Stop Sending So Many Young People to University

The Middle East’s unemployment epidemic is at the heart of three ongoing security problems: the breakdown of the Arab Spring, the rising appeal of ISIS-style extremism, and the European migration crisis.

Correctly, policy makers have identified education as a critical part of the solution. Yet the current educational paradigm—based on the flawed assumption of a linear connection between the number of university degree holders and economic growth, new job creation, and political stability—is only making the problems worse.

Education policy makers should instead dedicate significantly more resources to vocational education, with a laser-sharp focus on matching education with specific market demands in the 2016 and onward globalizing economy. This offers the only chance of making any dent in the unemployment problem.

Throughout the region, countries are responding to the oft-cited “Youth Bulge” with unprecedented increases in education spending. In just 15 years, Algeria tripled the number of students at its 102 universities. Saudi Arabia sends a surprisingly high 78 percent of its high school students to college—the highest proportion of any country in the world. Even under the best of all circumstances, a significant portion of these degree holders will never find a job with their degree. After all, an economy only needs so many accountants, lawyers, and engineers.

The Digital Economy is Not the Answer

One impulse of Middle Eastern education policy makers is to bet on the so-called digital economy. Ursula Lindsey’s review of an education conference she recently attended in Algeria illustrates the limitations of this thinking: “All the talk of graduate creating their own jobs and becoming their own bosses feels like a bit of a cop-out on the part of educators and politicians (and not just in the Arab world) who don’t know how to deal with the economic insecurity unleashed by globalization and the recent financial crisis.  Everyone can’t invent an app, and apps don’t create that many jobs. Does it make sense to invoke “the student who will create the next Uber” in Algeria a country where online payments still don’t exist? (See the article “In Algiers, Reflecting on Universities and Unemployment.”)”

As I discussed in detail in “Not Just Tech”, an article I published recently for the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, the number of jobs the digital economy will actually create is tiny.  Instead the focus to create jobs should be on lower-tech small-to-medium enterprises including those that involve manual labor, such as trash collection, maintenance, and construction.

The often-expressed conventional wisdom is that  “attitudes” towards work need to change. Yet governments can only do so much. In my experience, the obstacles are as much in the minds of job seekers as they are in the minds of government officials.

For example, to build a recruiting pipeline for a company I started, I created an internship program with two Lebanese universities and taught several workshops in Beirut. At both universities, administrators were strongly receptive to my pitch, recognizing how this would help the job prospects of their students. Yet I found that the students I taught or supervised as interns—all among the cream of the Lebanese crop—were strong believers in the very conventional idea that it would be their degree that would be the main conveyor of their value, not their skills.

As a private-sector employer all I cared about was finding great employees. Some of our interns were ready at age 22 to add serious value in competitive private sector positions. But their obsession with getting advanced degrees arguably hurt their job prospects, at least in the short-term, by taking them out of the market, to get  master’s degrees or doctorates. Those degrees would make no difference to us in terms of what we saw was the value they could add. 

Focus on Increases in Vocational Education

There are several examples that could be applied elsewhere in the region.

The first is the International Finance Corporation’s investments in Luminus Education, a private-sector firm that operates vocational training colleges in Jordan. Instead of studying for a degree at a standard Jordanian university, students, mostly from lower socio-economic backgrounds, have the opportunity to learn skills that may not be as prestigious as what might be learned studying for a bachelor’s degree but have a strong chance of leading to a job.

Another $7 million is being invested in “Tier 2” cities in Morocco outside of the traditional large cities but which nevertheless might provide the most opportunities.

The Saudi “Colleges of Excellence” serve as another good example. The government has engaged the private sector to set up, ideally, 100 vocational colleges serving 200,000 students.

The results have been mixed. One major British participant, for example,  pulled out because the numbers of students enrolled made it hard for the colleges to be financially viable. One factor increasing costs was the usual Saudi requirement to have separate institutions for the male and female students. But “Colleges of Excellence” model could change over time.

A critical part of the Saudi economic strategy for 2030 is an increase  in vocational enrollment from the current 104,000 students to 950,000 by 2030. Even if the Saudis achieve half of that goal the project would still be a success.

Match the Vocational Output with Industrial Creation

The dominant economic ideology of our time suggests that governments should be hands-off. Let the market decide. When it comes to job creation in the Middle East that thinking is wrong.

As Khalid Aitnasser wrote last year, vocational education is not an instant cure. He found that many students who went through these programs in Morocco still couldn’t find jobs. This points to the need for more holistic approaches by governments that combine increased vocational spending with targeted attempts to build new industries.

This may be easiest in the Gulf countries and especially in Saudi Arabia. Because of their access to oil, the Saudis have the advantage of giving any new industry free or heavily subsidized oil, which can help make up for the disadvantage of not having a large blue-collar workforce. At least theoretically this puts Saudi Arabia in a position to develop labor-intensive manufacturing industries. For example, two years ago the Kingdom opened its first automobile-manufacturing factory. The goal is to build 300,000 cars per year.

Morocco is probably the greatest success story in creating manufacturing in the Arab World. Because of strong state-centric leadership, it has developed both an aviation and automotive parts industry.

The ultimate role model for creating a large number of lower middle-class jobs may be the Philippines. That country went from not having a single worker in call centers in 1997 to one million  in 2015.
There is no reason that countries like Egypt or Jordan couldn’t find some similar new labor-intensive niche where they could add value in the global market. Frankly, they have no choice if they went to do anything to solve their unemployment problems.

Many have said that the dominance of Arab militaries in the economy—especially Egypt—are automatic negatives. On the other hand, that centralization could provide good opportunities for labor-intensive 1930s New Deal-type projects, along the lines of the Civilian Conservation Corps.  

The opportunities for the most new jobs in the Middle East over the next 30 years will come in the blue-collar sectors. That is where the global economy is headed. Educators would be wise to focus on producing skilled mechanics and technicians, rather than more accountants or lawyers.

Nathan Field is the co-founder of Industry Arabic, a translation company that has created 12 jobs in the Middle East, has worked as a consultant in Saudi Arabia, and is a journalist and commentator.


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