GCC youth: Do they really care about education?

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Photo - Fahad Shadeed/Reuters

Here’s a question I always thought about: If I were rich, would I bother myself with studying?

As a child, I can’t remember a day when I wanted to go to school. At that age, we really just didn’t understand the importance of attending school, let alone enjoying it. However, I can tell you one thing: I enjoyed school better in England as a teenager than I did in Jordan, and that was purely based on the teaching techniques and extra-curricular activities that were used in the UK. Teachers did not require us to read, memorise, and then take a test. They required us to read, analyse, take part in practical work and then get tested. I felt that the British education system truly prepared me for the workplace, unlike my school in Jordan, which only spoon-fed information that I felt I was never going to use in real practical life.

Perhaps, that’s the case with schools in the GCC as well, which has led their governments to heavily invest in their education systems after numerous researches in order to better prepare the natives for workplace and tackle the expat-overload problem.

Employers tend to prefer expats because of their lower wage costs, higher productivity and generally better work ethic, as well as the fact that they are easier to hire and fire. A few tentative policy measures are under way with the aim of gradually narrowing the gap in terms of costs and employment rights, but this gap is likely to remain wide even by 2020.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the Arab world is one of the top global spenders on education. But how interested are GCC governments in education?

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) surveyed 65 countries around the world in order to find out the educational performance of students by using a standardised test called the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). And the result? OECD found that students from poor countries nearly always performed better than those in resource-rich countries.

It is generally thought that those who come from poor backgrounds are brought up to think that education is the most important asset in the world which will get you a good job thus enabling you to survive. Perception about the rich, on the other hand, is that they do not care too much about education thinking they will inherit and live off on their family’s money. As a result, they are likely to run themselves, therefore do not need to have the knowledge and skills for that.

Andreas Schleicher, special adviser on education policy to the OECD secretary general and head of its indicators and analysis division, explained: “One interpretation is that in countries with little in the way of natural resources – examples are Finland, Singapore or Japan – education has strong outcomes and a high status at least in part because the public at large has understood that the country must live by its knowledge and skills.”

However, generalisations should not be made with regard to this matter. I believe that eventually it all comes down to the family you come from: some are particularly pro-education and others aren’t. Many families feel the need to retain their high status amongst friends and society by sending their children to reputable educational institutions, while others ask their children to obtain a university degree in order to be capable of running their family business, or even embark on their own entrepreneurship adventure.

We also need to consider the important question of gender, which plays a big role in women’s education in conservative GCC societies. A survey conducted by Booz & Company found that despite women’s increased education and participation in the workforce, traditions and social beliefs of the GCC’s patriarchal system still exert influence over young women’s lives, which in turn limits their opportunities in education and employment.

Naturally, a related problem to the student’s underperformance is the high unemployment rate. One of the challenges facing GCC’s decision makers has been to link higher education more effectively to job markets and economies in general.

Despite a booming economy, Saudi Arabia is a country with a double digit unemployment rate. The government is pouring in billions of dollars into the educational system. Initiatives, such as the $2.4 billion Tatweer education project, aims to form partnerships with international companies to develop an education industry, curricula, teacher training and technology intended to create so-called smart schools.

Last year, Saudi Arabia also invested millions of dollars in a new project aimed at revamping their schools’ curriculum by making it more Western-friendly and globalised, in addition to involving a bigger number of Saudi teachers in the project. Other initiatives aim to include changing teaching techniques by allowing students to become more independent in their studies and provide a computer to every student.

This is a great move by Saudi Arabia as a change in the education system needs to be done right at the grass roots level. This way, students will have 12 years of education which will prepare them for the workplace and allow them to recognise a pyramidal society where senior public sector jobs dominate its upper echelons.

Education is a basic human right that every person should be entitled to. As for higher education, it could be seen as a personal choice. That being said, GCC governments’ wide and intense investment in education and related projects is commendable indeed. This is because GCC nationals need to start thinking of ways to continue their economic growth and survival in a post-natural resource life, and without education, training and scientific advancement, that will simply not happen. They need to depend on their own people and put their talents and intelligence to good use, rather than relying on expats. Not only the GCC governments investing their money in reforming their educational systems, they are also attending numerous national, regional and international conferences and exhibitions on education-related themes.

Young people in the Gulf are the policymakers of the future and need to be aware of what needs improving and what doesn’t. But what does today’s GCC youth thinks?

Young people make up one-third to half of the population of the GCC countries. Governments and businesses must understand the needs and aspirations of this critical generation in order to tap into their ideas and energy. According to a Booz & Company report, 415 young nationals aged 15 to 24 in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar were surveyed in which the main focus was on the areas most relevant to young people today which are:

• Education
• Employment
• Gender gap
• Leisure activities
• Community engagement

Because education is a cornerstone of young people’s development and the basis on which the Gulf’s knowledge economies will be built, it was a major focus of the Booz & Company survey. Young people certainly recognized the importance of education. When asked “What is your major priority/ambition in life?”:

• 45 percent gave top ranking to completing their education
• 17 percent said that finding a job was their first priority
• 10 percent noted their top priority was to get married and start a family

However, when it came to the quality of their education, the primary beneficiaries of the GCC’s efforts were not happy. When asked, “To what extent do you think the education system of your country has prepared you/is preparing you to find a job?”, they responded:

• To a large extent: 19%
• To some extent: 50%
• To a lesser extent: 20%
• Not at all: 12%

In order to drill down into youths’ discontent, Booz & Co asked survey participants to specify what was wrong with their education system:

• Traditional methods of teaching: 63%
• Theoretical knowledge/Lack of practical application: 60%
• Curriculum not in line with job market: 58%
• Lack of training: 53%
• Lack of qualified teachers: 52%
• Outdated curriculum 39%

According to the International Labour Organisation, the Middle East currently has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world for people between the ages of 15 and 24. The 2009 youth unemployment rate of 24.9% was nearly double the global rate of 12.8%.

Young GCC nationals saw a number of hurdles to employment. When asked: “In your opinion, what are the challenges that people encounter while looking for a job?”, they responded:

• Very few jobs available: 58%
• Low salary: 57%
• Lack of previous job experience: 49%
• Job qualifications are high: 46%
• Lack of appropriate skills for their chosen job: 24%
• Lack of career progression/growth: 18%

So, what does the future hold for the Gulf Cooperation Council nations? Will all their investments make a huge difference and deliver the desired results, or will little change would be seen in years to come?

A study conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, titled “The GCC in 2020: The Gulf and its People” predicted that the younger generation of the GCC will be increasingly well-educated and IT-literate. It also noted that an increased number of female workers with the potential to support further economic growth and diversify the economy. However, this does not mean that the number of expats will be decreasing any soon.

Although efforts to improve the educational systems have been underway for over 30 years (in some GCC countries), the issue is unlikely to be fully resolved by 2020. Governments’ focus will remain on pre-secondary education and English-language skills, as these are essential and necessary for nationals to take full advantage of the increasing number of foreign private universities and colleges in the Gulf.

The improvement in education is likely to have social effects, including the encouragement of GCC women, to work in a wide range of sectors than in the past.

However, governments will need to look further beyond education reforms and focus on the structure of labour force by changing some policies in order to change nationals’ work ethic to match that of what the private sector prefers their employees to have.

Nothing is guaranteed in life. However, knowledge is power and education is the only asset that allows us to get back up on our feet if we were to lose our resources or want to make some in the first place.

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