Higher education investment needed to halt Middle East's student 'brain drain'

The region is home to 8 per cent of the world's university students, but lacks the top-class facilities to serve them

A study by the Majid Al Futtaim business group found that many students who go overseas never return to the region. Photo: PA
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A shortage of top universities in the Middle East and North Africa, coupled with concerns about future employment prospects, is causing a "brain drain" of talent out of the region, a report has warned.

A study by the Majid Al Futtaim business group and McKinsey found that 8 per cent of the world's university students come from the Middle East, North Africa and Pakistan (Menap) — but only 1.5 per cent of the best universities are found there.

The relative scarcity of top facilities to meet the needs of the region's brightest has led to many "leaving to study abroad, and in many cases, not returning home”, according to the report.

Dr Frederic Schneider, an economist and lecturer at the University of Birmingham in Dubai who researchers issues related to education and population in the region, said some countries were moving to bolster their education systems to retain the workers of the future.

Countries like Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, they still don’t have the funds and the capacity to educate all these people to a satisfying degree in their own countries
Dr Frederic Schneider, University of Birmingham in Dubai

He said a transition to a knowledge-based economy in the UAE was “partly happening”, with the country having developed some high-quality universities.

However, he said progress was still to be made on creating the research-and-development infrastructure to encourage innovation and jobs.

“The limited availability of high-quality education domestically and the demand on the labour market for higher degrees and better education, that’s certainly driving a lot of this brain drain,” said Dr Schneider, who is not connected to the new report.

Increased funding in the UAE for federal higher education could also help to make the system more attractive to Emiratis and encourage more to stay in the country to study for a degree.

“You see a lot of spending on construction, more tourism-oriented projects; I wouldn’t be surprised if the focus shifts … towards research and quality higher education,” he said of the UAE.

Dr Schneider said that stronger universities were also developing in Saudi Arabia, but in Egypt, for example, young people felt there was a lack of opportunity under the current regime, while other North African nations did not have the higher education provision to keep their most talented young people.

“These countries like Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, they still don’t have the funds and the capacity to educate all these people to a satisfying degree in their own countries,” he said.

He said that some GCC countries felt unemployment was becoming a concern, which acts as a factor “pushing” people to leave.

Long-standing focus on overseas studies

David Hawkins, founder and director of independent specialists The University Guys, which helps students choose and apply to colleges, said Middle Eastern students traditionally looked to English-speaking countries, particularly the US, UK, Canada and Australia, for higher education.

“There are some governments that have funded programmes. For example, Oman has a programme; Saudi has a programme to encourage students to study in other countries. [Going abroad] is almost baked into the system,” he said.

Mr Hawkins said his company was getting more interest from students in the region who wanted to go abroad, but added this may not reflect the overall picture.

In some other countries in the region, such as Lebanon and Syria, instability drives out people who want to work in a knowledge-based economy.

The report forecasts 55 per cent growth in the labour force in the region between 2020 and 2040, by which time 120 million young people will have entered the job market.

Changes in the labour market mean that people of working age will need more qualifications and skills in the years to come, according to the report.

“Driven by the emergence of new technologies, a higher share of jobs will require a university degree by 2030, and more work activities will require socio-economical and technological skills,” the report says.

“As a result of trends accelerated by the pandemic, more than half of low-wage workers in declining occupations globally may need to shift to occupations in higher wage brackets that require different skills.”

The report warned that automation could displace nearly 29 million jobs, or almost one fifth of the total labour market, by 2030.

Global search for skilled workers

'The National' speaks to Alain Bejjani at Davos

'The National' speaks to Alain Bejjani at Davos

While concerns have been raised about young people leaving the region, countries have plans in place to plug the gap from overseas.

The report says that some countries in the region “have made great progress on talent attraction from abroad”.

The UAE, for example, has targeted “highly skilled talent” and witnessed its population increase from 3.5 million in 2000 to nearly 10 million today.

“While this talent may have been perceived as transient in the past, alongside these efforts the UAE has introduced complementary initiatives, such as golden visas, to ensure that talent that comes to the UAE remains there for the long term,” the report says.

“At the same time, it is nurturing and upskilling home-grown talent and future leaders that will be key to unlocking a prosperous economic future for the region.”

In the region as a whole there is, however, “a pressing need for job creation” given, for example, the growing youth population and high unemployment rate, which, at 9.2 per cent in 2020, is significantly higher than the global average of 5.4 per cent.

As reported in The National, the report also calls for the free flow of people and goods in the region, arguing that this will boost economic growth.

Updated: June 08, 2022, 8:37 AM