Quality of Education Suffering in the Region

Quality of Education Suffering in the Region

  • 4 February 2010

Advocating the need for education to move from memorization to application of knowledge,  Paul Dyer, Research Associate at the Dubai School of Government (DSG), in this exclusive interview to ECSSR Website, says there is a business case for a more broad-based adaptable education in the region. Dyer, who co-manages the Middle East Youth Initiative at DSG, also calls for pushing the boundaries of education, promoting critical thinking and developing soft skills among the youth. Following are the excerpts:

Q1. What role have institutions, such as Dubai School of Government (DSG), played in making education relevant to needs of the time?

In the grand scheme of things, DSG can only play a fairly small role. But we do try through reaching out not just to traditional, academic audiences but really providing a venue where we can bring people from various sectors together and to have constructive dialogue. That is our primary role as an institution in this regard in addition to providing education and training to future Arab leaders.

Q2. Tell us something about the Middle East Youth Initiative. What are its objectives and to what extent has the DSG succeeded in meeting the objectives?

First of all, I think for the Dubai School of Government (DSG), the Middle East Youth Initiative has been a very effective partnership with a Washington-based institution, the Wolfensohn Center for Development at Brookings, and this partnership has really allowed us to bring together a network of important regional and international scholars to do groundbreaking research on youth in the Arab world or the wider Middle East, but has also helped us engage a broader network of policymakers and activists on the ground who are working with the youth. The goal of the initiative is to provide a deeper diagnosis of the economic challenges that young people in the Middle East face but also to steer it towards coming up with effective policy solutions. So through our work with this network of scholars and policymakers we have helped shape some short-term and long-term guidelines for policy and have come up with some effective ways to include more youth in the economic process. But moving from those guidelines to actual changes on the ground for the youth has been challenging, particularly on how does research in academic communities tap into policymakers and work with them to create effective policy changes.

Q3. What are the major challenges facing the youth in this region with regard to education and employment?

Well, fundamentally the quality of education is suffering in the Middle East. The region has been effective in investing more in education, in building more schools and hiring new teachers. But even though there have been efforts at reform it has not really been all that successful in shifting the type of education that it has provided to young people to meet the demands of the changing and more modern economy. So this transition from a traditional rote memorization-based education to a more student-learning center, dynamic education that promotes the ability of young people to take knowledge and apply it in the real world and problem solving analysis is still really needed. Another fundamental challenge is invigorating the private sector to hire or to reach out to young people to provide them job opportunities. Part of that bridging between the two interests is about building more tangible skills for young people but at the same time allowing firms to take more risks with hiring young people. So may be we should look at gradually changing labor market regulations so that they are more flexible and open and allow for young people to experiment with different types of jobs and encourage private sector firms.

Q4. Is the education system in the region filling the skills gap needed to enhance productivity? What have been the hits and misses in this domain?

When we talk about the skills gap in this region we tend to focus on a managed economy perspective where we want to identify particular skills and particular industries that are going to be the industries of tomorrow and to prepare young people to take jobs in those. I don’t come from a managed economy background and the one thing about managed economy is they never stop having to be managed. Every intervention that you impose on an economy skews it a little more so that there are additional problems that you have to address. So when we look at the skills gap may be there are ways to come out of it is not so much to focus on particular industries or particular skills but to focus more on providing a really broad based but comprehensive education for young people so that as they grow up and start to make labor market decisions, they are empowered to take on any jobs that excite them. It is also nearly impossible to identify what is really going to be the industry of tomorrow. If you asked people 20 years ago if our economy would look like this today, would be so technologically driven, you wouldn’t really be preparing people for the jobs that were needed. The most important thing you can do for young people today is to provide them with a broad-based adaptable education. You don’t train them to do repetitive, non-cognitive activities. We don’t need people to build cars anymore, robots build cars. Any process that is repetitive and requires constant action instead of mental engagement is going to be done by computers in the future. So what you need to really focus on is pushing the boundaries of your education and providing critical thinking, problem solving and adaptability and soft skills – communication and leadership. The problem with the rote memorization-based education system is that you assess the memorization of knowledge but there is very little emphasis on its application.

Q5. What do you mean by the term ‘youth exclusion,’ which you mentioned in your lecture at the Conference?

There is a lot of talk in the region about this great opportunity that we have with this young population and how we need to empower them. Significant efforts have also been made to invest in them, in education and job creation. But the fundamental institutions that shape our behavior as economic actors in these economies leads to normative behavior i.e. leaving school, finding a good job, settling down, getting married, forming families etc. These are normative, natural processes. But young people, because of the institutional process, cannot make those transitions productively. That is what we mean by exclusion. They are actually excluded from taking on the normal roles.

Q6. What are the prescriptions for overcoming the ‘youth exclusion’ phenomena?

On a very simple level, when we look at particular solutions to education and employment we need to make sure that we are viewing these potential policy solutions and the entire context of the transition to adulthood. We need to know how expectations about marriage and family formation are affecting young people’s decisions about employment. We need to know employment expectations are shaping what students are willing to invest in. So you can create a great innovative educational system but if the labor market incentives don’t change then students wouldn’t go out and spend an extra four years studying this great program if they are still thinking well I should probably get a public sector job.

Q7. You have talked about business regulations restricting private sector growth. But governments are also encouraging small medium enterprise (SME) and other private sector entities. How do you look at that phenomenon?

There is an effort to promote SMEs but its actually those SMEs that are most susceptible to regulation constraints. Big firms can absorb the cost but as long as it is difficult for a young person to go through the procedures of starting a business, as long as it is really difficult for a small business to hire people and then dismiss them, then you are putting blockages in front of entrepreneurship. This may be why America is so known for entrepreneurship but the more managed economies like the traditional European ones aren’t. The flexibility of the American arrangement allows for more firms start-ups and creation. The important point in this is that when are talking about entrepreneurship, those issues affecting the private sector regulations are much more important to small firms. As long as you have that rigid regulatory environment, you have a problem creating effective firms. The other big issue is bankruptcy. A lot of entrepreneur firms which are risky, new and dynamic enterprises and if you don’t allow for firms to fail and if you don’t allow people to officially close a business and get back the assets that still remain, then people will be much less likely to take the risk as part of business and so even if you do see an increase in SMEs, they wouldn’t really be entrepreneurial or innovative.