Mena education in need of reforms

Dr. Leila Hoteit, a Principal with Booz & Company in the Middle East, talks education reforms and training for the workplace.

How are countries in the MENA region faring regarding the education sector.
The countries are not rating very high on quality. If you took the international tests they are not doing well at all. So the various countries are very much aware of that and most of them are doing a huge reform, especially on the primary and secondary education. Okay, what are the various issues? What are we finding? Let’s break up the problems. If you look at the first layer of the onion, it’s the student outcome, you know. Student outcomes are low in certain specific countries where you have nationals, like the GCC where you have nationals verses expatriates and you find that nationals are not performing well. And then we will come back to the question that you raised before about motivation. So the student outcomes are low and that’s an international test, but also in terms of enrollment at university we find that, men especially, are not doing that well.

The gender gap has reversed. Women are actually more educated and they form the majority of graduates between 55 percent and 70 percent across the region. Universities in the region are also not rating very highly in terms of ranking. So, in terms of quality, you have an issue. And in terms of the nationals and several of the GCC countries you have a major issue as well on quality. So before we get to the issue, let’s see what the underlying issues are. There are underlying issues within the school and you have issues out of school. We talked at first about motivation. That starts a lot with parent aspiration. We have interviewed parents and what we find is that they do not have high aspirations for their kids because they know they will have, or they prefer, the stable, secure public sector jobs like the army, the police etc. They are not pushing their kids to study masters or they are not pushing their kids to study hard or to study because they think that they should be going to go to public sector. They are not pushing them enough to be entrepreneurs and they are not pushing them enough to be going for the private sector. They are pushing them to the public sector and not necessary to study very high.

So that’s an initial, you know, place to look in terms of motivation and something that we need to break. I think, you know, by working with the schools by working with public campaigns etc. within the schools you have a variety of issues. 
You have issues of school leadership, principals, you have issues of teachers. 
The nationalization that has come to try and employ national people has made 
things worse, because then you need 
to invest in the right professional 
development to empower these, to enable the various teachers and the 
various principals.
So you are trying to reform a system that is in dire need of reform at the same time you are trying to fix the employment issue, even within the sector. And those two things will not necessarily go 
together. You have issues of curricula that have not been refreshed and they have not been aligned to the skills of the 
21st century. There is nothing for the special needs children which are a big thing in other countries where they realize that if you take early intervention you would get more success later, that is if you catch them at all. So with all leavers within school you are having issues. And if you peel the next layer of the onion, you find that it is also the question of the public sector. When you talk about the public sector it is public schools. Does the public sector have the system and regulation for private schools. Do they have the capabilities? Do they have the right? 
There should be a government system in place to be able to tackle this and that’s the next layer of the issue, you know, their part of the strategy should be in building their capabilities of the regulator and to be able to operate the public schools, rather than just leave them to their own devices and hope that everything would be fine.

 

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Are we seeing a push in that direction and which countries are leading that?
I can tell you that quite a few countries are; they are going the route of major reforms. Abu Dhabi, I think, is in the middle of leading major education reform. Dubai is looking at its educational strategy and trying to do something. The Qatar Foundation is also pushing hard to reform, looking at what they have done so far and how they need to refine it. So across the GCC and Saudi, of course, and Saudi sees more of the role to be played by the private sector. So they, the private schools, they have an implicit target that 25 percent of nationals will be going to private schools within the next five to 10 years. So I think, across the region, you see a clear commitment to reform. Whether they will succeed or not will depend upon whether they will be able to build the capacity, capability and government system.

So which countries do you think are the most vulnerable of failing?
Which ones are failing?

Yes, which ones will fail?
I do not want to be quoting a specific country, because many of them are our clients, but those who will fail are those that do not understand that you need to focus on building capabilities.
But they are all focusing. Maybe they do not have the right tools; they do not have the right strategy or right methods in place.
Yes, sometimes they prioritize job creation verses capability building, and I mean education has to be at the core. That is how you are going to be building your future swift force. So you need to, you cannot take compromises, you cannot take short cuts. It cannot be just a job filler within the education sector. This is where you need to get your best people. Whether it’s principle school leadership or teachers. You need to attract the best to education and that’s something that still has not clicked in many countries in the GCC region.

Which one needs to improve?
All of them need to improve.

In terms of education that is being set up in the region, I have been told that not enough emphasis is been given to 
business management and to finance.
Yes.

Why?
Because there is a need to change the curriculum and there has not been enough investment in that area. So I think they are starting to realize that now. They are starting to integrate technology into the curricula, but just giving an iPad to kids is not going to work. You need to really re-think the curricula to make sure it fits or matches. This is the key issue, one of the key issues of the region is that when graduates come to the workforce the private sector is not interested. They just do not see what skills, you know, the skills being available. So many things need to be done. Changing the curricula, but also [offering] internship, apprenticeship within those companies during the school years so that you bridge the gap between the school education system and the private sector. So the curricula needs to change, we need to add finance and business, we need to add entrepreneurship. All of these are values that you need to build from much younger, and that we do it in our very old curricula.

Currently, graduates are equipped for what kind of jobs? Which sectors will they serve?
We try to equip them with basic skills. There are other issues as well as career guidance. This affects 
everyone, but women more so, because they are always pushed by families, but they also lack career guidance and lack women-friendly careers: health care and public sector.

So it’s a very bleak scenario?
It is a very bleak scenario. And that’s why we need large employers to take on the role. You cannot just focus on education because it’s going to take a long time to get that reform working. And if you start working with somebody who is five years old you need to wait for 12 years before you actually see the product. So education, you cannot just throw more money at it and just hope things will go three times faster. That does not work. So we need some fasttrack solutions. We need the large employers to do big training for employment education for employment that are extremely targeted. So that you can get those graduates quickly into the workforce.

 

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You can throw money at that problem.
Absolutely. I mean you can throw money at that. Getting the first job is often the very difficult part. So sometimes the government can potentially fund or co-fund the salary of the first year, so the private sector is more incentivized to actually hire those young graduates. The problem is when they end up being unemployed at the beginning, it’s a vicious circle.

One of the things I have been hearing often has been the fact that children end up having bad education, locals especially, in the Gulf. They end up coming to the workforce and wanting to have extremely high salaries. So they end up working for the government, refusing to work for the private sector. And that is creating, for private companies, a lot of inflation, because if they have to maintain quota, it’s basically getting high salaried people that are completely useless.
Yes. The good ones are being stolen by other private sector companies. So if there are a few good, smart, national people, their salaries are more inflated because other private sector companies are trying to get them as well. So that is true.

What should be done to solve that?
First of all the government should stop being public sector jobs. It’s basically under employment. So that need to stop to help these, you know. Aid or 
government help does not help. So 
that needs to stop and the whole nationalization, now we are going more away from education, we are going more into labour. That’s what you’re 
asking me, right? About the nationalization strategy, is it being effective? No it’s not being effective in this way. We need to work on making those nationals much more educated; their skills need to match the market, we need to work on motivation, which we talked about before, they are not motivated. Many students were just going to the army or police.

One professor told me there are two things that are missing in education in the region. First is the freedom of speech, being able to express yourself, and the second is being able to innovate and transform. And without those two things, it poises to fail any program for transformation. What are your views on that?
I would tend to agree. I mean I completely agree on the whole. We need to integrate things. We had a transforming summit education summit in Abu Dhabi a couple of weeks back and one of the technology companies was saying that in the market there is disruption, so we need students who can think in a disruptive fashion, think creatively, think innovatively and education is not at all giving those skills to the students. They are just focusing on trying to get the course skills and that is clearly failing because the whole creativity, the whole innovation, the disruptive innovation skills are 
not there.