Education in the Arab world is ‘never about money alone’
Maysa Jalbout is often described as a trusted adviser to governments, national leaders and philanthropic organisations in education. Jalbout, CEO of the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education, has created and led innovative programmes and policies formulated by governments and NGOs in Canada, the Middle East and the developing world.
She spent five years in Jordan as director of research and strategy in the office of Queen Rania and as CEO of the Queen Rania Foundation. Now, she’s working with the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation, a $1 billion initiative begun in 2016 with the goal of educating 15,000 young Arabs within 10 years.
What almost no one says about Jalbout is that she’s a former refugee. She was born in Beirut, the daughter of Palestinian refugees. She was 16 when her parents moved to Canada in hopes of providing better education for their children. As a result, Jalbout is passionate about the role of education in giving people a second chance at life.
She was one of Forbes’ 100 most powerful businesswomen in the Arab world in 2017, but as Jalbout (MJ) told The Arab Weekly (TAW) via Skype from her office in Dubai, she is always realistic about the time it takes to effect change.
TAW: Is money all it takes to educate underprivileged young Arabs?
MJ: “It is never about money alone. It is only a starting point of the discussion towards a solution. Research shows that solving education takes more than money. Educational change needs to happen at the system level. Philanthropy alone is neither the answer.
“As a foundation, we are addressing a gap. We know we won’t fix the whole education system as such. We want underprivileged youth to complete their education and this has been a consistent gap because the continuation of higher education depends on your income level in the region.
“This gap exists despite the efforts of Arab governments to make higher education more affordable. The need is much bigger than we can cater for and this is why we have put in place specific university partnerships to make education more affordable for these students.
“We strongly believe that education for all remains the responsibility of the state and nothing we can do as a foundation can replace the duties of the state. However, we understand that due to many factors, such as conflict, governments cannot always fulfil their duty. This is why we created a refugee education programme.”
TAW: Tell us more about the refugee education programme.
MJ: “Following the refugee crisis, Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair created a special $27 million fund to support a minimum of 15,000 refugee students from high school to postgraduate level, including tertiary education in Jordan and Lebanon for the next three years.
“We are doing programmes in partnership with non-governmental organisations to support the young refugees in completing a high school education and then going on to complete university or vocational studies. The focus is especially on technical education because it is demanded in these countries and will provide [the students] with more sustainable livelihoods.
“We are working in Lebanon with the Unite Lebanon Youth Programme [with which] we are supporting refugee youth as they prepare for university or as they go through university. They study subjects that will enable them to find jobs either in Lebanon or outside the country.
“Similarly, in Jordan, we are working with UNICEF to fund the Makani Centres, where young people from refugee camps receive tutoring and psycho-social support to make sure they finish high school. Otherwise, they would find it very hard on their own.”
TAW: How do you make regional universities more attractive to young Arabs, many of whom say they want to study abroad?
MJ: “As a foundation, we are very realistic about what our impact could be. We are only 3 years old. Education is not something you can change overnight. We work very hard to make sure that our selected partner universities adopt innovative practices overall in teaching.
“One of the areas we are very keen is online learning to provide more access to learning for refugees but also to people who seek to pursue continuous learning. In collaboration with Arizona State University, we developed micro and full master’s degrees for students. Regionally, we worked with the American University of Beirut and the American University of Cairo to develop online courses, creating a greater offering for Arab students. These endeavours are a win-win situation [in which] universities themselves are reaching out to more people and youth are getting more offering.
“Unfortunately, governments have not caught up with accreditation of the degrees. This is something in evolution.”
TAW: Universities in the region are constantly criticised for not preparing students for the workplace. Are you doing anything to bridge that gap?
MJ: “The American University of Beirut is an interesting case because it does very well in terms of employment outcomes. All our scholarship students have to complete an internship, find 100 hours of volunteering and get the help of a mentor.
“We recently conducted a regional study among high school and university students on how they feel about the employment effectiveness of their education. The results were very telling. Students said that they are not accessing services that would help them understand what careers exist out there, what skills are expected of them. Students were very much aware that they needed a CV, an internship and to know whether their degree was needed in the market.
“We work with local governments to make sure that their investment and the ones made by the students have the best returns on employment possibility. With the UAE government, we launched the Young Thinkers Programme that contains a three-fold programme: an application that enables youth to explore available jobs in the region; employability short courses in Arabic and English and opportunities to ask questions of professionals.”
TAW: Much of the educational investment in the region by your foundation but also other public initiatives has been directed at STEM, i.e. science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Is it wise to pay very little attention to the arts, humanities and social sciences?
MJ: “That’s a really important question. Right off the bat, I want to say that we truly believe in quality education whatever it may be. We would certainly love to see more investment as a whole for underfunded fields of study. After looking at job growth, we had to prioritise STEM education, as per the market demand.
“Our students come from families below the national average income across the region. For them, studying engineering at the American University of Cairo and improving their financial and career livelihood would have remained unachievable without a scholarship.
“Yet, we do make sure that our students have a full understanding of the interdisciplinary intersections in today’s world. We want our students to become problem solvers and know how to write creatively for example. At Waterloo University, our students are studying engineering and arts together. We cannot produce a prototype of leaders confined to one sole field of study.”
TAW: How does one reach young Arabs who are so poor they don’t even know of the opportunities available because they don’t or can’t access the internet?
MJ: “That is absolutely right. We are conscious that there are people we cannot reach through technology. This is why we partner with NGOs on the ground who are familiar with working with (people we can’t reach) because they know the displaced and the refugee youths and what they need.
“After the first year of operations, we quickly realised that no one programme will fit all needs. Although we are specifically aiming at high-achieving underprivileged youth, 20% of our STEM scholars are refugees and they are admirable as they are competing with other young people in the region who have not gone through the horrors they have experienced. We have seen so many bright examples of young people who are high achievers and benefit from our work.”