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Education Conference Calls for Better Policies in the Arab World

Arab education and business leaders meeting in Dubai called for better policies to foster innovation to tackle unemployment and other major challenges.

The three-day 2022 QS Higher Ed Summit: the Middle East and Africa opened on March 1 under the theme “Innovation Enabling Environments”.

In his opening speech, Zaki Anwar Nusseibeh, chancellor of the United Arab Emirates University and adviser for cultural affairs at the U.A.E. Ministry of Presidential Affairs, said, “The primary mission of university is to stimulate critical and creative thought and to enable problem solving.”

In a policy discussion panel, Salah Khalil, a social entrepreneur, said the cost of failing to provide people with new work skills had been hugely underestimated.

Khalil is the founder of Macat International, a company that measures and develops critical thinking skills.

“The latest reports by the World Economic Forum, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Ernst and Young point to global-scale crises that are going to take place in 2030,” Khalil said. “The narrative is like this: If 85 million people from the global workforce—which is 3.7 billion people—do not get a form of skilling and upskilling, it will cost the world 8.5 trillion dollars.”

More than a Billion in Vulnerable Jobs

Khalil pointed out that the World Bank and the International Labour Organisation estimate that between 30 and 40 percent of the global workforce, or more than a billion people, are in vulnerable employment.

“That means the number is not 85 million and the cost is not 8.5 trillion dollars, but 500 to 600 million people will need some form of skilling, upskilling and reskilling and the costs will exceed 60 trillion dollars,” he said.

“It is important to bridge the divide between research language and policy-making language. We must realise that policy makers have very limited resources for limitless needs.”

Salah Khalil
A social entrepreneur and founding trustee of the Alexandria Trust

World Economic Forum and OECD reports say the most-needed skills are thought leadership for the world of work and education, Khalil continued.

His company, Macat International, has “signed a contract with Egypt to measure these skills of 1.5 million students in the next five years,” he said. “We are working together with other countries, like Morocco, and trying to work with Saudi Arabia.”

Khalil is also the founder of the Alexandria Trust, a London-based nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing educational access and quality in the Arab region. Al-Fanar Media is a project of the Alexandria Trust.

He described Al-Fanar Media as the equivalent of Times Higher Education. “It has produced about 3,000 stories about education and is probably the most cited publication in research regarding education in the Arab region,” he said. “It is all about what kind of debates we are going to have to help policy makers make better policies, how we are going to get researchers to work closely with policy makers.”

It is important to bridge the “divide between research language and policy-making language,” he went on. “We must realise that policy makers have very limited resources for limitless needs.”

Who Pays for Education?

The panel also questioned the cost of education. In some countries, Khalil said, the cost of a child’s education—from kindergarten, through the best schools, all the way to a master’s or Ph.D. in a reputable university—is over one million dollars.

“Clearly something wrong with that figure,” he said. “If you try to implement this figure in China, for example, or India, it will be ridiculous.”

Mohamed Yousif Baniyas, higher education advisor and director of the Commission for Academic Accreditation at the U.A.E. Ministry of Education, said that if the government pays for education, it has the right to see where the students are going.

“To assess the value of education to society, you have to think of knowledge not in terms of research impact but in terms of exchanges with comparable institutions.”

Shadi Hijazi
Principal Consultant at QS Quacquarelli Symonds

Shadi Hijazi, principal consultant at QS Quacquarelli Symonds, said that to assess the value of education to society, you have to think of knowledge not in terms of research impact but in terms of exchanges with comparable institutions. “How many institutions you’re partnering with, and how much money you get from partnership,” he said: “this was found useful even for QS rankings.”

But Khalil said the alternative to government funding was to treat universities as a business “and start bringing in the private sector, which comes with severe set of challenges.”

Arab vs. American Philanthropists

Khalil said most university endowment funds in the United States come from gifts from alumni or philanthropists. “In the U.S., there is 12 trillion dollars in philanthropic funding that give out interest of 600 billion dollars every year,” he said.

With a population of 430 million, the Arab world has 800 universities, compared to 8,000 in the United States. “We need to have a serious discussion about philanthropy and why people are not giving to universities, especially graduates of universities,” he said.

Compared to the rare philanthropists in the Arab world, Khalil thinks Americans have a properly understood concept of self-interest.

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“Basically, the concept is the interest of the 10 percent that control 90 percent of the wealth,” he said. “It is actually not just good for the soul to give back, it is actually good for business. That’s a much more mature conception of wealth. This has yet to take root in the Arab world.”

He concluded: “It is not shameful to borrow from systems across the globe that have worked and keep on generating. The government role here will be a tax efficient vehicle to help the rich make that decision a lot easier. That could be a policy.”

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