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Education Ministers Rub Elbows in Abu Dhabi

ABU DHABI—The attendees at the Gulf Education Conference here last week got a glimpse of the plans of some of region’s ministers who focus on education, and the challenges they face.
The two-day Gulf Education Conference had twin themes—vocational education and “employer engagement with educational institutions.”

The conference was a meeting place for many Arab education ministers, including those from Kuwait, Morocco, and Jordan.
Amin Mahmoud of Jordan, for instance, spoke about the sudden increase of private universities in the Middle East and Jordan. “We have an obsession in establishing universities,” he said. “We may indeed need a larger amount of universities [to cater to the increasing number of students], but not at such a pace or this level.”
“The number of universities in the Middle East doubles every ten years,” he continued. “Establishing universities takes time, and unfortunately, our universities are carbon copies of each other. They have no unique identities.”

In a follow-up interview, Mahmoud said that “What has accumulated along the years cannot be fixed overnight.” While only in his second year, the minister has begun the first steps of reforms in Jordan’s higher educational system. “I stopped approving licenses for any new universities, and focused on vocational and technical institutions,” he said.
“I began seeking collaborative efforts with governments of China, Germany, and Japan to create vocational and technical educational institutions in Jordan, as well as launch an exchange program.” In the exchange program, he said, foreign professionals can come to Jordan to train students, and Jordanian students can also go overseas to get training.

In Morocco, unemployment is an issue that the minister hopes to ease by 2017. In an interview,
he attributed the country’s unemployment rate, which is estimated to be 9.2 percent of the labor force, to the stability of the country’s economic growth. Morocco aims to expand its gross domestic product at a steady pace, he said.

He also attributed unemployment to the gap between what recruiters look for and what universities produce. “In some cases, we are facing issues because there is a discrepancy between market needs and what universities supply,” he said. “We have now changed our tracks and follow market needs.”
Developing nations need to form a solid infrastructure that would attract investors, he said.

“In the west, ‘big data’ analysis has a growing market,” he said, referring to the analysis of large data sets to look for important patterns. “While this field is yet to find its way in Moroccan markets, we will open three or four master’s [degree] specializations in big data to keep up with western markets.”

The minister said that Morocco must not wait for investors to equip learners with technical skills. “We no longer wait for investors, we anticipate and monitor trends, and then based on that we create new specializations,” he added. Morocco also hopes to become a regional leader in car production. The minister plans to create fifty specializations by 2017 that are related to car production.

Sheikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, the United Arab Emirates’ minister of culture, youth, and social development, opened the two-day Gulf Education Conference emphasizing the importance of regional and international cooperation to better understand vocational education. “We must highlight vocational education for its merits, and give way to its graduates and recognize the necessary role they play in the market,” he said.

He highlighted the need to better coordinate between corporations and educational institutions to help students learn through a more hands-on approach. Such cooperation could be achieved by sponsoring summer and extracurricular activities, he said.

“It is also important in specifying needed skills such as mastering languages, adequate knowledge of history and traditions, and the ability to use technology, as well as possessing a capacity to lead initiatives, teamwork and responsibility,” he said.
“Cooperation between educational institutions and employers enriches educational programs and helps them adapt to the community’s latest needs and keep up with new developments in all fields,” he added.

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