Friday, February 5, 2010

The Road to Damascus (University)

I am writing this entry on my weekend – Friday. Everything is shut here and we have a free day – so we are heading out to the hills. There is some worry that where we are heading will have the roads blocked by snow – we will see. I will report on our day off tomorrow. Saturday and Sunday are working days here and we have appointments booked – so I am going to make the most of my Friday weekend. But before I do let me report on the progress we made yesterday (Thursday).

The day was one of busiest and most important of the trip. We started the day with a meeting with the Minister of Higher Education Dr Ghias Barakat. It was quite exceptional that we managed to get such a high level meeting – it was the equivalent of meeting Minister Julia Gillard in Australia. Our success in getting this meeting was due to the Syrian Ambassador to Australia and New Zealand His Excellency Mr. Tammam Sulaiman. You may remember that he gave a lecturer to the university last year. He has turned out to be a really good friend to the University and has opened many doors here in Syria.

The Minister was very welcoming, giving us a very detailed briefing regarding advances Syria is making in higher education and the part that overseas universities can play. There are certainly a number of opportunities for us to host Syrian students in the future. We also met with the Director of International Cooperation Samer Al Belal and other officials. We came to an agreement with regards to how we can pursue a relationship with the Ministry of Higher Education.

From that meeting we travelled to Damascus University. There are only four State Universities in Syria and Damascus University is the oldest and largest. It has 120,000 students and is over 100 years old. We had a meeting with the Vice Chancellor of the University, Professor Dr Wael Mualla. Again it was quite rare for a delegation to get access to the Vice Chancellor of such a University.

We had a long discussion with the Vice Chancellor about how we could work together. We discussed a possible memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the two universities. To be honest I am not keen to sign lots of MOUs all over the place. I want to keep the number of MOUs that CQUniversity has down to a few select universities. This is so that they are meaningful and lead to action. MOUs for the sake of MOUs are a waste of time. I would however like a MOU with Damascus University.

We decided that later in the year we would arrange a virtual conference between the two universities. Two of our researchers and two of Damascus University’s researchers will present papers that will be transmitted by video conference and internet. I will be working on this when I get back.

I will also be looking to provide a travelling scholarship for a member of staff to travel to Syria to work for a short period of time with a Damascus University member of staff on a joint research project. We will then look at staff and student exchanges. But I think we will only get these activities happening if we have contact and cooperation between academics. We went on to discuss other areas of cooperation. I will be talking with a number of our academics when I get back with regard to how we can interact with this important University. We also met with Noubough Yassin the Director of International and Cultural relations at Damascus University. She will be central to any relationship that develops between the two Universities in the future.

After visiting Damascus University we were off to another Ministerial meeting. This time it was with the Minister of State for Environmental Affairs Dr Kawkab Alsabah Dayeh. Also present at the meeting was Eng. Imad Hassoun the Deputy Minister. This was a very important meeting. We discussed in detail how our University and in particular the Centre for Environmental Management can provide assistance to the Ministry. When I get back to Australia I will be having a long chat with Professor Rolf about how we can interact. The Minister was very interested to hear about our plans for a virtual conference and suggested that we may want one of the topics for the conference to be Environmental Management.

From this meeting we were taken on a tour of old Damascus. This had been very generously arranged by Damascus University. Before going on the trip I put on every piece of clothing I had. It is just so cold over here. We then went on an early evening walk with a guide through the old city. Damascus is the oldest continually habituated city in the world – dating back over 4000 years. It is a fascinating city and I am very hopeful that more of my colleagues from CQUniversity will be able to visit.

Our day was not quite over. We were invited to dinner by Professor Dr Wael Mualla. At the meeting we also met with Professor Dr Hyam N. Bashour who is Professor of Epidemiology and Community Medicine at Damascus University. We spent the evening discussing how our Universities can cooperate. It was also interesting to hear that the issues that I am facing are exactly the same as the ones being faced by the VC of Damascus University. For example I was telling the VC that we needed residential accommodation on some of our campuses that do not have it. He told me that he too needed more accommodation. I asked him how many student beds he had at his university – 13,000. Same issues different scale…..

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