An innovative training programme is seeing staff from the university of dundee school of dentistry travel to cairo to teach orthodontics to students from across north africa and the middle east
This summer, a group of dentists will graduate from the University of Dundee School of Dentistry. Nothing unusual in that, you might think. But these students come from various locations across Northern Africa and the Middle East. They are also the first to gain an MSc in Orthodontics from training received entirely in Egypt, by teachers who have travelled from the UK.
The international programme launched in Cairo at the start of 2013, having been established by David Bearn, professor of orthodontics and associate dean for internationalisation at the School of Dentistry in Dundee.
Professor Bearn had arrived in Scotland from the University of Manchester in 2007, and discovered there was no international orthodontics programme on offer. When he found out it was more to do with capacity at the School of Dentistry than through any lack of will, he decided to take a different approach.
What keeps people going back is that sense of making a difference
Professor David Bearn
“We had shelved the idea of international students coming here to do an MSc in orthodontics, but then I got into discussions with a contact in Cairo who was looking for someone to partner with to provide programmes there,” says Professor Bearn.
“We had the academic willpower and the desire to take our knowledge and skills and share them, so we entered into discussions about working in partnership. As a result, we enrolled our first group of students into our masters programme in orthodontics in Cairo in January three years ago, and I’m very pleased to say that group is now ready to graduate.”
The MSc is aimed at qualified dentists from not only Egypt, but also around the Middle East and Northern Africa who wish to specialise in orthodontics, as well as work in general practice.
The teaching takes place in Cairo using the facilities of the Arab Society for Continuous Dental Education (ASCDE), and the programme runs alongside a complementary three-year programme in clinical orthodontic skills, delivered and assessed by the ASCDE.
Instead of having a day a week of seminars and study time, the students receive the equivalent hours in one concentrated monthly period of face-to-face teaching. Faculty staff from Dundee, as well as colleagues from other dental schools in the UK, travel regularly to Cairo to work with the dentists there.
“The students in Cairo receive three days or so of intensive teaching, then they have three weeks to digest that, work through it, complete their given tasks and prepare for the next intensive period,” says Professor Bearn.
The MSc students include not only Egyptians, but also others from Saudi Arabia, Libya and even those escaping war-torn Syria.
“One of our intake in the second cohort had started his postgraduate training in Syria, and had almost completed it when the country completely fell apart,” says Professor Bearn.
“He had to leave before he could graduate, and start all over again. But what we see is the absolute commitment of these people to push on under circumstances that we can hardly imagine. That inspires me, the sense that we are not just doing orthodontics and postgraduate education, we are opening up opportunities for
people that would not otherwise be available to them.”
The students also experience a personalised and interactive teaching environment they have never had the chance to experience before, with the intake restricted to 16 in each cohort.
“When they come into our programme, it’s a completely new way of learning for them, to have that access to the faculty, that interactivity and the possibility of working in small groups and discussing procedures. It blows them away and it’s great to see them loving learning in that way,” says Professor Bearn.
“Most of the students will have completed their dental degree at a large public university. Cairo University, for example, has over 150,000 students, more than the population of Dundee, so you can imagine when you’re dealing with that many students, there are very few opportunities for small group teaching and interactivity – it’s all about massive lectures with the professor standing at the front.”
A chance to flourish
Professor Bearn says the difference in approach can be transforming for
students who have previously been lost in the crowd.
“We see students flourishing in this different environment and atmosphere,” he says. “There was one guy, Khaled, who when he came to us was clearly very intelligent, but his self confidence was low. After his first assignment I told him: ‘You know, Khaled, this was a very good piece of work. If you do a bit here, you’ll be up to an A grade’. He said: ‘No one has ever told me before that I’ve done a good piece of work’.
“Watching him over the next 18 months, he’s really grown and gained confidence. So it’s not just about acquiring knowledge and skills, it’s about gaining a greater belief in themselves.”
The expectation for graduates such as Khaled is that they take this knowledge – and confidence – and apply it in their home country.
“That is absolutely the ethos of our programme,” says Professor Bearn. “We make it clear that the MSc is not aimed at students who want to come and do orthodontics in the UK. We select people who have their roots in their home country, whether that’s Egypt, Sudan, Syria or Libya, and we say to them, we’re training you to go back and, where possible, be an orthodontist in your home country.”
Coping with challenges
Working in the Middle East is not without its challenges – especially when you find Egypt in the middle of mass protests to mark a year since the inauguration of Mohamed Morsi as president.
“During that first year in 2013, there were about three months we couldn’t travel to Egypt at all. For the next three months, we flew out, but instead of going to our normal teaching location in Cairo, the students came to us at an airport hotel,” says Professor Bearn.
“But then everything calmed down and we were able to go back to our previous pattern. Ultimately, I think we showed a degree of resilience and our colleagues and the students in Egypt appreciated the fact that we didn’t just say it was too difficult and walk away; we showed a commitment to the students and the project.”
Safety for travelling staff is a priority, with strict guidelines about how they move around the city, but Professor Bearn points out the satisfaction his colleagues get from their involvement in the project.
“All of our people who travel to Cairo are keen to go and once they’ve been, most of them ask when they can return,” says Professor Bearn. “They get to see dentistry in a different cultural setting, and it can blow their minds to witness the situation the local dentists have to work in.
“But what keeps people going back is that sense of making a difference, that sense of reward; for those of us in education, there is nothing quite like the thrill of seeing a student who ‘gets it’, and for students out there, this course can be such a transformational experience.”
Indeed, the MSc has been such a success that Professor Bearn is now looking at the possibility of establishing a similar programme in a different region, with India and Kazakhstan already mentioned as candidates. There is also scope for the dental project to expand within Cairo to incorporate other areas of expertise from the University of Dundee, such as infection prevention and control from the School of Nursing and Health Sciences.
In the meantime, Professor Bearn’s first Cairo graduates are preparing to move on – but not lose touch.
“We’ve had all sorts of interesting ideas, but obviously we want to keep an alumni group together,” he says. “For the very brightest students who want to do it, there may be opportunities to come to Dundee to pursue a full-time PhD. We’re also hoping that quite a few of our students return as trainers for future cohorts.
“But, wherever they end up, we want to be alongside them and share their experiences as they continue their journeys.”