The Expert Commentary

Leading commentators offer their perspectives on the key findings of the ASDA'A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey 2018.

Education failings leave young Arabs with uncertain futures

Raed Barqawi

Kim Ghattas

Kim Ghattas is a non-resident scholar at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. A longtime BBC correspondent, she has covered the Middle East, the US State department and US elections. She is the author of The New York Times bestseller: The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power. She is currently working on her second book, about the regional impact of the Saudi-Iran rivalry since 1979, due out in winter 2020. She sits on the board of trustees of the American University of Beirut.

Underserved and unappreciated, the region’s youth continue to be an untapped resource and their disappointment with the education they are receiving is the least surprising finding of this year’s Survey. When three-in-four Arabs say they are unhappy with the education in their country, however, what they are really expressing is their concern about employment opportunities. Employment was cited as the top concern of young Arabs in the 2017 ASDA’A Survey, ahead of terrorism and extremism.

Warnings about the mismatch between the quality of the education in the Middle East, whether in schools or universities, and the job market have abounded for years. Well before the explosion of discontent in the Arab uprisings, economists, education experts, international organisations and local NGOs, all raised the alarm about the growing youth bulge and the rapid rise in unemployed youth: 65 per cent of the region’s population is under 30, and most numbers show that youth unemployment stands at a regional average of 25 per cent and rising. This means it is twice as high as the world average. The IMF has been warning, again, that the problem is only getting worse and could lead to another wave of instability.

And yet, little if anything has been done to address the structural issues in both the educational system and the labour market. Most governments, with some notable exceptions, still spend too much on sectors like defence; Tunisia is spending some $2 billion on overhauling various aspects of its education system, while Saudi Arabia is also devoting resources to upgrading its education infrastructure.

Across the region, the problems abound: from a lack of teacher training and an emphasis on rote learning in schools, to the overbearing influence of nationalist or religious dogma in some countries, the lack of critical thinking in education undermines young Arabs’ acquisition of the life skills needed to thrive in a competitive market.

Society still places too much pressure on young people to obtain a university degree at all costs, a highly valued prize which unfortunately does not always translate into marketable skills. In Egypt, university graduates are twice more likely to be unemployed than someone with only a primary degree. Traditional degrees such as engineering or medicine are still oversubscribed, despite the saturated job market. The expectation of a job for life in the public sector has also undercut both the reform of education and the growth of the private sector for decades. This became unsustainable a long time ago for populous countries like Egypt, with its notoriously bloated bureaucracy, or even smaller countries like Jordan and Lebanon-and yet again, nothing is done.

Better planning, including in co-operation with the private sector, is a necessity to match the education infrastructure to the needs of the labour market, including vocational training and re-training, promotion of entrepreneurship and services, such as job counseling and careers fairs.

The pipeline to government, or government-connected, jobs continues to flow in GCC countries, and might explain the discrepancy in answers from Gulf countries: while 70 per cent express concern about the quality of education in their country, only 20 per cent express concern about how well this education is preparing them for the jobs of the future. In rich countries with small populations, such as the UAE or Kuwait, job security is less of a crushing concern. However, even these rentier states must contend with the reality that their successful but ageing model is not a roadmap for the future, neither for their states nor for their citizens.

What is deeply distressing in the survey’s findings is that more than a half of young Arabs would prefer to pursue a higher education in the West. Those who can afford to study abroad will do just that. Most of them will excel with high marks and go on to thrive in jobs in their adoptive countries. Those who do return home with a prized degree will often find their aspirations frustrated and their job search fruitless. Even in Gulf countries, where many Western universities have opened satellite campuses, 38 per cent of respondents still want to study in the West. Restraints on academic freedoms have undercut that particular experiment’s potential.

When the region’s youth dream of studying in Western universities, they are also in search of more openness, more space to express themselves, more creativity and inclusion; progressive values that few universities offer in the region. One of those is the American University of Beirut (disclosure: I sit on the AUB board). Ranked number one in the region in 2018, it has a long tradition in liberal arts and a track record of producing generations of graduates who have gone on to be leaders in their fields. The region needs more such places of learning to inspire its youth and produce the leaders of tomorrow.

The brain drain of the region’s brightest is untenable if the Arab world is to have a better, more inclusive future where young people are seen not as a threat to the stability of governments and systems, but as an untapped potential to unlock. The continued gap between the education sector and the job market is a sure recipe for further instability. Throwing money at the problem to build fancy facilities will not solve the problem either.

To meet the challenges of tomorrow and the aspiration and needs of its youth, countries across the Middle East need to overhaul school curricula and upgrade the degrees on offer, introduce a more interdisciplinary approach to learning in schools and universities, and help channel students towards skills and degrees that will make them desirable on a changing job market - from sustainable agricultural experts to artificial intelligence wizards. There is no issue more urgent in the region today.