Moritz Bilagher

What was your first degree and where did you study?

My first degree was a HBO-diploma (more or less equivalent to a Bachelor’s Degree) in ‘society studies’ at the Hogeschool Holland in Diemen in the Netherlands. This degree included a teaching licence. I wasn’t actually interested in teaching, but the broadness of the curriculum was very attractive. A side effect of this study was that I became interested in education. After this, I did a Master´s in Social Studies of Science and Technology at the University of Amsterdam.

Why did you choose to study at OUDE?

Firstly, I wanted to validate what I knew (or thought I knew) and, secondly, because of the reputation of the University and the Department. Oxford has a magical ring to it, not only in the UK, but also abroad. From 2003 to 2006, I was a Junior Professional Officer with the UN agency for Palestine refugees in Jordan, and then in Lebanon, working as an educational research specialist. In reality, I learned many things on the job, and my first Master’s was not related to my line of work. I thought I should get a Master’s in education research, and, while I was at it, might try to get into the ‘best’ university. So, while my assignment was about to expire, I applied for a job in England so that I could get work experience and study part-time. Things worked out surprisingly well. I was recruited at BECTA, the government agency for ICT in education, as a research manager, responsible for surveys and evaluations.

It was quite incredible that Oxford both offered an MSc in Educational Research Methodology and offered this course part-time. I think I was the only part-time student of my year. Although I must have been somewhat of an outsider, coming to Oxford only once a week during term-time, there were some students in the first year whose company I much enjoyed.

What is your favourite memory from your time at OUDE?

I can’t single out one specific memory, but I remember that Oxford was just very beautiful in general. On my ‘Oxford morning’, I would drive down from Kenilworth or Stratford, through the Cotswolds, and then Oxford was a completely different world. A bit of a bubble, I guess; a world apart from Coventry, where BECTA was located. It was great to enter beautiful buildings such as some of the libraries, the Kellogg College building, the Pitt Rivers Museum (my favourite) or the Ashmolean.

What was great in general was meeting so many interesting persons, the possibilities to do extra-curricular things and to do your own research. For example, during my time in Oxford I wrote a philosophical treatise, for which I could use all the libraries of the university. I was amazed at how many books there were. In the social sciences library, I even found original reports on Palestine of the late 1930s. As I had to take care of our son half of the week (exactly 3.5 days), who was just 3 years old then, with study and work there was not so much time left for extracurricular activities, however.

Who in your professional life has inspired you?

Several persons have inspired me, but who probably inspired me the most were the colleagues at the Lebanon Field Office of UNRWA in Beirut, and especially Walid al Khatib. He was not only very competent substantively, he was also a hard worker and very good with people, or, for lack of a better word: wise. I have rarely seen someone more tolerant. He was Deputy Chief of the Education Programme at the time, and is nowadays the Chief. At that time, the Chief was Afaf Younis, to whom I will always be grateful. She was known as quite a ‘strong personality’, but she always stood up for her team externally, which resulted in great loyalty among the staff toward her. There were many committed and hard-working people in that team; for example, Taysir Awadallah, even though the work circumstances (the Palestinian refugee camps) were very tough.

In 2006, my ex-wife, son and I were driving down to the south of Lebanon for a tourist trip. Just as we were driving into the Litani River valley, we heard several explosions. This was the day that several Israeli soldiers were kidnapped at the border, which was the overture to the Israeli invasion and bombing of Lebanon of 2006; the international staff, including me, were evacuated to Jordan, where I continued to work. When I came back one month later, after the campaign had ended, the country was in rubbles. In Lebanon, we were living in the Christian area of Badaro, which was located just next to a Shi’a area, which was heavily bombed. I highly admired how many of my colleagues in UNRWA kept working with great dedication under sometimes almost impossible circumstances.

I also have fond memories of working with my supervisor at the UNESCO Institute for Statistics in Nairobi, Marc Bernal. He has taught me a great deal about team-work, and striving for excellence. Obviously, I am also learning very much in my current work at the UNESCO Office in Santiago (the regional office for education). What I am starting to realise here is that, often, it is not about what you know, but also how you get that across.

Looking back at your professional achievements, what are you most proud of?

I have always tried to the best I could in all my assignments; what I have noticed in the United Nations in particular is that the circumstances under which you work can sometimes be nigh-impossible. For example, in 2008 I did an evaluation of the accelerated learning programme for UNICEF Iraq. I can’t begin to describe the challenges we faced but which, in the end, were overcome. Data collection in Iraq, at the time, was extremely difficult, and I could not enter the country; instead, I worked from the Iraq support centre in Amman.

I am also proud of the project I am currently working on, the Third Study of the Latin-American Laboratory for the Assessment of the Quality of Education (TERCE), which I am coordinating. This involves a great network of people, including national coordinators in 15 Latin American countries, two partner organisations, a high-level technical advisory board, and several other actors. Although we are working to a challenging time schedule, through our team effort, the study is on track and having completed the pilot in December, we will be entering the main application this year. This will lead to region-wide internationally comparable learning outcome data.

What advice would you give to anyone thinking of taking up a career in education?

Much depends on the type of career, I guess. In any case, I would think that it is difficult to work in education management / planning / policy without having been a classroom teacher for at least some time. Education is still much of a mystery, really. What is learning, and how does it occur? How can we enhance it? How can we respond to different needs? Why do learners in Finland and Korea do so well in international tests? Sometimes, resources are the answer, but often they are not. Should we be rethinking knowledge and skills needed for the next century? What about values, awareness and behaviour? This is not an easy field of study, but I cannot think of any other field with such enormous social relevance. Just about any social issue can be linked to education, such as environmental awareness, gender equality and anti-racism. So you’d think we need the best minds, but I still sometimes feel that education research is not always taken completely seriously by economists, psychologists and sociologists.

The one advice I would give to anyone thinking of taking up a career in education is: don’t forget about integrity. As long as you keep this in mind, everything will ultimately work out well. The hill may be steep, the challenges great and the temptation real. Sometimes, integrity comes down to very mundane, micro-level things, such as an advantage you may be able to obtain if you keep quiet. But, if you lose your integrity, you may be in greater peril than you may be aware. As long as you have it, you may be able to face your mistakes, and improve them. When you lose it, you may gain some comfort, but lose much more. As someone once said: “I know I cannot always defeat evil, but I will not side with it.” The world of today, in which identity is ever becoming more of a key word, requires an education that does not only teach young people to know or to do, but also, as UNESCO’s Delors report said, to be.