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Arab Youth Discouraged About Seeking More Education

CAIRO—More than three years after uprisings swept across the Arab world, jolting economies and leading to rising unemployment, a declining number of the region’s young are planning to pursue further education, according to a recent survey.

Many young people say finances are the biggest factor holding them back.

“People think, ‘We don’t have the money, so what can we do?’” said Said Sadek, an Egyptian political sociologist in Cairo. “The decline is not because you hate education—no. It’s because you don’t have the resources.”

The findings were published in the sixth annual Arab Youth Survey, an effort by public relations consultancy ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller that provides a diverse set of data on the aspirations and attitudes of the region’s 200 million young people.

“Understanding the needs, wants and aspirations of this group, the region’s largest demographic, is hugely important for governments, businesses and communities as they look to create long term job opportunities,” said Sunil John, CEO of ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller, in a press statement.

From December to January, 3,500 in-person interviews were conducted with people between the ages of 18 and 24 in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, Algeria, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, Iraq and the Palestinian territories.

Marking a significant decline since last year, only 46 percent of youth in the region said they plan to study for a bachelor’s, master’s or Ph.D. degree or go on to vocational training—down from 55 percent in 2013 and 56 percent in 2012. A third of those surveyed said the biggest reason for this was financial. Other respondents cited lack of available relevant courses, followed by quality of teaching and many did not cite a cause at all.

“This is very much in line with the other findings in this year’s survey in which Arab youth cite the rising cost of living as their biggest concern,” said Claire Valdini, a consultant at ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller. Following cost of living, unemployment is a major concern, with Egyptian youth being the most worried about the issue, the survey said. Since the ouster of the dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the country has struggled with a climbing unemployment rate and continuous unrest that damages tourism and investment in businesses.

“Each one of us of course is thinking, ‘What am I going to do after graduating?’” said Merna Zaid, a first-year student at Cairo University. “The problem is how to get a job after graduating… The financial situation in Egypt becoming so bad.”

“But also, there are many people who cannot afford the cost of education, so they sent their sons and daughters to work instead of getting a higher education,” Zaid said.

Maysa Jalbout, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Universal Education, said a potential argument could be made that if young people were offered better quality education they would be less concerned about the financial burden.

“This is not inconsistent with what we’re seeing on a global level,” said Jalbout, who is based in Abu Dhabi. “This would be consistent with what we’re seeing in the United States as well. Young people are increasingly concerned about the cost of higher education and if it is, in fact, paying returns to the time and money invested vis-a-vis getting a better job and better paying work.”

“There’s definitely a mismatch between the job market and education,” Jalbout said. “So the answer is not to have less-educated people. It’s to have real attention to the quality.”

Some findings of the Arab Youth Survey highlighted the ambition of young people and their focus on their future careers. “Not only are they placing high importance on the opportunity to work with talented people,” Valdini said, “but they are also keen to contribute towards the development of their country as well as their own personal growth.”

The survey covered other topics such as concerns over obesity and lifestyle diseases, attitudes toward climate change and views about the long-term impact of the three-year-old Arab uprisings. It also found that favourable views toward the private sector rose across the region and that belief in entrepreneurship as a viable means to make a living has been strengthened.

“Entrepreneurial spirit across the Arab world is high as access to higher education improves skills of young Arabs, and governments and banks provide much-needed funding to help set up private companies,” the survey said. Two-thirds of youth said members of this generation are more likely to start businesses than previous ones, the survey found.

According to Jalbout, the belief in entrepreneurship could help explain why young people in the Arab world may not believe it is important for them to further their education, as some may opt to create their own work rather than waiting to get a job after getting more education. But a young entrepreneur is still in need of high-quality education and the competitive skills needed to operate in a global environment, she said. “This is not just someone who would be seeking a job, so creating that loop back to education is still very important,” she added.

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