The Arab Spring could bring about the momentum and political will needed to improve failing higher education systems in the Arab world, said educators speaking at the third annual World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha, Qatar, last week.
Despite laudable investments in post-secondary education in many Arab countries, the region suffers from the highest youth unemployment rate in the world. Tunisia, for example, invests 7% of gross domestic product in education but graduates nevertheless find themselves poorly equipped to compete for jobs.
The resulting mass youth joblessness is considered a major contributing factor to the revolution in that country, which eventually led to the fall of former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and sparked protests across the Middle East.
"The immediate challenge is to generate the skills and economic opportunities that will bring employment, security and rising living standards to youth," said Dr Ibrahim Salah K Al-Naimi, former president of Qatar University. "This is missing in the lives of many young people."
The speakers believed unrest sweeping across the Middle East could be harnessed to create the conditions needed to make meaningful change to post-secondary education.
"The Arab Spring is perhaps the best thing that could have happened to the agenda for education in the Arab world," said Dr Tarik Yousef, CEO of the SILATECH Foundation. "The Arab Spring could elevate the agenda to the position it deserves, which is thinking about education reform as a long-term commitment by our governments and societies to change."
The Arab world is young. One in five people are 15 to 24 years old and 50 to 90 million young people are expected to enter the job market in the coming decade.
However, one in four young people currently looking for employment is jobless. In Egypt, the youth unemployment rate has reached 34%. University graduates there wait an average of two years before finding a first job.
Struggling labour markets are largely to blame for the lack of opportunities but employers also complain that the education system is producing graduates lacking basic skills.
"In addition to the hard skills missing in certain disciplines, most employers express dissatisfaction with employees' skills, namely the soft skills or what we call 21st century skills," said Salah-Eddine Kandri, the UAE-based project leader of the Educators 4 Excellence project of the International Finance Corporation.
"Things like problem solving, critical thinking, team work and cooperation are missing in the region."
An overhaul of the approach to teaching is necessary to address the lack of soft skills among Arab graduates, said Dr Muhammad Faour, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Lebanon.
Excessive dependence on lecturing and emphasis on memorisation has led to a classroom environment in which students are not encouraged to develop analytical and communication skills.
"The delivery methods that are being used are a problem," said Faour. "When we look at our students, we see they lack key competencies for lifelong learning: communication, basic competence in maths and science, digital competence and a sense of initiative and entrepreneurship."
Low quality of instruction is a persistent problem in many countries.
Faour pointed out that the low status and compensation of teachers needed to be addressed. "We need teachers who are creative, teachers who can update their skills all the time, who are willing to adapt to different situations, who can accommodate students of various needs, who are enthusiastic and dedicated to the profession."
"Demand for education leading to employment is substantial in the region, but the supply of relevant post-secondary education is very basic," said Kandri. "The region is facing a massive education for employment supply challenge."
Because of poor governance, public colleges and universities are not able to meet demand, he continued. Only 15% to 20% of students are enrolled in private educational institutions in Arab countries. In comparison, 50% of students in Malaysia and 75% in Brazil attend private colleges and universities.
Some countries including Oman and Morocco have made significant investments in vocational training and internships, but most countries tend to focus post-secondary on high-level university education.
"There is still a perception that higher education is where we need to go," said Kandri. "There is a strong bias against vocational education and certain professions like nursing, plumbing and electricians."
Because few universities in the Arab world have flourishing graduate schools, very few students study at graduate level or engage in research, which has caused a dearth of academics who go on to become professors and foster a rich academic community.
In Qatar this appears to be changing. "In the past two years, the Qataris have made significant investments in research," said Dr Michael Long, chair of the office of applied research at the College of the North Atlantic Qatar.
"They see research as an alternative to their resource-based, finite oil economy. And I hope their vision will spread to other countries."
Yousef believes that public opinion has shifted, and youth demanding access to relevant education and employment opportunities will be heard by politicians. "This won't only affect countries experiencing protests, but also countries with stable politics. The higher standards will lift everyone," he said.
"If I happened to be an autocrat, I would be thinking about how to take this initiative and make things happen."