It was the first day of field research in an enterprise journalism class at Northwestern University's Middle East campus here and Yara Darwish, 20, was huddled in a corner with four female classmates. They were supposed to be interviewing foreign labourers but the group of young women found themselves paralyzed, repeating to each other, "We do not want to do this. We cannot do this."
Ms. Darwish's hesitancy was more than the typical nervousness of a junior journalism student. Having grown up in Qatar, a tiny country surrounded by the Persian Gulf with its only land border shared with Saudi Arabia to the south, Ms. Darwish was unaccustomed to making eye contact with men, never mind asking them pointed questions. "I consider myself outspoken and I want to make a difference," she later said. "But there are so many layers to the challenge."
For Ms. Darwish, who was clothed in a traditional black hijab and abaya as she told her story, studying journalism in Qatar would have been unthinkable a decade ago but now she's part of a larger trend. Thanks to massive natural gas reserves, Qatar enjoyed the highest gross domestic product per capita in the world at $98,900 (U.S.), an unemployment rate of 0.4 per cent and 14-per-cent growth in 2011. Despite this economic success, however, Qatar and other Gulf states are pouring funds into higher education and research in the belief that the key to sustained growth is creating university-educated human capital.
Their goal is to move away from primarily resource-based economies, explains Walid Hejazi, an associate professor in Toronto at the Rotman School of Management, who has worked extensively in the Gulf region. "By 2030 they want to flip the economy to be more of a service-based economy – tourism, medicine, education, communications, research. These are the high-value industries."
Dr. Hejazi questions whether Canadian students are being adequately prepared to take advantage of opportunities in these fast-changing economies. "Canadian students are typically being educated to do business in regions with slow growth, like the U.S. and Europe," Dr. Hejazi said. "We're not preparing our students to take Canadian companies into those foreign settings. If we want to grow our exports, we have to go into these high growth economies."
Dr. Hejazi's view is echoed by research conducted by McKinsey and Co. suggesting that many education systems, including those in developed countries such as Canada, aren't providing graduates with the skills they need to succeed in the global economy and therefore hurting their competitiveness. Educators are so focused on getting students in the door that they lose sight of their obligation to prepare them for exiting, argues Mona Mourshed, partner and director of education at Toronto-based McKinsey.
She surveyed 8,000 youth, educators and employers in nine countries and found that educators appear to be out of touch with the skills needed to thrive in the modern economy. "Education providers are much more optimistic about job readiness than employers," said Dr. Mourshed, whose report on the survey was published Thursday. "Education providers will say that all skills are important, whereas employers will place much clearer prioritization on soft skills – where the likes of team work and work ethic come out quite strongly."
To create the type of graduates who will fuel future economic growth, universities need to react quickly to the needs of the market. Dr. Mourshed believes the private sector should work closely with the education system, and that companies should be involved in shaping curriculum.
Qatar and its neighbours seem to be hearing the message. But Dr. Hejazi is skeptical about whether they can attract the calibre of faculty and students to provide the quality of education delivered in North America and Europe. Qatar has established satellite campuses of leading universities such as Cornell University, Texas A&M, Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown and the University of Calgary, which offer degrees to locals that claim the same standards as those delivered at home campuses.
It's a strategy mirrored in other fast-growing economies; in 2010, 30 per cent of young adults in China had obtained postsecondary education, up from just 3 per cent in 1990. Much of this was achieved through satellite campuses of established universities.
Although Canada's education system is much more developed than the schooling in Qatar and China, critics question whether educators lack the urgency driving education development in growing economies. Canada ranks highest among industrialized countries in regard to the percentage of adults who obtain higher education, according to the latest Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) education study published last September. Yet, this high level of attainment doesn't necessarily translate into the ability of graduates to compete in the global economy. The OECD study criticized Canada for failing to integrate educated young people into the work force.
Andreas Schleicher, deputy director for education at the OECD, elaborated on what he sees as a disconnect between education and the needs of the global economy in comments made at the World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha, the Qatari capital. "More than ever before skills drive our economies. Skills have become the central currency of 21st century economies," he said. "Without the right skills technological progress doesn't translate into economic growth and countries can't compete in today's economies."
According to Dr. Hejazi, Rotman is addressing this challenge with international study tours that take students to regions such as the Middle East, South America, China and India. "The students get a global perspective and they visit leading companies to hear first-hand what skill sets they need."
Rotman also co-ordinates volunteer international consulting projects for students to get hands-on international experience with companies including PricewaterhouseCoopers and Ernst & Young.
Join the conversation on Canada's competitiveness by following Canada Competes on Twitter:@CanadaCompetes