With the student or young adult population the majority in most, if not all, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the higher education sector can perceive it as a boon. Countries like Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Cooperation Counties (GCC) have the resources and student population for higher education. But with the exception of the GCC, the supply of labour (i.e., job-seekers) in MENA is not catching up with the rapidly evolving and increasingly technology-driven job market, and the higher education system is not advancing fast enough. MENA now has a conspicuous skills gap, a discrepancy or gap between what employers need or would like to have, and what most job-seekers have to offer. A 2017 study revealed the percentages of employers who reported such a gap:
Jordan and Saudi Arabia, as examples, have a surplus of engineers and medical doctors. Many of those in Jordan are already un- or underemployed and people in other jobs are forced to find employment in low-wage or temporary jobs, like driving for Uber or Careem. The construction sector in Jordan and Saudi Arabia has been extremely slow since the oil slump in Saudi Arabia. The result has been a double-whammy—over-saturation of engineers and doctors and extremely slow job and economic growth. Al-Ghad, a premiere newspaper in Jordan, has been reporting that upgrading and improving the university system in Jordan has become a pressing priority.
The roots of the phenomenon are deep-seated. The number of university graduates in the GCC and non-GCC is only increasing. The number of Egyptian expatriates in Jordan, for example, also remains high, testifying to the understandable phenomenon that nationals prefer certain jobs or professional status. Professionals in accounting, engineering, and medicine have been unemployed, sometimes for over a year, or have “moved on” to other jobs. Many drivers for Uber and Careem have been searching for other, full-time jobs. These are gaps and the higher education system is one of them. Many majors in universities, such as renewable energy engineering, marketing, and human resource management, are not “mature” yet since the market for them is too small. Saudi Arabia, the biggest Arab market for all sectors, does not have many jobs for such a major, as Bayt.com shows. Several new majors are emerging without corresponding jobs in the private or public sector. These are gaps that represent opportunities.
The Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC) have different circumstances. Whether local, national universities there or foreign ones, they are much better positioned to capitalize on the increasing student population. Key barriers they face to research are:
- Limited funding
- Not enough institutional support for research
- Inadequate ecosystem for academic research
Other factors of the higher education system complicate the problem. Families expect and entice their children to become engineers or Doctors, as a matter of culture and tradition, and the institutional many other fields is low to moderate. Examples are, with no order, marketing, computer science, sociology, data science, political science, nutrition, and even new specialties in engineering. Students also typically cannot afford getting advanced degrees and they urgently need to work as soon as they can after college, if not also during college.
Another issue with higher education is that students “pick” their majors based on their senior year’s overall average, not their career – professional interests or talent profile. The Jordan Ministry of Higher Education, for example, stipulates that a student needs a minimum overall average of 75% to qualify for engineering or pharmacy, and 80% to qualify for medicine. Any averages below those thresholds “relegate” the student to any other major—business administration, nutrition, economics, and others. In fact, the scientific and literary tracks effectively determine the student’s very future and status– the student simply cannot switch from or to either track. Furthermore, the technology revolution is rendering some job functions obsolete altogether or out-dated, such as sales, market research, and others.
Two other factors are behind the slow higher education sector but have been invisible—the predominately small middle socioeconomic class, and students’ very academic preparation. The market for higher education has not burgeoned yet if we measure it exclusively by per capita or family income. Even in the GCC, the percentage of students who can afford to study in private, typically Western so expensive, universities, is very small. The other factor, academic preparation, is almost equally important. Few students can pass the IELTS and their English competence generally is not high enough.
Related to the first factor is the huge expatriate population in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, and others. This has delayed the professional growth of the nationals. Many Saudis, for example, are employed in the public sector and have relied tremendously on public education, health insurance, and other services. This has delayed their optimal education since many aspire or would prefer to study abroad.
Despite all the above, a closer look shows the following opportunities for renovation in higher education:
- E-Education: This has enormous potential in a region where people mostly in the GCC can afford to go to expensive schools, and the GCC are making it increasingly difficult for expatriates to stay.
- Book Distribution: It has great potential for the little competition in it. Curricula are now becoming digital and the sky is the limit!
- Book retailers can create a phone application in Arabic to encourage people to read
For example, content providers such as Cambridge University Press may need to have Arabic translations or some schools in MENA may need to launch partnerships with them for Arabized content. Arabic publishers can upgrade their content and target schools. The only content providers in MENA, academically, are Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Scholastic, Pierson, and others.
So, the opportunities in higher education are increasing, tempered by only short-term challenges. Content providers, the public sector, and other stakeholders in the Arab region, especially the GCC, should capitalize on it.
 Bayt and YouGov. (2017). “The Middle East Skills Report: Current Assessment and Future Perspective”
 Jordan Engineers’ Association and Saudi Gazette, 2015
 “The Weakness of the Educational Outputs Increases Unemployment” Al-Ghad Newspaper
 “Educating the Next Wave of Entrepreneurs: Unlocking Entrepreneurial Capabilities to Meet the Global Challenges of the 21st Century” by World Economic Forum, 2009