But not entirely useless in the Middle East. Extremely useful whenever he is interviewed by a non-competent. It's a phase Oman as a country had to pass through. We had in the 1970s a government and an economy run largely by people who themselves had inadequate educational backgrounds. There was no way that these under-educated Directors General, nor many of their Ministers, could tell whether the chap they were interviewing actually had a medical qualification from Havard or had printed his own in the backstreets of Ruwi. So there arose a cult of certification. You had to have your Havard degree certified by some foreign office/department in the USA (?!) then the Oman embassy in Washington DC and then the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Muscat; to finally have it accepted as genuine. You could also have bought the certificate from Pacific Heights University or whatever, and as long as you managed to get all the rubber stamps, it suddenly had as much value as the Havard MD. Hence the cult of certificates got born and nourished. Things are a-changing. Several ministers now have PhDs in Oman. So at least they should be able to interview people properly, regardless of rubber stamps on the certificates. In the developed world I had never, even once, heard of this rubber-stamping certification nonsense. If you suspect that the chap never did go to Stanford but still insists that he has graduated from Stanford, all it takes is an email to Stanford to verify. But then if the interviewer cannot tell Stanford from Pacific Heights U... The more competent/confident the interviewers, the less obsession there is with certificates and the easier it becomes to ID the cheats.

  12. How does one square off your calls for more meritocracy with Omanisation requirements? A riddle for the ages, no doubt.

    -Omani in US

  13. Now I can't stop asking myself if I'm going to be 'competent' in my career field. This is depressing.

    It's not only about education. Sometimes it depends on you whether you want to be educated or not. My father was lucky to study in London, but when you meet him you won't believe what I just said. He's no different from others, and sometimes can be worse. But honestly, what should we do about this education crisis? Or at least what should I do to survive? I'm stuck here I believe...

  14. I'd just like to add that the situation isn't helped by the various 'mafias' in the country.

    When you look for jobs, you have to have a quick search to find out who's at the 'top' of the company pyramid - depending on the nationality of the clique, then no one outwith these nationalities need apply as vacancies are usually filled by connection. All recruits have a vested interest in staying in the country.

    Omani staff are recruited to positions to avoid the wrath of the Ministry of Manpower but they often aren't trained. They end up thinking that sitting at a desk phoning their friends is 'work'.

  15. I'm tired of having to adjust grades to have proper percentages of passing and failing students. I'm tired of being forced to overlook plagiarism. At my university, we have some Omanis, some Indians, and some Westerners (though not very many...I'm 1 of 2).

    If students submit homework, we have to accept it, even if it's plagiarized or translated from google translate. Most of the teachers aren't able to notice when students translate or plagiarize because their English is just as shitty as the students'.

    For more ridiculousness, see our management...the head of our department can't speak a logical sentence and doesn't understand when people speak in English (she claims it's because she isn't used to accents other than Australians...but we all know this is lies). We all know it's all for show, so we bide our time. What else to do?

  16. Thanks for your advice, Mr. Dragon. The process you implemented looks very sound. I'm trying to instill something similar...maybe we'll get there one day! :) In the case of my trainee, I was not allowed to put any probation period in the contract. Lesson learned, never taking on anyone w/o that probation clause!

    Mona, take heart if you are stuck with the local education system. Your career is not solely dependent on academic qualifications. If you work hard and show a willingness to learn on the job, you will advance. Try to become the "go to" person for something at your company. If others are relying on you, you will become an invaluable member of the organization.

    For example, the person I consider my right hand man at my company never completed high school. He started out as a "tea boy" and now has a key administrative role. I don't care about his lack of education because I would be lost without him.

  17. One question people should be asking is if all these jobs in Oman really do require a university degree in the first place. I'd wager that a large percentage don't.

    -Omani in US

  18. Gr8 advice for Mona and anyone else in the 'field' from Misadventures in HR.

  19. Best blog! I am actually facing this problem right now with the closed mentality Omani Managers who think if i had "a degree" I would be qualified to do a certain task but the truth is I can do any task given to me and better the employees with "Degrees" but unfortunately I am to them as "illiterate" because i dont have a "degree".I didnt complete college degree for some reasons but the final GPA i got was 2.95, TOFEL score is 567, IELTS score is 7,computer literate but yet I am treated like nothing.Asked for trainings, courses, more responsibility at work to learn from many times but All were refused because i dont have that "paper" and unfortunately the one who refuses is Omani. The system is yet to be improved, MOHE need to give scholarships based on face-to-face interviews and proper thorough assessments not because of a highschool score which doesnt tell anything about a person's capabilities. They dont give it to people who deserve it or who want it the most. But what to do, sometimes we are asked to accept but I dont know for how long!!

  20. Thanks for that great post, I knew there had to be a term for the thinly veiled general incompetence we find in this part of our world. 'Cargo cult'....I love it! it's the perfect description!

  21. Sali, I'm in the same situation as you, for certain reasons I was unable to attend university, but my knowledge and experience far exceed every single one of the locals I've worked for. I just don't have that all important piece of paper. My engineer boss can barely string a sentence together and our 'Data Administrator' (who has a diploma in IT) cannot find where to change a page to landscape on MS Word! That's the education here...

  22. I work as an ex-pat for the govt, and we simply give all our candidates an IT aptitude test.

    Covering Maths, algebra, SQL, Web, etc....
    The look of horror on their faces always makes me laugh.

    The purpose is not to find out who is the next Bill Gates, it is to try and filter the massive number of pieces of paper that a 23 year old has somehow managed to amass.

    So if they present 8 CISCO training courses with "Top Student" - and they score 0 on the networking section.... the interview is usually pretty short and swift.

    The last "Milk Round" we conducted, even my Omani colleagues were commenting that these people had wasted thousand of Rials of their parents money, and were simply un-employable.

    Alas the serious Mafia members, bypass us, and get key jobs still - but we are trying.

  23. This post sums up perfectly what happens at the college I work at. I get this problem from both sides- students who "write" their assignments by putting arabic websites through google translate and copying out the results, and admin/HR staff whose ideas of work is sitting at a desk playing with a phone and feeling important.

  24. I love the cargo cult analogy and belatedly remembered the Prince Philip cult - this was a lost opportunity during the recent visit.


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