Is there a demand for transformational know-how in the MENA region?
n=33; 0=no demand, 5=very high demand
Are there sufficient local and international offerings for this demand?
n=34; 0=not at all, 5=a great deal
In order to identify the requirements for a potential MENA Digital School, we designed a questionnaire and reached out to numerous potential stakeholders and experts from different fields and countries in MENA and Europe. Our research identified that there is a much greater demand for transformational know-how in the MENA region than is being met by the existing offerings in the region.
Our interviews also revealed major intra-regional discrepancies. While some Gulf states are perceived as being among the global pioneers of digital transformation, and isolated digital hubs are emerging across the urban centres of the region, e.g. in Tunisia, Lebanon and Morocco, digital transformation still has to enter the critical agenda of decision-makers and the public in other parts of the region, especially rural areas.
Tech companies, as well as regional governments and international donors, are increasing their efforts to mitigate the negative effects of digital transformation. But given the manifold challenges, the offerings to date were described as inadequate and all too often disconnected from each other. The first key finding, therefore, is that there is a demand for further educational offerings in this regard, and an urgent need for action to address the challenges of tomorrow, those associated with digitisation and automation, today.
According to the experts consulted, a mix of e-learning modules and classic face-to-face teaching, ideally in Germany, would be particularly advantageous for the structure of the MENA Digital School. The interviewees emphasised that the global trend towards e-learning has reached the region and that tackling digital transformation would require a degree of digital content delivery. However, the vast majority of participants noted that a solely digital approach may not work well in the current transitional phase of digitisation. Apart from political obstacles to teaching in the region, participants stressed that face-to-face learning remains important for cultural reasons and improved trust- and community-building. It would also cater best to the needs of different types of learners (observers, readers, listeners, introverts).
A hybrid model including e-learning must bear in mind the difficulty of access and challenged infrastructures where students in need live in areas of limited connectivity. Consequently, it would be important to provide equitable learning conditions. It was also noted that acceptance of e-learning offerings in the region has increased during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
In addition, the consulted experts believed that close cooperation with German and European companies is important to guarantee hands-on learning and increase the added value for applicants – companies already active in the MENA region are of particular relevance here. Cooperation with the private sector would allow a reciprocal exchange of expertise and learning. The experts stressed that there should be a focus on best practices across functions, but that cooperation would also tap into potential collaborations and hopefully incentivise German/EU companies to be more present in MENA through investments.
While the involvement of European companies was believed to be crucial, the involvement of local private sector partners was occasionally viewed as even more important, as this could accelerate the distribution of information and facilitation, increase context awareness and allow knowledge transfer to a local setting.
Furthermore, our research suggests that it is particularly valuable to offer highly personalised learning paths with content tailored to the requirements of prospective students. For example, students could apply with a concrete idea for a project and a specific learning objective. It was emphasised that students from the region were believed to have a gap in soft skill competencies (communication, critical thinking, analysis).
The knowledge bases of prospective students are expected to differ widely, depending on country and context. Therefore, most participants viewed tailor-made teaching and project-based learning as key to success. The experts consulted were less unequivocal about whether projects should be part of the application process itself. On the one hand, this was viewed as a barrier for prospective applicants that would make the programme less accessible. On the other hand, some experts believed it would attract students with the intrinsic motivation necessary to excel in the programme. Other experts also voiced concerns regarding the potential administrative costs for the institution.
The interviewees also welcomed the integration of students into a network of lifelong learning that closely interlinks alumni with the know-how in diaspora communities, as well as the private sector. Diaspora communities were believed to have different access and methods of cultural interaction.
The importance of a form of traditional university certification from Germany was also emphasised, given that this was recognised locally by regulatory bodies and also included local cases and local content. The cultural importance of certification in the MENA region was also stressed. However, our experts noted that the global trend towards so-called badge learning and micro-certificates has arrived in the MENA region, and the importance of content compared to degrees is increasing.
German branding was widely regarded as advantageous in the MENA context. However, it was also noted that German branding might be viewed as less strong in the spheres of education and digitisation, where American, British and French offerings are currently better positioned in the region.
Target groups and countries
The MENA region is widely considered to encompass all predominantly Arab countries in North Africa, the Middle East and the Gulf, as well as Iran and Israel. The region includes countries which differ greatly in their demographics, economic development, political systems and levels of digitisation. However, our research suggests that the demand for transitional know-how transcends these categories.
Thus, apart from GCC countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, considered to be at the forefront of global digitisation, any country in the region could qualify as a recruiting ground for potential students. The need for talent for digital transformation in middle-income countries such as Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt and Jordan was mentioned most regularly, followed by countries such as Sudan, Iraq, Libya and Lebanon – these last three are also classified by the World Bank as upper middle income countries. In addition, the Palestinian Authority territories and the diaspora were mentioned.
Therefore, our research also revealed the potential for synergies with a focus programme of the German Ministry for Foreign Affairs in the region, namely the recently restructured Ta’ziz partnership.
As the current state of connectivity varies in the region, our research suggests that primarily students residing in urban centres will be eligible for the MENA Digital School. According to recent research by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, the region already has an urbanisation rate of 65%, higher than the global average.
Two main target groups have been identified. Firstly, young graduates; secondly, middle and senior management and civil servants. Each of these groups has distinctive attributes and requirements. For example, young graduates are most affected by the digital transformation, but also best able to adapt to its challenges.
Many experts suggested, however, that demand for transformational know-how is in fact greatest among the current generation of decision-makers in the private and public spheres. As one interview partner put it: You will easily reach digital natives, but those who really matter are decision-makers who can really make a difference – people who hold the strings of power and who know that something needs to change, but lack the know-how.
We believe that synergies between these two very dis tinct groups are possible and meaningful. For example, master’s course modules could also be used for executive education, thereby mixing younger and experienced students. Furthermore, the selection of students should take into account the gender dimension of the digital transformation (See: Great Expectations: The Potential of Digitisation and Automation to Shape a Feminist Future of Work in the Middle East) and in particular support women, to tap the enormous potential of the region’s female workforce. Another potential target group mentioned regularly was refugees, for example by reserving a certain number of places for applicants hailing from refugee communities.
According to our research, the MENA DS curriculum should go beyond teaching merely technical content such as coding or statistics, to holistic thinking about the process of digital transformation. The interviews revealed a particular demand for leadership and management skills, followed by social and political skills, and then by legal matters such as digital property rights. The experts made it clear that the curriculum should aggregate existing best learning content in MENA, Germany and elsewhere but also develop missing practical experience and business cases with an Arab context.
Based on an initial review of relevant publications and a screening of experts, we developed a blueprint of the MENA Digital School and a questionnaire in collaboration with a smaller group of selected experts. In the second stage of the project, we reached out to further experts and stakeholders. In total, we conducted more than 35 full interviews and 10 video interviews, and consulted with around 20 additional experts. In selecting the interview partners, particular emphasis was placed on gender balance. The research presented above is thus the result of a highly interactive process, with the goal of building a community of like-minded people.
A Broad Overview
Initiatives similar to Candid’s MENA Digital School have been introduced in the region with increasing frequency in recent times, adapting to less conventional educational methods. Where organisations like the Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University and SVU (created in the early ’00s) present traditional university educational programmes, newer initiatives are more flexible in their offerings. Working alongside primary/secondary education, or even with young people who have basic skills and have not sought out higher education tracks, they present the opportunity to develop sought-after skills in a digitised labour market.
As with the MENA Digital School, these other initiatives aim to equip young Arabs with specialised technological skills, as per the demands of the developing labour market. They encourage ‘upskilling’, allowing young people of the region to take up roles which demand more specialised skill sets, rather than outsourcing from around the world. Some of these initiatives also explicitly state their aim of maintaining relationships with graduates of their programmes, using these connections to further benefit future students and strengthen partnerships with potential employers and partners.
Over the last few years, many British, French and American universities have opened branches in the MENA region. While this is an attractive and substantial market for international education institutions, foreign universities often do not translate their content into the MENA context. Furthermore, the MENA non-Gulf area is almost completely left out of the view of major Western prestige institutions. Several universities in the region were founded as a result of international cooperation between European, American and local actors. They specifically target the region, but lack a focus on digital transformation.
Certification does not have to be in the form of officially recognised undergraduate or postgraduate degrees. Various institutions have developed their own unique forms of certification, such as the Future Work is Digital certificate underpinned by Udacity, an American educational organisation which focuses on tech skills. While the programme is run in Egypt for Egyptians, Udacity’s support guides the course development and its certification lends legitimacy to its ‘nanodegree’ graduates. The fact that Egypt’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology agreed to work with an American for-profit organisation may suggest that the demand in the region is being acknowledged and addressed, and that partners are being sought for collaboration.
Technological Transformation in Arab Universities
The last decade has seen technological development enter the educational system, not only in content but also in form. Technological advancements globally have led to universities adapting conventional classroom methods into blended learning models and remote accessibility for distance learning. A large reason for this increase in the availability of blended learning models is the cost-effectiveness of e-learning, in particular the belief that it could boost enrollment rates.
However, the distance learning model has not been without its issues. The lack of a strong telecommunication infrastructure across various Arab states, paired with a shortage of technical staff and the poor technological readiness of students and faculty members, means the rollout of such programmes has been particularly difficult. Furthermore, online degrees tend to have an inferior reputation. It is felt that the best learning can be done in person, or at least with an in-person base.
The Arab Open University is an example of a successful hybrid model, as a university aimed at Arab citizens in less urban areas. Most of the learning is done online, but there are actual buildings across the region – its headquarters in Kuwait, as well as branches in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Lebanon. Students visit the campuses for administrative work and to meet faculty members two-four times a month. This system offers the flexibility of remote learning without the commitment to living in an urban centre, all the while allowing students to interact with teaching staff when necessary.
A particular advantage of distance learning is the move away from conventional teaching and learning methods practised in the Middle East. Whereas Arab secondary and higher education institutions tend to focus on rote learning and memorisation, a distance learning approach can offer a more interactive experience, which could prove more rewarding for students. As these programmes tend to be developed specifically for a new digital age, they incorporate the need for soft skills such as critical thinking, rather than testing memorisation ability.