Which challenge should be considered the most vital and pressing given the current circumstances the region finds itself in? This question was posed to an audience at last month’s WEF meeting in Jordan. Most voted that reform was most needed in the education sector.
The chair of the session Mohannad Khatib, a Sky News Arabia presenter, pointed out that 60 percent of the region’s population was under 25 years of age. What’s alarming is that our youth currently constitute more than 50 percent of the total unemployment in the region.
The session endeavored to shed more light on how the region’s society can make sure that the coming generations are equipped with the tools they need to face the many challenges ahead. Leadership and governments play a crucial role in this regard, in order to ensure a legislative environment that would be conducive to the implementation of educational reforms. “Everybody talks about reforming education, but when it comes to results we don’t see much happening,” added the chair of the session.
Khatib sat surrounded by three young global shapers, namely Eman Akbar Rafay, a researcher of Public Policy at Oman’s Diwan of the Royal Court, Tariq al Olaimy, the cofounder of 3BL Associates, and Charif Hamidi, a senior consultant and entrepreneur. The other two prominent figures were Jordan’s Minister of Education Omar al Razzaz, and the Chairman of Vision 3 and the Vice Chair of the Arab Business Council at the WEF Khalid Abdulla-Janahi,.
Each of the speakers offered their unique insights on the youth problematic. To start with, Rafay said MENA’s youth should only be perceived as a resource that can be used and won’t become depleted. For now, the figures of youth unemployment in the MENA region are double the global average; 27 million people are either unemployed, not in training or without education. She stressed on the search of purpose and emotional distress these people go through, adding that such a status cannot be a norm in our society; it has to be an exception.
Hamidi suggested a different outlook through the lens of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and disruptive technologies. “An industrial revolution is about the speed at which you acquire a market share. By the time I finish this sentence, a classic retailer would have lost $1.3 million in revenues to an e-commerce platform,” he explained. “The telephone took 75 years to acquire 15 million users, the Internet four years, Facebook two-and-a-half years, WhatsApp 15 months, and Angry Birds 15 days. The disruption means we can no longer be complacent. The MENA region is at a crossroads; we can either embrace disruptive technologies and take advantage of them, or we can just ignore them and watch our socio-eco-political situation deteriorate.”
According to Hamidi, today’s MENA can only count on itself. “You may say we missed out on the Third Industrial Revolution. I call the Fourth Industrial Revolution MENA’s Industrial Revolution. Because our huge, young population is not a liability, it is a gift,” stressed Hamidi. The only way for the region to move from ambitious independent initiatives to a real visionary systemic change, believes Hamidi, is by sharing of success stories as well as mistakes and lessons learned.
Al Razzaz labeled the current generation as “the waithood generation.” Students tend to finish their high school studies and jump right after into higher education without necessarily knowing what they are actually doing. “In Jordan, 47 percent of university students don’t like their majors and have no role in choosing it,” he stressed. “Then they graduate and look for a job which they don’t find, and this prevents them from having a well-settled life.” This disparity has grave economic consequences, one of which could be a divided society that could even lead to the dichotomy of rich and poor. And though so far it is not a predominant trend, it does exist and is indeed a source of concern, he stressed.
According to al Razzaz, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is unlike any preceding one. “So far, the education in the Arab world has stressed on creating clones of our students, who are identical to each other, who answer in the same way when asked a question, and it is a part of our paternalistic culture, and a result of the preceding industrial revolutions that wanted people to be alike and be capable of doing the same job,” he explained. However, the Fourth Industrial Revolution necessitates and advocates for individualism, creativity, and critical thinking. Thus, to adjust to the demands of this revolution the education system will require changes that don’t happen with a push of a button, but will require a generational change.
Additionally, the minister emphasized on the importance of lifting mental and social barriers to facilitate discussions of any nature. “Arabs don’t read. Why is that so? I don’t think this is of a genetic origin. People read when they have questions. They search through literature to find answers. The reality is that in our part of the world we have turned most of the questions into taboos—be it social, political, religious or scientific taboos. Therefore, we have to allow our youth to ask questions without any fear.”
He, however, remains hopeful about Jordan where youth are aware of their potential that can be unleashed once they are allowed to express themselves. Al Razzaz mentioned three areas of focus: the impact of technology and its benefits of self-education, outdoor-classroom activities such as volunteerism, sports or arts, and the way we examine and test students. “Our tests emphasize broad memorization and the value of an individual is reflected in one number. We need to disrupt this to allow for greater competition among students,” he concluded.
Abdulla-Janahi further elaborated on the notion of critical thinking, stressing that education reform starts with allowing teachers themselves to think critically. “Before we demand reforms, we must reform ourselves,” he said. “If the system is to change and if rulers are to become leaders and their subjects are to become citizens, we must realize that we are the ones who allow such a system to exist in the first place … This is closely linked with empowering citizens and entrusting them with certain duties. When it comes to education, we can no longer afford not to empower our youth.”