Twenty-first century knowledge economies

by Will Rankin

As the Gulf states look for ways to fill gaps in education and skills, new institutions and online courses are developing in the region

As emerging market and Middle East economies continue their rapid ascent, international education uptake has benefitted in tandem. Between 1970 and 2010, the number of students in tertiary education globally rose from 33 million to 178 million, according to the UK Government report International Education: Global Growth and Prosperity.

“[Education] growth is expected to continue globally, as a result of demographic change and rising incomes in developing countries, with emerging economies particularly focused on increasing numbers of students in higher education,” the report said.

While those may be the official statistics, Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, are drawing in many more students, particularly individuals from low income backgrounds. MOOCs are growing in popularity globally and offer students the opportunity to engage with learning in an open format through the internet. Typically, a course is made up of a series of video tutorials, lectures and workshops. Crucially, MOOCs are usually free, and are now seen as a powerful platform for the democratisation of global higher education.

While both businesses and elite universities have embraced MOOCs to date, with Harvard and MIT in the United States offering free open courses, it remains to be seen how free online global education could cause a tectonic shift in the way the world learns. For now, bricks and mortar universities are intensively reviewing their strategies to see how they can embrace change, while retaining their core markets.

Despite the international media hype, global uptake of MOOCs remains pocketed. While emerging markets such as Brazil are busy designing certifiable MOOCs, including the world’s first open online MBA programme from Veduca, the Middle East region has yet to register its first such course with official testing and certificates. Nevertheless, the Middle East has come a long way in terms of higher education, having been considered something of a nascent learning landscape just a few generations ago. In 1940, there were 10 universities in the Middle East and North Africa; by the year 2007, they numbered more than 260.

According to Alpen Capital, a leading investment bank in the GCC region, higher education is expected to continue its upward growth trajectory, with the number of tertiary students in the region set to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 5.5 percent between 2010 and 2020. “The education sector in the GCC is receiving impetus from intrinsic drivers such as population growth, increasing number of expatriates, the rising importance of high-quality education in society, and a growing spending propensity,” says Rohit Walia, Executive Chairman of Alpen Capital.

While the countries that make up the GCC have been slowest in the region to react to the need for higher education, there is now a resurgence in provision. In 2003, there were just eight public universities in Saudi Arabia; today there are more than 25 public and 30 private universities, serving 1.2 million students. Saudi Arabia commits more than USD 15 billion of its annual budget to higher education, providing for its 23 million inhabitants.

Elsewhere in the Gulf, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar established 40 foreign branches of Western universities over the same period. Qatar’s Education City, with a capacity of around 100,000 students, hosts regional campuses of some of the world’s top universities, such as University College London. Université Paris-Sorbonne and New York University have set up campuses in Abu Dhabi, while others, such as the Rochester Institute of Technology, have established themselves in Dubai Academic City.

There is also evidence that the quality of higher education in the region is improving. In 2013, five Arab universities, including four from Saudi Arabia and one from Egypt, appeared on the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities.

10 Nov 2016
Last modified: 15 May 2017
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