Student voices vital to education reform

Survey shows importance of listening to youth to improve schools

There is a palpable sense of urgency in the Middle East to improve employment levels and job options for the region’s growing youth population. Half of the Middle East’s population is under the age of 25, a quarter of whom are unemployed — one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world.

One reason for widespread unemployment is the mismatch between the skills businesses need and the skills being taught in schools. Indeed, even the most educated suffer high unemployment. In Saudi Arabia, for example, more than 40 percent of those with university or vocational school education are unemployed, while in Morocco and the United Arab Emirates the rate is over 20 percent.

To their credit, governments around the Middle East are aware of the youth employment challenge and some seek to address the problem by making “human capital development” core to their policy agendas. Governments of the Gulf Cooperation Council states have increased education spending and introduced regulatory and governance reforms. Nevertheless, problems persist, and one particular problem is in stakeholder engagement.

The necessary changes in the education system in the GCC currently involve a range of stakeholders such as governments, local authorities, schools, academia and the private sector. Yet students, the most important stakeholders, are often overlooked.

This is a grave error. Bringing students into the process of improving education is good policy and effective practice. They are, after all, the ones seeking gainful, satisfying employment in just a few short years. And, as a practical matter, reforms are more likely to succeed with student “buy-in” and enthusiastic participation.

The pupil’s point of view

Experience from around the world shows that bringing students into the process of improving education is good policy and effective practice. Places as different as Alberta province in Canada and Shanghai in China regularly survey and consult with their students.  The government of Alberta operates “Speak Out”, an online and offline platform that gives students a greater voice through blogs, podcasts and real-time surveys as well as forums and conferences. Shanghai uses student evaluation instruments, such as the National Survey of Student Engagement-China and the High School Survey of Student Engagement-China, to measure student engagement at undergraduate and high school levels respectively, which were developed by Indiana University in the United States. We recommend for all GCC states to emulate best practices of student engagement in upgrading their education systems.

As a first step, Booz & Company recently commissioned a survey of high school and university students in the GCC to help education leaders and policy makers understand student perceptions of the education system. The findings are currently being compiled into a white paper, but through Executive we provide you with a first look at the results. We are confident that policy makers can use them to great benefit to engage with students and anticipate changes in students’ needs and attitudes.

YouGov, a research and polling firm, conducted close to two dozen in-person interviews along with a broad survey of over 1,300 students in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar. The male and female students included nationals, Arab expatriates and Asian expatriates who attended public, private local and private international schools.

The theoretical “maximum sampling errors”, that is assuming that half of those surveyed chose a particular response, come in at a 95 percent confidence level for the various samples in the study with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent.

The students have strong and surprising opinions. On the issue of choice, GCC students told us that the range of courses is too narrow and few regard available education offerings as very relevant to their career goals. The result is that students do not deeply engage with the subject matter. Students are particularly upset by the lack of opportunities to study English, which they believe is crucial to their future success. Only 17 percent of students from Saudi Arabia are satisfied with their English options.

The desire to have better trained teachers is particularly strong among GCC students. Unfortunately, teacher quality suffers because the profession lacks prestige and teachers receive little professional development or support. Poor quality training is perhaps the greatest hindrance to good teaching. Most GCC training programs create “lecturers” who talk at students, not “facilitators” who inspire students with creative methods, such as new technologies.

Students also want schools to treat extracurricular activities as an essential part of their education. Rote learning will not prepare them for the changing, knowledge-based economy in which they will compete. Hence, students need a well-rounded education that puts creativity at the heart of academia. They want more activities related to arts and literature, such as drawing, poetry, digital technologies, writing, drama, music and dancing. In the same vein, students want more field trips for education and entertainment.

The students’ desire for more creativity fits well with the official desire to base the economy more on knowledge than natural resources. Education providers should therefore consider embedding creative subjects in the classroom alongside traditional academic subjects, to inspire the next generation of creative talent and provide a boost to job creation.

For example, the fusion of computer science, arts, design, along with creative subjects (such as music, film, or photography), can develop the skills needed for the creative and digital industries that the region needs. These activities lend themselves to the eventual establishment of small and medium-sized firms, again an area that governments want to see thrive.

Looking beyond school to the workplace, roughly a third of students told us they want to work in the public or government sector, while another third hope to land a job at an international private company. Only 11 percent are interested in working for a local private company, with an equal number focused on starting their own business. Men were more likely to be aspiring entrepreneurs than women (14 percent compared to 9 percent).

Having a role in reform

The focus on public sector jobs may be because schools provide little, if any, academic advice and career counseling for students. As a result, students simply don’t know their options and rely mostly on parental advice and aspirations. They told us that it would be helpful to have access to career advisors, career fairs and other forums to learn about the pros and cons of public and private employment, along with the chance to meet business people who might serve as role models.

What is heartening is that students want to play a role in reforms through school student councils, as well as through social media such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter. Indeed, 60 percent told us that social media has already made it easier for them to personally influence education reform. This view is especially prevalent among UAE residents (25 percent), compared to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait (19 percent each) and Qatar (8 percent). Policy makers and educators must seize on this youthful enthusiasm.

Today, nearly two thirds of the in-depth interviewees in our survey trust the leaders of the education system to provide good secondary schooling. However, students also grumble that school officials don’t want to listen to them and they give low scores to their interactions with administrators. In fact, 26 percent of those from Saudi Arabia and 22 percent of those from the UAE complained that they have no influence at all over school reform.

According to our survey, leaders still have students’ trust, but they must act now by including them in reform efforts before it is too late.

 

Leila Hoteit is a principal at Booz & Company and Mounira Jamjoom a senior research specialist at the Ideation Center, Booz & Company’s think-tank in the Middl

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