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How the Arab Spring Could Affect Higher Education

Dec 7, 2011 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 0 Comments

The Arab Spring movement officially began on December 18, 2010, when Mohamed Bouzazi, a Tunisian street vendor, set himself ablaze to protest harassment and humiliation inflicted on him by local authorities. His action struck a chord heard round the Arab world, and protests in Tunisia later led to the overthrow of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. A wave of demonstrations and protests in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan, Algeria, and Iraq, sparked massive social upheaval and sometimes the overthrow of tyrannical governments.

While many factors have driven the Arab Spring movement, there’s no question that one of the more important is youth unemployment. Recently many Arab countries have invested considerably in post-secondary education, but still many students are graduating local colleges with few job skills employers are looking for—and a sluggish job market.

An improvement in local higher education could lead to better employability for its grads—both internationally and at home. Here’s a look at how the Arab Spring movement may change
college-level education in their countries.

Arab Spring Minaret

Education reform is one of the demands issued by some protestors and movements associated with the Arab Spring. And they may get it.




More standardized academic models

Traditionally, the involvement of education institutions in Middle Eastern countries at the international level has been fairly low. One reason for this is that several different academic models are used—including American and French.

Better ways of funding schools

Private-sector education has blossomed in the past 10 years, accounting for over half of the institutions in a wide region of the Middle East—and about 80% in some countries. Private universities are more expensive than public, limiting student access based on funds. However, the destabilization of government in countries such as Egypt also meant the destabilization of funds for public universities. It’s possible some Arab countries could be driven to find more stable ways of funding school through private-sector partnerships—or expand the role of government in funding colleges in the future.

A different approach to teaching

If you think recent grads have it bad in the US, try moving to Egypt. There, the youth unemployment rate is up around 34%, and most college grads wait over two years for their first job. While this is partially to be blamed on weak economies, many employers say that graduates lack key skills—not just a knowledge of the technologies and systems that the modern world depends on, but also soft skills such as teamwork, cooperation, critical thinking and creative problem-solving.

In some areas of the Middle East, colleges have been found to depend on lecturing and memorization in the classroom—teaching techniques that don’t develop strong communication, cooperation, and analytical skills on their own. It’s possible that education reform could lead to a teaching approach that better emphasizes these skills—and produces graduates who are more prepared for the job market.

Better pay for teachers

Low teaching quality is a problem at universities in many Middle Eastern countries. Low status and compensation in the culture often means that schools often don’t attract dedicated professionals who have and are willing to continue to invest in their own teaching skills. An increase in professor pay—and a shift in the culture that improves inherent status of the profession—could do a lot to improve education in the Middle East.

Strong post-graduate and vocational schools

In addition to four-year colleges, there is a surprising dearth of good trade schools in many Middle Eastern regions—teaching plumbers, nurses, electricians, and others.  This leads to a lack of graduates with the practical, hands-on skills needed in modern society. There are also few strong graduate schools, meaning a lack of people who become academics and professors themselves. A stronger investment in both the vocational training end and the research and graduate education end could dramatically improve education in the Middle East.

Education reform is one of the demands issued by some protestors and movements associated with the Arab Spring. And they may get it. The Arab Spring movement has overthrown powerful dictators in several countries—so it’s already shown it can get things done. Education reform is a more long-term change, requiring significant investment, patience, and dedication. But with enough political will, it’s very possible the Arab Spring movement could lead to dramatic education reform within Middle Eastern countries.


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