Universities must lead Middle East transformation

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Amin El Sharkawi

Amin El Sharkawi, the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Bahrain, calls for change in higher education and appeals to universities to help meet development goals. John O’Leary reports.

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.

Mr El Sharkawi argued. “The World Bank says the region is stagnant in this respect compared to the progress made in countries such as China, Thailand or Vietnam. While we need to embrace the knowledge economy, we also have to reflect on the region’s universities and how they teach. A lot of work still needs to be done.”

The higher education landscape is undergoing significant change as a result of technological innovation, he said, and both governments and the private sector would have to play a part in investing in universities and establishing innovation models and hubs. “This is the way forward because the teaching of tomorrow will have to focus on problem solving, rather than memorising. The private sector already has a big role in on-the-job training and also in working with universities.”

As a Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Mr El Sharkawi also appealed to universities to embrace the organisation’s Strategic Development Goals (SDGs): “I would urge all universities to take the lead in this transformation and draw up strategic plans to realise their contribution to the achievement of these aims. There is a lot of investment from companies and countries into the development goals, and universities should be able to attract some of this. Universities should not only prepare students to implement the SDGs and take part in the work, but also to carry out research as to how to address the 159 different targets.”

The 17 interconnecting goals are intended to be met by 2030. They range from the eradication of hunger and poverty, to gender equality, clean water and action on climate change. The education goal mainly concerns the provision of basic education for the millions of children displaced from school, but universities have been involved in the provision of scholarships for refugees and others from developing countries, teacher training and research.

The UN regards higher education institutions as one of the key drivers of the SDGs. At a 2017 UN conference, Peter Thompson, President of the UN General Assembly, described access to quality education as a fundamental building block for upholding peace and sustainable development.  He stressed the role of higher education institutions in supporting the implementation of the UN’s Agenda 2030 by providing the data, research and analytical knowledge required for targeted and effective policy-making.

At the same conference, Marie Paule Roudil, Director of UNESCO Liaison Office in New York, had highlighted the key role of higher education institutions in the achievement of the SDGs. “Universities and higher education institutions can provide advice and guidance on strengthening national education systems, as well as aspects of capacity-building across different sectors. They can provide expertise and strengthen the interface between research-findings and decision-making, using evidence-based data, as well as problem-based scientific research,” she said.

Mr El Sharkawi suggested that this could be a two-way process. “I believe that we are able to achieve a breakthrough in university excellence in all its forms through partnership – public/private partnerships and others,” he said. “We at the UN are pleased to collaborate and provide our support, encouragement and engagement.”

Amin El Sharkawi is the Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Bahrain and also the UN Resident Coordinator, simultaneously directing and coordinating the functions and activities of all other UN agencies. He is the designated representative of the Secretary General for development operations and leader of the UN country team. Over his 25 years at the UN, he has served in several Arab countries, including Syria, Egypt and Yemen, as well as in New York. Mr El Sharkawi has an MSc in engineering from the University of Massachusetts and an MBA from the Maastricht School of Management, the Netherlands. Before joining the UN, he worked for a private company in the UK. He is experienced in negotiation, mediation, change management and product management, and has worked with a number of governments, development banks and donors. His posts have involved him in institutional capacity building and economic planning, giving him considerable knowledge of development issues in the Arab world.