A student wants to do practical training at a company. He visits the office of student affairs, but they tell him they can’t help him—only the top three students at his university are eligible for those opportunities. He did reasonably well in his studies last year, and is now in his final year, but he doesn’t know what the labor market is looking for, or anything about his future employment prospects.
This is not the story of a particular student—it is the challenge faced by thousands of students in the region, who complain about the lack of training opportunities during their university years. As a result, they lack a clear sense of the relationship between their academic work and their employment options, and they face difficulties in communicating with companies and recruitment agencies, especially if they are in fields that do not provide a clear pathway to the job market.
Why don’t universities provide more practical training opportunities for students?
One reason is the increasing number of students. During the 2014—2015 academic year, 308,000 students graduated from Egyptian universities; during the same period, the Egyptian Industrial Training Council provided training for only about 78,000.
The cost of training is another important factor. Some public universities cannot afford the cost of giving students practical experience if corporations and external organizations are not willing to take students in. Bureaucratic obstacles that hamper private investment or donations to public universities also make it difficult for universities to afford internal practical-training programs.
Many students are ill prepared for training programs. Many science curricula, for example, rely heavily on rote memorization, and students often make it through their entire academic career without ever entering a laboratory. It is difficult for companies to work with such students.
How can universities in the region provide real, useful training opportunities?
Most universities in the region have training centers under various names, but they all provide the same basic courses, from computer proficiency to language courses, in addition to helping students develop other soft skills. The problem is that offering the same courses to all students regardless of their fields or the skills they need for their disciplines is totally ineffective, and consequently the training outcomes never meet expectations.
A much easier and more effective approach is to change the concept of training at these centers, so that they act as a real link between universities and companies and focus on more efficient job-oriented training programs.
Some other current training options, like a three-week program of Cairo University’s engineering program, focus entirely on projects their students need to complete in order to graduate. This approach severely limits the benefits to students’ future careers.
In contrast, universities and major companies in the Gulf sometimes closely cooperate in a way that serves real training purposes. Aramco in Saudi Arabia offers various types of training for students at several Saudi universities, including a collaborative program for recent graduates. The program is at least 10 weeks and gives students the chance to gain new skills and practice decision-making and problem-solving.
King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, meanwhile, offers a different model of training. It provides scientific research internships for outstanding secondary-school students under the supervision of university faculty. Students are involved in research projects for three to six months: They receive an allowance for expenses and a completion certificate.
I believe other Arab countries have a great opportunity to mirror the Saudi experience. Without binding regulations that require all private sector companies that employ more than 25 employees to provide some summer-training opportunities, however, little progress will be made.
Egypt and Algeria, which have large public universities, could easily start such programs. Algeria has already taken large strides, having drafted a law on scientific research and technological development last September. This law aims to link universities and research institutes with manufacturing companies through scientific research and training.
In Egypt, the Ministry of Communications’ experience in offering information-technology courses to recent university graduates is another If universities focused more on practical training of students, their countries would have a better chance of attracting foreign investment, since they would have more workers ready to support such investment. Governments can also give tax breaks to companies and investors who start training programs for university students.
Promoting cooperation between universities, companies, and investors would make it possible to provide training opportunities for students without extra burdens on universities. Such programs would also serve to support the needs of companies by providing them with promising, enthusiastic young talent.
Why do we continue to ignore this problem when it can be easily solved in the best interest of all concerned parties?
*Saleh Al-Shair holds a Ph.D. in Arabic Linguistics from Cairo University and has worked in university teaching. He has published a number of refereed papers in his specialty. His biography was included in the Al-Babtain Dictionary of Contemporary Arab Poets. You can follow him on Twitter at @Saleh_Alshair.
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