Universities in Africa and the Middle East hold the key to greater prosperity and sustainable development for the region, Amin El Sharkawi, the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Bahrain, believes. But it will require an urgent transformation of teaching and closer relations with business and industry for them to succeed.
Mr El Sharkawi delivered his message at the 2018 QS Maple conference in Bahrain, which focused on university excellence in all its forms. He acknowledged that universities, like other institutions in the region, faced serious challenges, but the rapid pace of technological change globally meant that they could not stand still.
“For decades, governments around the world have announced ambitious reforms of the higher education sector,” Mr El Sharkawi said. “They have been intended to strengthen higher education and drive innovation. Decades later, the same challenges exist.
We are still struggling to improve the situation for students. Global challenges are threatening stability around the world. A recent report estimated that 200 million people were unemployed globally, 74 million of them between the ages of 17 and 24. Yet businesses report skills’ shortages holding back growth.”
Mr El Sharkawi said the region was spending a greater share of its wealth on education than other parts of the world, 16.5 per cent of GDP, according to the World Bank, but it still lagged behind on the modernisation of the curriculum and teaching methods, as well as in access to university.
“In a world that’s rapidly changing, circulating capital and with revolutionary communications’ technologies, the alignment of knowledge and education is ever more vital for the success of societies and economies. Knowledge is replacing other forces as the main driver of economic growth. Education has become the foundation of individual prosperity and social mobility” he said.
“We are living in an automation age in which computers can already perform a range of jobs and physical activities better than humans, but they are also increasingly capable of doing the thinking behind those tasks. These technological advances are creating a new age, in which expectations for education, and skills for work and competencies are constantly having to adapt to new markets.”
Mr El Sharkawi reported that parents and students are tracking the performance of universities, seeking a stimulating environment that fosters innovation and openness, and that provides career opportunities. Recent surveys had shown that individuals with higher education have twice the lifetime earnings of people with secondary education alone.
“In these circumstances, there has to be some consideration of universities’ place in society because it’s changing so rapidly,” Mr El Sharkawi said, adding that academic institutions in the Middle East and Africa were already having to compete for students, as new markets emerge.
“There is a skills’ mismatch, with increasing numbers of firms complaining that inadequate skills are impeding their growth. Within the region, some countries are knowledge-based societies while others are still industrialising, but there is a paradigm shift to knowledge-based societies.”
He added: “The MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region is currently facing many development challenges. It is striving to develop strategies to cope with youth unemployment and achieve sustainable growth, but there are still problems: do we have the right institutions, curriculum and environment to produce more students who can excel? It is important for businesses to be able to come into this equation. If education systems are no longer delivering the skills that are required, maybe new partnerships are needed between universities, business and government.”
Digital education and learning offered new opportunities, using big data for education, Mr El Sharkawi said. He gave the example of Arizona State University, which analyses students’ keystrokes to assess their learning and customise education. “Universities in the Middle East and Africa have to face challenges of creating and enhancing their online activities,” he said.
“The digital economy allows countless opportunities. It has changed a lot of sectors, from banking to retail, publishing and health. In health systems, an app may be able to tell you what is wrong with you – perhaps not now, but in five years’ time.
There have to be changes in the education system to support that. It requires leadership from universities for long-term success.” Business and industry, as well as education, require further development.