The Arab Spring is "possibly the best thing that could have happened" to spark reform of a higher education system that is turning out unemployable graduates in the region, a summit in Doha heard.
Yet panellists at the World Innovation Summit for Education did not think that further revolution was necessary to spur change in Gulf states such as Qatar, which hosted the conference.
Tarik Yousef, a former professor of Arab studies at Georgetown University, said that the protests and revolutions that have gripped the region since the beginning of the year would elevate "youth-driven agendas" across the Middle East.
"The Arab Spring is possibly the best thing that could have happened for educational reform in the Arab world," he said. "This is an agenda with very little measurable success in the past 10 years."
Delegates at the conference last week heard from Ibrahim Saleh K. Al-Naimi, a former president of Qatar University, who said that the region had "high levels of education with mass unemployment".
"Economists have even coined a term for the lengthy wait from education to work: 'the waithood'," he said, which, for example, lasted two years on average in Egypt.
According to Salah-Eddine Kandri, who works for an arm of the World Bank that invests in education in North Africa and the Middle East, almost a third of female graduates in the region do not find jobs.
He argued that universities in the region were turning out graduates who were lacking "things like problem-solving, critical thinking and teamwork", leaving employers unwilling to take them on.
Yet he added that there was still a perception that higher education would lead to jobs, and a traditional stigma against vocational training such as nursing.
Ready to listen to new voices
Education was still based almost exclusively on lectures, and there was "very little opportunity for group work or practical learning", Mr Kandri said. However, "the new leadership in the countries that have gone through revolution are now more eager and willing to listen" to other interested parties, including employers, he argued.
Muhammad Faour, a senior associate of the Carnegie Middle East Center, said another problem was that ministries of education across the region "don't have competent leadership ... vision, planning (or) efficiency".
Yet when asked if revolutions in the Gulf states would benefit reform, Dr Yousef said that "revolutionary change" was not "the only way to achieve comprehensive agendas for modernisation".
"You can in some cases look to a lot of autocratic regimes that had the vision, had the necessary focus, [and] devoted the resources" to reform, he said.
He added that the revolutions in North Africa would now raise expectations for change in the Gulf, but cautioned that in the short term "things could get worse before they get better".
Mr Kandri said that the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, was "in some ways...leading the way for involving society and the private sector [in education]". But Freedom House, a Washington-funded non-governmental organisation, has said that academics in Qatar "often practise self-censorship on politically sensitive topics" and that journalists "practise a high degree of self-censorship".
Times Higher Education's travel expenses were covered by the Qatar Foundation, which organised the conference.
The soft approach: Jordanian expert calls for more work on work skills
Jordanian students should spend their first year at university developing the "soft skills" that will equip them for work, the country's departing minister of education has proposed.
Tayseer Al-Noaimi, who lost his position in a government reshuffle at the end of October, also thinks that students should select their major subject during that year rather than before they start university.
Dr Al-Noaimi acknowledged that in common with many graduates in the Middle East, many students in Jordan lacked skills including teamwork, problem-solving, critical thinking, communications and ICT.
"Many are not entrepreneurs," he said. "They seek public employment."
Graduate unemployment in the country was about 25 per cent, almost double Jordan's overall rate of 13 per cent, Dr Al-Noaimi told Times Higher Education.
"We have to consider the first year in universities as a foundation year rather than admission directly to the specific major, where students would be exposed to soft skills, generic skills (and) build their general knowledge."
In this first year, "you have to give students an opportunity to explore their capabilities" and then let them pick the specific subject area they want to pursue for the remaining three years, Dr Al-Noaimi added.
Students also needed to undertake more internships, work experience and voluntary work to develop the skills sought by employers, he said.
As for academics, those in Jordan were, he claimed, "very much" free to criticise the government and the monarchy, but he admitted that they could be subject to "internal" pressures within their institutions to refrain from speaking out.
"Maybe the pressure is implicit, not explicit," he said.
He criticised universities for still following what he called the "traditional" approach - "they are not moving towards multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary programmes".
Dr Al-Noaimi argued that national problems, such as water and energy security, should be the focus of research, along with "rigorous, objective" social science.
Asked whether his successor, Eid Dahiyat, would follow through on his ideas, Dr Al-Noaimi said that the education ministry's priorities "might change". However, he argued that Jordan required "continuity of policy".
Secondary successes mean tertiary troubles: World Bank leader expresses concerns over quality and quantity
Poor-quality higher education is now one of the world's biggest educational bottlenecks because of global success in enrolling students in secondary school, according to the director of education in the Human Development Network at the World Bank.
Elizabeth King claimed that universities were too geared towards training academics, and said that the arrival of higher tuition fees in the UK from 2012 would force students and families to make more "rational" choices about what to study.
Asked to identify the biggest threat to global education, Dr King said that there was a "huge cohort in almost all the developing regions in the world who will be reaching higher education levels because of the success of basic education".
But the quality of higher education and the employability of graduates was now a concern across the world, she argued.
"That's what employers are saying, that's what parents are saying and students are saying.
"They [graduates] might get a degree but not necessarily have the skills. And even if they find a job, they don't necessarily have the skills to prepare them for the job."
She argued that the solution to unemployable graduates was "diversification" of higher education to make it more vocational, "because not everybody is going to want to be an academic or go into a master's or a PhD [programme]".
She added: "A lot of higher education systems are still about training academics. Students should have choices so they can be prepared for the labour market."
Between 1999 and 2009, according to the World Bank, the proportion of children across the world enrolled in secondary school rose from 51.5 to 59.8 per cent. In the same period, the percentage of students enrolled in tertiary education, which includes further as well as higher education, jumped from 18.1 to .1 per cent.
Asked about higher tuition fees in the UK, where the cap is set to treble to £9,000 a year, Dr King said that the government was "trying to force people and families to make more rational choices [about higher education]".
But she added that it should "think about compensatory policies so that those who want to go [on] to...higher education are able to do so".
Dr King said she was against higher education being either completely funded by the student or the state, because it created both private and social benefits.
She said the financing of the academy was becoming an ever more politically volatile question globally because many young people expected financial support from the state.
"Many governments are still giving higher education for free, or close to free, or with a lot of support. So when you have a big cohort of students, a big question is: how do you finance that?
"Higher education is very political because young kids don't demonstrate on the streets, but university students do."