CourseraCan universities in the Middle East avoid a brain drain?

Can universities in the Middle East avoid a brain drain?

Leaders from the MENA region joined a seminar to discuss strategies for retaining graduates who will keep the region’s research, development and investment alive

How can universities in the Middle East ensure that graduates are work-ready but also equipped with the skills to continue learning in a fast-changing labour market? This was one of the central questions posed to university leaders at Coursera’s private presidents’ round table on retaining talent, held at the THE Emerging Economies Summit in Dubai.

“Companies recognise that there’s a mismatch between the skills graduates are getting and the skills they need for future jobs,” said Zaher Srour, director of partnerships in the Middle East at Coursera.

Employers are taking a skills-first hiring approach that puts pressure on students and universities to fill that gap, but course providers such as Coursera can supplement the core content that universities provide. “Perhaps the pace of technology is moving so fast that updating the curriculum is a challenge. Academics can blend their expert fields with courses in areas such as data science or soft skills,” Srour added. 

There was a consensus that the relationship between universities and industry sits at the heart of nurturing and retaining the best talent. “I believe that, rather than just partnering with industry for internships, we bring industry on to the campus,” said Ghaleb Alhadrami, acting vice-chancellor at United Arab Emirates University. “Research and development can contribute massively to the economic development of the region. Rather than a professor putting together a curriculum in a closed room, you bring in industry to co-design.”

Susan Milner, director for education and English (MENA) at the British Council, said it was “important to reflect on the demand side in higher education, and student perspectives” on employment outcomes. She cited an example in Malaysia where university leaders were invited to shadow industry partners.

Arif Al Hammadi, executive vice-president of Khalifa University, said that this reflected what he had seen in terms of student demand. “Generally, universities don’t teach for jobs, because the market is changing so fast,” he said. “The students go after what the market is selling them, and by the time they graduate the market is oversaturated.”

Creating a culture of lifelong learning will also be crucial as universities look to retain talent and form a sustainable pipeline of graduates to local employers. Arshad Ahmad, vice-chancellor of Lahore University of Management Sciences in Pakistan, argued that one way to maintain a relationship with graduates was to get them involved in governance and fundraising. “They are the best ambassadors to talk about the impact of their education,” he said. “There’s a multiplier effect where that can come back full circle, not only to the university but to the region and the country.”

Universities could support students to build crucial research and adaptability skills and “create an innovative generation, a digital generation” that can deal with the changing world of work, added Fawwaz Alabed-Alhaq, president of Hashemite University in Jordan. 

Barry Winn, vice-chancellor of Sohar University in Oman, felt that the region needed to improve how it promoted the intellectual property emerging from academic research. He concluded: “We need to transform from consumers of knowledge to generators of new knowledge, ensuring universities actively build new businesses and putting IP out into local industry, creating an R&D culture and ecosystem for people to stay.”

The panel:

  • Arshad Ahmad, vice-chancellor, Lahore University of Management Sciences in Pakistan
  • Fawwaz Alabed-Alhaq, president, Hashemite University
  • Ghaleb Alhadrami, acting vice-chancellor, United Arab Emirates University
  • Phil Baty, chief knowledge officer, Times Higher Education (chair)
  • Arif Al Hammadi, executive vice-president of Khalifa University 
  • Susan Milner, director for education and English (MENA), British Council
  • Zaher Srour, director of partnerships (Middle East), Coursera
  • Barry Winn, vice-chancellor, Sohar University

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