Leading policy-makers and academics called for education reform in the Middle East and North Africa, as the region faces a triple challenge of 22 million children out of school or at risk of dropping out, high youth unemployment, and diverging access to and quality of public and private education. As solutions, they pointed to technology as an educational tool, life-long and vocational learning, and public-private cooperation.
“Today, governments are struggling between getting the basics done and dealing with emerging conflicts,” said Ghassan Hasbani, Deputy Prime Minister of Lebanon, on the opening day of the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa. But necessity and urgency can also help leaders to “think out of the box,” he added. In those circumstances, “basic technology can be used to help advance education, particularly at the literacy level.”
Pre-school is the best place to focus investments and introduce these basic technologies, said Maysa Jalbout, Chief Executive Officer of Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education, United Arab Emirates. Only 31% of children in the region are currently enrolled at this stage, with most of them enrolled in private education. The result is that “inequity in education starts at this very early stage,” she said, because pre-school is the most crucial time for learning outcomes later. These technologies and their capabilities should come from within the Arab region, not from import or “copy-pasting”.
“If you don’t develop your indigenous capability, you cannot sustain the results,” said Tony F. Chan, President of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia. He called for “multigenerational” investments, both at the research university level and at the kindergarten level. Inherently, it shouldn’t be a problem: “Algorithmic thinking is an Arab invention,” he said.
But it would be wrong to think the private-public educational gap is just a regional problem that can be solved only with technology, said John Sexton, President Emeritus, New York University, USA: “There is a worldwide disinvestment in thought and education, teachers and compensation … The big picture globally and in this region is that we have to worry about the privileged isolating themselves in the area of education that is successful, and the politicians settling for what seem to be good results.”
Youth unemployment in the region is endemic, with up to 38% of youth unemployment even in wealthy nations such as Saudi Arabia. To solve that, Marita Mitschein, Senior Vice-President of Digital Skills, Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) South, SAP Middle East and North Africa, United Arab Emirates, suggested more public-private cooperation. In one project, her company “picked the ‘raw diamonds’ and ran them through a bootcamp.” The result was a 100% job placement in its ecosystem afterwards.
But even as the private sector can help improve post-education job placement, policy-makers and educators should not forget the primary objective of education, Jalbout said. “It should help people solve the problems they face.”
The World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa is being held at the Dead Sea in Jordan on 6-7 April in partnership with the King Abdullah II Fund for Development (KAFD). The meeting marks the 10th hosted by Jordan since it was first convened at the Dead Sea in 2003. It is bringing together more than 1,000 government, business and civil society leaders from over 50 countries.