How can MENA universities boost their students’ employability?

Ramping up vocational training and industry engagement will be crucial to meeting the skills needs of the fourth industrial revolution, says Sabrina Joseph

November 24, 2022
Display at the Saudi Arabia pavilion
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To coincide with the launch of Times Higher Education’s Arab University Ranking, we’re publishing a series of comment pieces focusing on the Arab world. Browse the THE Arab University Rankings 2022 results

With the future of work and job opportunities experiencing a rapid, unprecedented transformation, it has never been more important for higher education institutions to engage meaningfully with the world of work. This is especially true in the context of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), a region with both the world’s largest youth population and highest youth unemployment rate (almost 30 per cent).

A joint statement released in May 2022 by several United Nations agencies highlights that more than 33 million jobs will need to be created across the region by 2030 to significantly improve unemployment trends. Yet, according to a 2019 Brookings Report, 46 per cent of employers in the MENA region believe that university graduates do not have the required skills to succeed in the workplace, such as communication, collaboration, numeracy, critical thinking and problem-solving.

The pandemic has also introduced further complications. According to the International Labour Organisation, there are more than 100 million fewer full-time jobs today than there were in 2019. And with millions more jobs at risk of being lost to automation in the near future, it is clear that boosting regional employment will require productive collaboration between universities, employers and governments to advance innovation.

One solution is to ramp up vocational training. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s 2022 Education at a Glance report, vocational training opportunities should be expanded across member countries to better serve the needs of some students. Expanding quality vocational education across the MENA region, a central component of SDG 4 (quality education), can create further opportunities for engagement with industry and enhance graduate employability by equipping students with the technical skills required by employers.

Moreover, a recent World Government Summit report, “The Future of Work and Education”, emphasises that government policy and funding support for vocational education can go a long way to overcoming the idea (among both students and employers) that technical education is a second-class option. In Bahrain, for example, a growing number of students are choosing technical and vocational education at secondary school and in adulthood through training institutes. Government funding is available to ensure that women in particular can access affordable training. The Qatar Fund for Development has also contributed to supporting vocational education in the region by funding technical training for Palestinian refugees.

But broader industry engagement with higher education is also going to be crucial to meeting the skills needs of the fourth industrial revolution. Several Gulf Cooperation Council countries, for instance, have ambitious national agendas – such as Oman 2040, The UAE Centennial 2071, and Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 – whose aspirations for technological, social, economic and educational transformations demand more robust links between higher education and industry.

In fact, universities across the MENA region have already taken important steps in recent years to strengthen industry partnerships, allowing corporate leaders to take a more active role in shaping and supporting academic curricula, teaching, research and internship opportunities. Examples include the United Arab Emirates University’s Science and Innovation Park, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology Industry Collaboration Program, BMW’s partnership with the School of Engineering at the Lebanese American University, and the IBM Center of Excellence for Smarter Logistics at the American University in Dubai. Such initiatives are key to making education more “future ready”.

MENA universities are also increasingly embracing entrepreneurship and innovation. Spurred by funding and support from the government, UAE universities, for example, have established new courses, specialised centres and incubators. These developments are important because the MENA region also ranks significantly below the global average for established entrepreneurs and conducive start-up environments.

Entrepreneurship centres and university incubators are also powerful tools for nurturing collaboration among industry, government, faculty, students and alumni, thereby fostering an ecosystem that cultivates innovation, creativity and, ultimately, jobs.

While the pandemic imposed pressures, the leap to online learning could offer ways forward. Based on lessons learned during the pandemic, universities across the region are exploring ways to make their education more flexible, accessible, collaborative, engaging and inclusive through digital learning, as well as other innovations, such as microcredentials and virtual reality. Technology provides the tools to reach a broader student population, expand lifelong learning and bolster industry collaboration at both the regional and global levels.

However, government support is also vital. The transition to online teaching in spring 2020 was smoother for those institutions that had the required funding and technological infrastructure in place. And many universities will need help to ensure the quality of their online, blended or hybrid programmes. In the UAE, for example, the Ministry of Education and the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education established the University Consortium for Quality Online Learning in 2020, with the goal of supporting several universities in the country to develop and implement accredited online courses and programmes.

To ensure teaching excellence, it is also imperative that lecturers are provided with the necessary training to embrace new delivery modes and pedagogies. Ultimately, no amount of technology can replace quality instruction. Accrediting bodies, furthermore, need to work more closely with universities to facilitate change through the adoption of more flexible processes that accommodate rapidly evolving faculty roles, educational delivery methods and non-traditional qualification models.

While universities across the MENA region have made some strides in partnering with industry for research and development purposes, there is still significant progress to be made. As highlighted in a 2021 McKinsey & Company report, Opportunity Youth: Imagining a Bright Future for the Next Generation, the average rank of MENA countries in the World Bank Group’s university-industry collaboration in R&D index is 63, offering much room for improvement.

Academics are central to any meaningful engagement with industry. And given that modern-day challenges are multifaceted, it is essential that scholars from across the disciplines are involved in building those relationships. But while such partnerships can lead to increased research productivity, many academics in the MENA region do not link the relevance of their research or teaching to broader industry needs or challenges. Furthermore, they are often not aware of the particular skills required by employers. Thus, university administrators need to take the lead in facilitating such relationships – by, for example, encouraging cross-disciplinary and applied research and providing support services for partnerships.

Transformative engagement with industry cannot happen in isolation. It must emanate from a clearly articulated university mission to foster global awareness, digital literacy, numerical competence, lifelong learning and creative, entrepreneurial mindsets. Such an education demands experiential, interdisciplinary, student-centred learning, delivered by faculty who are actively involved in collaborative, applied research and whose professional development is continuously nurtured by their universities.

This is certainly a tall order. But it is increasingly imperative if universities are to play the role of pioneers rather than followers.

Sabrina Joseph is provost and chief academic officer at the American University in Dubai.


Print headline: All-out effort required

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