Improving students’ skills in the Middle East

01 March 2011

Tertiary education has expanded rapidly in the Arab world in the past decade, but high school education needs to improve so that more citizens can benefit

The past decade has seen a steady flow of global business schools and branch campuses of international universities into the GCC. But the influx of big names that include the Sorbonne, Weill Cornell Medical School, Carnegie Mellon, HEC, London Business School, Manchester Business School and Insead masks a deep-rooted problem with education in the region.

The Gulf is emerging as a significant part of the world. We need to prepare the region’s human capital for this

Kathryn Bindon, Bahrain University

Critics say Gulf secondary schools need urgent reform for young nationals to make the most of these new educational opportunities. Schools need to improve their language teaching and information technology provision. They also need to replace traditional rote learning with teaching methods that boost students’ critical faculties, creativity and problem-solving skills. 

Students lacking calibre

“The region’s high schools do not yet produce enough high-calibre students to exploit the available opportunities,” says a UK-based management education expert. “Two things need to be addressed: the school system and the need to give Gulf nationals an incentive to pursue higher education.

“Gulf citizens are extremely well looked after through housing subsidies and other allowances. Governments need to ask themselves whether, long-term, this provides a disincentive to study.”

Middle East ranking for EDI
Saudi Arabia97
EDI=Education Development Index. Source: Unesco

When US consultants Booz & Co interviewed senior private sector managers about Gulf education outcomes, the interviewees named several major shortcomings.

These included a lack of specialist skills; too much theory and too little practical exposure; a lack of dialogue between business and educational communities; shortages of leadership, negotiation and problem-solving skills; poor credibility in assessment standards; and an urgent need to motivate and instil a work ethic among nationals.

The GCC has had its education successes, particularly in improving access for women. In several countries, including Saudi Arabia, female graduates now outnumber males. But this success masks high drop-out rates among male secondary school students, a phenomenon that is contributing to unemployment and under-employment among Gulf nationals.

Unemployment in the Middle East
Middle East10.510.210.310.310
E=estimate; F=forecast. Source: International Labour Organisation

“We need to look again at the link between high school education and higher education,” says Warren Fox, executive director for higher education at Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority. “The Gulf generally, and the UAE in particular, needs to address low levels of entry from male nationals into higher education.

“An estimated 20 per cent of male nationals leave secondary school before they reach 12th grade. And even among those that complete secondary education, a significant number do not go on to higher education. Many men join the police or the military straight from school; others are absorbed into their family’s business.”

Dubai School of Government published a report in mid-2010 on male and female high school performance in the UAE. While girls schools draw on a large pool of female Emirati teachers, boys schools rely on expatriate teachers on short-term contracts, creating “a cumulatively negative impact on the quality of boys’ education”, the study said.

The Gulf countries need more modern approaches to education, says Nick van der Walt, academic dean in Dubai for Hult Business School. “There needs to be more focus on working across cultures as the world redefines itself economically,” he says. “This requires more open thinking to understand the changing modern environment.

“Students need to be able to think critically and they need language skills. There is too much rote learning still and not enough learning through debate. Students need to show that they can communicate, that they can work with others and that they are results-oriented.”

As GCC governments push towards diversification, creating new industries that demand world-class, knowledge-based skills, they need to balance nationals’ aspirations and the skills that nationals offer with the requirements of a fast-growing economy. Education needs to create a workforce that can deliver economic change.

Despite two decades of economic liberalisation and an influx of private companies from overseas, Gulf nationals are still concentrated in the state sector. Few work for multinational companies. Meanwhile, many Gulf family conglomerates act as closed shops that favour blood relatives over outsiders.

Economic diversification in the GCC

Oil wealth has enabled the GCC to take a top-down approach to development. Governments have the cash to bankroll their ambitions.

“Every GCC state has aggressive economic goals and its own national vision,” says Kathryn Bindon, quality adviser to the president at Bahrain University. “They all talk about being internationally competitive and creating knowledge-based economies. They use all the 21st century buzzwords, but the challenge is to match rhetoric and expectation to provision.

“It’s a very hopeful time for the Gulf, but it’s also a critical time. Education will be the key to whether the region engages with the global economy or continues as a rentier economy.”

Saudi Arabia is taking major steps to expand vocational training and is investing huge sums in developing a coherent plan to develop its human capital. It is also investing in research and development in key areas, but there is much more to be done.

“The Gulf, generally, needs to escape the real-estate mentality – the notion that if you build it, they will come – and to move towards a human capital mentality,” says Bindon. “If this works, it will be amazing. Changing the nature of learning is an important part of the agenda.”

To date, GCC education policy has focused on access: in some cases, sending students overseas to university and in others, pulling in overseas schools, colleges and universities. Future development, critics say, needs to be more focused on outcomes.

Foreign universities in the Gulf

“GCC reliance on foreign education providers is a real issue,” says Jason Lane, assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University in the US, an expert on relationships between government policy and higher education strategy. “In Dubai, the issue is about the quality that foreign education bodies provide.

“Perhaps what they provide is the credentials that allow an individual to move up the career ladder, while not necessarily adding much by way of a high-quality education. The dilemma facing many international branch campuses is that they must deploy the same curriculum as the home campus. But this is designed to meet the needs of the home market workplace.”

When it comes to promoting leadership and business skills, Lane says the Gulf states have taken an over-literal approach to management education. He urges investment in humanities and social science courses to boost nationals’ analytical, problem-solving and creative skills.

“In Dubai, three-fifths of all schools offer some kind of business programme,” Lane says. “And half of all education providers are foreign. Meanwhile, there is a marked shortfall in humanities courses and there are very few social science-based programmes.

“Only the public universities offer humanities courses; UAE University has a philosophy department, for example. The international branch campuses offer a very narrow range of programmes. Promoting more humanities courses would create a new layer of students equipped to think more critically.

“The success or failure of New York University’s liberal arts campus in Abu Dhabi will be critical here, even though it operates a financial model that few others will be able to replicate.”

Like their counterparts in North Africa and the Levant, GCC governments need to modernise education to adapt to changing times. Unemployment is increasing across the Arab world, including in the affluent Gulf states. As public sector employment shrinks, competition for jobs will become even more intense.

Middle East unemployment crisis

The spectre of unemployment hangs over the Middle East and North Africa. Latest International Labour Organisation (ILO) statistics make for grim reading. In 2010, the ILO recorded average Middle East unemployment at 10.3 per cent – the highest regional rate in the world – with rates of youth unemployment four times higher than the adult rate.

The Middle East needs to create 3 million jobs a year to avert a looming unemployment crisis. But unless education equips nationals with the skills that their countries need, employers will continue to import labour and managerial skills from abroad. This can only further widen the gap between nationals’ aspirations and opportunities.

“We need to improve school students’ knowledge of English, Arabic and mathematics,” Fox says. “Shortfalls in these areas can be a barrier to students continuing their education. To increase the numbers of male nationals enrolled on masters courses and at business schools, we need to reach back into the secondary schools.”

Bindon says that the Gulf states are finally starting to rethink their education strategy. “A more critical framework is emerging, but this comes 20 or 30 years after many programmes have been introduced,” she says. “So there is a timing problem, and that’s a challenge.

“The Gulf is emerging as a significant part of the world. We need to prepare the region’s human capital for this. That’s not just about bringing in business schools; it’s about promoting things such as social entrepreneurship and a sense of global citizenship.”

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