Too many Middle East universities are failing their students

The region produces 8 per cent of the world's university attendees

A student walks past damaged buildings at the University of Mosul in 2017. AP
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Every year, Egypt trains about 7,000 doctors. If they practice in the country, they can expect to be paid on average $200 a month. In Germany, a specialist is paid more than $6,000. In the US, plastic surgeons can earn almost $50,000. The discrepancy between working at home and abroad is a similar story for many other disciplines, particularly technical ones.

In the face of such discrepancies, there is mounting evidence that parts of the Middle East might be training a lot of highly qualified young professionals, only for many of them to leave. In some places, the problem is critical. According to data gathered by Arab Barometer, between 2020 and 2021 almost half of Lebanon's citizens wanted to leave for better prospects abroad. Between ages 18 and 29, it rose to 63 per cent.

Other challenges are adding to the problem. Increasingly, it is not just a lack of jobs but universities themselves that are dissuading the brightest young people from staying in the region. A new 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. However, only 1.5 per cent of the best universities are found there. The report says this has led to many "leaving to study abroad, and in many cases, not returning home”.

A man looks at university degrees placed by Lebanese unemployed graduates on a roadblock. EPA

This is not just a problem for technical fields. Yesterday, Egyptian fans of squash, a sport at which Egypt excels on the world stage, were divided after news that one of their country's star champions, Mohamed El Shorbagy, switched allegiance to play for England. “I’m really excited to be representing England. I have lived there for more than half my life and I’ve trained under British coaches since the age of 15,” El Shorbagy, 31, said in an interview. He added that the difficult decision took months of reflection, but he eventually made it based on the years-long support given to him in England. He is particularly grateful for two major scholarships, one to a leading sports private school, the second to a specialist university.

This week has seen more worrying data that brings a whole new angle to the issue of higher education in Mena and the brain drain. Consultancy agency PwC has released a report that argues that increasing the number of women in the workforce in the Middle East could bring its GDP up by 57 per cent. If inadequate higher educations becomes another barrier to the many already in front of the region's women, the economic cost would be huge.

The Middle East is more than capable of improving its institutions. In some parts, particularly the Gulf, there is progress. Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa University of Science and Technology was recently named the third best educational institution in the Arab world in the QS World University Rankings 2022. Five universities in Saudi Arabia were added to the same list. Fourteen of the kingdom’s higher education institutions are now on it.

Whether in antiquity or the Arab renaissance seen between the 19th and early 20th century, there is proof that intellects can be fostered in the region. At many points in history, people from abroad have flocked to the Middle East to learn in its many academic centres. Without action, an increasingly high number of young people from those same countries will do the opposite, perhaps never to return.

Published: June 10, 2022, 3:00 AM