In the “gig economy,” only highly skilled workers are sought after. Most Arab youth are in a precarious position, neither able to compete globally for top jobs nor for jobs that can be offered at a lower cost to migrant workers, short-term contractors and, increasingly, off-shore subcontractors. Arab countries are now under more pressure to address the challenge that larger numbers of their workforce will be shut out of future jobs. They must invest in higher education and stay sharply focused on the returns for graduates and their economies.
Regional employers looking to recruit software engineers, health specialists or science teachers are all competing for a very small pool of qualified talent from within the region. This is in part due to the varied quality of higher education in the region, but it is also a numbers challenge.
Countries with the most advanced economies graduate much higher numbers of youth than the Arab world. The countries of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, better known by its OECD acronym, enroll 70 percent of their youth population in higher education. Meanwhile, China has grown its higher education enrollment rates from 19.3 percent to 43.4 percent between 2005 and 2015. The Arab world is not only trailing behind the best in class, its regional higher education enrollment rate sits at 28 percent, well below the global average of 35 percent.
Despite the chorus of arguments against a university education, it remains one of the best investments in the future of a young person. Globally, every year of additional education increases an individual’s earnings by 10 percent. In the United States, a university degree holder earns $1 million more over their lifetime than their peer with only a high school education.
Higher education is not the answer for every Arab youth, but the scholarship application process at the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education shows that there is an overwhelming number of smart young people from across the region who cannot afford quality higher education on their own. In two years, we have received over 65,000 applications.
Still, neither governments nor philanthropists have infinite resources and higher education can be expensive. How, then, can investment in higher education yield higher returns? Three strategies in particular would offer higher returns in higher education in the Arab world.
Prioritize financial support for first-generation university students. Upward social mobility is one of the best outcomes of a student accessing a quality university education. In the Arab world, a young person from the lowest economic quartile is three times less likely to go to university than someone from the highest income bracket. For the 37 percent of our scholars who are the first woman or man in their family to enroll in a university, their education is not only going to help them gain a good income, research shows that they will also help lift their entire families out of poverty. Many of our scholars have plans to fund the education of their siblings, support their extended family financially and open businesses in their communities.
Reward universities invested in the success of their students. Students in the Arab world are acutely aware of the employment challenges they will face once they graduate and are looking to their universities to help prepare them for this step. In our recent regional survey, 90 percent of students believed preparing for their careers was the most important outcome of their university education. Yet, two thirds thought they did not have enough career information, counseling and work experience opportunities. Our foundation is selecting its university partners in large part based on their commitment to support students beyond academics such as offering cooperative education, internships and summer jobs. It is time for universities to establish more robust efforts to ensure student success and to have transparent reporting on their results around student completion and employment rates, among others.
Incentivize university innovations that lower cost and time barriers. The demand for good-quality higher education is no longer limited to full-time undergraduate students. Changing market needs are putting pressure on governments and employers to continuously reskill workers without university degrees and upskill those with outdated degrees. Universities can play a significant role, well beyond their traditional teaching approach. Our foundation is investing in developing the capacity of the best universities in the region to adopt and offer quality accredited online courses and certificates. Governments should incentivize innovations that lower cost and increase learning flexibility by directing national universities to carve out resources and putting in place clear accreditation processes for these new educational models.
Universities have an important role to play in helping the current workforce adapt to the changes of the gig economy. They must do their part in preparing young people for the future of jobs that we have yet to fully comprehend.
Maysa Jalbout is the founding CEO of the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education.
AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH BARRAK