Mideast education funds matter, but so does R&D

Investing in R&D means continued employment opportunities. It is a snowball effect that the region needs.

Yara al-Wazir
Yara al-Wazir
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This week, the UAE’s Abdul Aziz al-Ghurair Fund for Education announced a $1.1 billion fund dedicated to underprivileged youth in the Middle East. The fund will provide 15,000 young people with access to tertiary education at the region’s top universities, as well as mentoring schemes and access to internships. This comes at a time when the region is struggling to provide young people with the opportunities they deserve.

This has created the world’s largest untapped market of young, unemployed yet ambitious individuals yearning for change. The Middle East has the world’s highest unemployment rate, with 46 percent of young women and 24 percent of young men actively seeking jobs without success. The region is struggling to provide a promise of a stable future for young people.

The lack of access to education, limited opportunities, and absence of core skill development opportunities means even those who graduate from university do not have the right skills for employment. The employment model itself is heavily based on nepotism, leaving some of the best talents unrecognized. Inevitably, this nepotism has created a layer of distrust between young people and industries.

There is also an absence of outlets to train and develop vital skill sets that are useful in everyday life. While the mentorship scheme this particular fund offers is helpful, and while it is important for education funds to exist, they must not be used to pump young people with a piece of paper out of universities and into the wild.

Just as this education fund is working with leading universities across the Middle East - including the American University of Beirut (AUB) and the American University of Sharjah (AUS) - it is equally important, if not more so, to work directly with employers to ensure equal opportunity for job-seekers.

Investing in R&D means continued employment opportunities. It is a snowball effect that the region needs

Yara al-Wazir

It is important to remember that while internships are useful in developing skills and exposing young people to working life, unpaid internships marginalize young people who come from less privileged backgrounds. This would include the very people this fund aims to support.

Therefore, strong emphasis must be placed on paid internships that are not limited to shadowing or basic admin errands, but rather developing grassroots projects, just as one does in the workplace.

Obtaining a university degree is a drop in the ocean to grow the region’s economy. It is important to recognize that for many countries in the Middle East - including Morocco, Egypt and Jordan - industries that require university degrees, such as technology, are relatively underdeveloped.

This means obtaining a degree is not the key to success, and young people are more likely to end up unemployed by way of being overqualified if they have a degree. Research conducted by the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 2015 showed that young university graduates in the Middle East are up to three times more likely to be unemployed than their uneducated counterparts.

Other types of education

Public expenditure on tertiary education per capita as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is noticeably higher for tertiary education than primary education. In Kuwait, this is 118 percent at the tertiary level and 14 percent at the primary level.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) country average is 20 percent at the primary level and 28 percent at the tertiary level, according to the World Bank. The great skew and concentration on tertiary education can almost be counterproductive to a successful economy, as investment comes too late.

While it is important to invest in tertiary education, internships and mentoring schemes, it is equally important to invest in the Research and Development (R&D) sector in the Middle East. This includes funding university research to streamline manufacturing and service industries. This would complement the region’s fastest-growing economic sectors: oil, gas, banking and finance.

Investing in R&D means continued employment opportunities. Undergraduates can only help the economy grow so much before it stagnates again, whereas investing in postgraduate research provides employment opportunities for more people, while producing research that creates even more jobs.

It is a snowball effect that the region needs. The Abdul Aziz al-Ghurair Fund has started the snowball - it is up to business people and industry leaders to offer opportunities so it carries continued momentum.

Yara al Wazir is a humanitarian activist. She is the founder of The Green Initiative ME and a developing partner of Sharek Stories. She can be followed and contacted on twitter @YaraWazir

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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