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Global Education Challenges: The Arab World is Not Alone

DOHA—Rapid technological advances, demographic shifts and ever-changing labor markets are challenging the current state of higher education all over the world.

A group of education experts, professors and employers participated in a panel here to discuss the future of higher education as part of the World Innovation Summit for Education held earlier this month.

Everyone seemed to agree on the challenges, but no one had a complete answer to how higher education can respond.

The phrase “soft skills” was repeatedly mentioned as a possible solution. “Soft skills should be the center of all education,” said Monica Flores, managing regional director of Manpower Group Latin America. “As technology evolves so fast, the things that you learn at university could become obsolete in two years. That’s why higher education should focus more on soft skills. It should teach values and responsibility, and aim to create global citizens who would be able to create economic growth.”

Jamil Salmi, a Moroccan education economist who used to be the coordinator of the World Bank’s tertiary education program, says he prefers another term: social professional skills. “I don’t know one job today in which you still work on your own, not even a doctor. I think schools that teach you to work in teams have it right,” he said.

In a neighboring room, a CEO roundtable to discuss the role of employers in ensuring students are “job ready” reached the same conclusions.

“Most young people know their content, they can apply what they know and they can do that using technology,” said Betsy Brown Ruzzi, vice president and director, Center on International Education Benchmarking, in the United States. “But it remains questionable whether they can apply what they know in new situations, at speed and while they work with others.”

Ruzzi says these are fundamental skills to today’s economy, and they are missing.

Shifting focus to the MENA region, Rabea Ataya, Founder of, said that employers in the Middle East get an average of 500 applications for each job, yet 60 percent of employers surveyed by said they are not happy with applicants’ skills.

In another survey by the company, 80 percent of participants said their universities didn’t help them at all in finding a job. Only 3 percent of those responding to the survey found jobs through their universities.

The much-heralded skills and jobs mismatch is a worldwide problem. A 2015 study by the World Economic Forum said that in 2014, nearly 36 percent of employers globally reported facing difficulties in finding talent.

Salmi says the repercussions of this mismatch are more worrisome in the Arab world.

“Graduate unemployment is the biggest challenge facing universities in the Arab World,” Salmi said, “because you give hope to people and then many of them end up unemployed. We have seen what this has done to Tunisia and Egypt.”

But whose responsibility is it to prepare the work force? A survey done at the summit found that seven in ten education experts say it’s mainly the responsibility of universities, not employers.

Salmi thinks it is a combined responsibility, and universities should reach out to employers and work together. Flores says companies have to invest in training job candidates or they will never get their “ideal” employees, but individuals also need to invest in training themselves.

Entrepreneurship was suggested by Ataya as the best approach to drive job growth in the region. But Hugh Lauder, professor of education and political economy at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom, is skeptical about how this would work. “To be a job creator requires confidence and capital. Without a stable basic income it’s very unlikely that graduates would venture into new territory when they have study loans on their backs to pay,” he said.

Commenting on the situation in Qatar, Amal Mohamed al-Malki, executive director of the Translation and Interpreting Institute, said that in Qatar everything has been has been government-driven. Now, she said, it’s time to engage the employers.

Closing the skills gap was not the only challenge identified at the discussion. Panelists agreed the modes of study at higher-education institutions need to change to be more fun and engaging. The curriculum and the outlook have to be global, teaching students to be citizens of the world. They also saw a trend toward blended learning, where online courses are used together with traditional methods.

Salmi takes it a step further, as he anticipates an end to the traditional role of the professor as a source of knowledge.

“The professor is not full of knowledge anymore,” he said. “I know the methods and I am a guide or a facilitator to help my students find the knowledge and learn to use it. That’s a shift and we have to be humble enough to accept it.”


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