The Tunisian turmoil has highlighted the urgent need to match graduate output with a commensurate pace of meaningful job creation in the Arab World, and the Gulf countries are no exception. What Tunisia has vividly demonstrated is that producing endless number of graduates from educational establishments is no longer a key yardstick of economic and social development, but matching graduates with meaningful and value added jobs is more critical to social, economic and political stability. University graduates with no hope of meaningful employment feel they are victims of an educational system that has succeeded in providing them with qualifications that cannot be used, and, worst of all, with expectations that cannot be met.
The GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] economies have been so far shielded, along with countries such as Algeria and Libya, by their oil and gas revenues, which enabled them to provide a social cushion and government-driven job generation schemes, but sometimes at a cost in low productivity. The Gulf countries rightly believe that an educated society will contribute towards nation building and induce economic growth and prosperity in the long run, with the added aim of building a more diversified economic base and laying the foundation of knowledge based economies. Governments hope that with basic infrastructure being built with sustained public expenditure support, the private sector would gradually assume the role of generating more employment for citizens.
Again these are laudable aspirations, but it is the pace of anticipated private sector job creation, as well as the type and quality of graduate output to match the needs of the private sector, that are the critical issues. No country has a perfect blueprint for solving graduate unemployment, and the alarming number of unemployed youth is not only applicable to the Arab World,but is also becoming a frightening phenomena for advanced economies around the world, as the recent student demonstrations in the UK so vividly highlighted. The British students who rampaged in London were also expressing their frustration at being led to believe that, after years of education and gaining of qualifications, they not only faced fewer jobs due to the financial and economic crisis, but they were also indebted before they even put their feet on the first steps of their professional career ladder.
In the Gulf, and in Saudi Arabia in particular, education has played an important role in government budgetary expenditures, with nearly a quarter of all expenditures going to that sector. Over the years, the government and private sector educational establishments have tried to match their graduate output to match the needs of the private sector, with more engineering and science based graduates coming out of the system. The King Abdullah Scholarship Scheme has also added to the Kingdom's varied graduate and specialist education program, by placing over 110,000 students abroad, and with more scholarships planned over the next few years. Of the current scholarship holders, nearly 2000 are in the medical field, mostly in Canada and the US, and, by all accounts they have demonstrated high technical and professional skills which can be easily absorbed into the Saudi medical sector when they return back to the Kingdom. However, like any other well meaning program, one learns as one goes along.
The dropout rate from the scholarship program, according to the Ministry of Higher Education, has been low at fewer than 2,500, while another 3,600 students have had to take an extra year of intensive coaching to improve their GPA grades before being readmitted to their host academic institutions. The above has led to a more intensive effort at ensuring that student pre-selection for scholarship admission is carried out more rigorously to reduce the dropout rate, given the costs incurred to the State.
The Ninth Saudi Five Year Plan for the period 2010-2014 has earmarked a massive SR 731 billion [$194.5 billion] on human resource development and education, or nearly 51% of the planned SR 1.4 trillion [$373.38 billion] expenditure. At the same time, it is forecasted that around 350,000 additional job opportunities are to be created by the private sector during the planned period, an ambitious, but possible task only if graduates can also lower their expectations on the type of jobs that they might have to do after graduating. Unlike Tunisia and other Arab countries less endowed with natural resources, and where any type of jobs are eagerly sought out by graduates, a key issue in the Gulf is that graduates expectations are sometimes not realistic and set overly high, despite the availability of jobs in many sectors. This is also changing, albeit slowly, but the images from Tunisia has been a wake up call for the entire Arab world to try and meet young people's employment aspirations in a realistic manner quickly, and so avoid a built up of frustration and expectations...
Source: Arab News, Saudi Arabia, January 25, 2011. Changes were made in keeping with the editorial policy of www.memrieconomicblog.org