AMMAN—A collaborative project between the German and Jordanian governments seeks to solve the oft-cited problem of unemployment among Arab university graduates.
The project is a university—German-Jordanian University—which is designed to put more Jordanian graduates into careers. At least one other Arab country is interested in replicating it.
Most of the evidence supporting the institution’s success is anecdotal. Founded ten years ago, it has 2,299 graduates. The administration is still in the process of gathering large-scale data on employment among their alumni.
But employers and graduates generally agree that the education students receive at the German Jordanian University sets them up for success in the workplace, with brand-name companies actively seeking recruits from among the university’s students.
With the regional unemployment rate among youth at almost 25 percent, according to data from the International Monetary Fund, corporations offering jobs get swamped with applications. Basima Gharaibeh, a corporate recruiter for the pharmaceutical company Hikma in Jordan, says it gets around 200 applicants for each position.
She says graduates from the German Jordanian University stand out.
“Our top talent tends to come from GJU,” she says. “These students are more exposed to different cultures and behaviors.”
The language of instruction is English, and the students, most of whom have no prior experience with German, are also required to learn it and pass a language test.
This prepares them for a year in Germany—half of that time is spent at a university and the other half in a full-time internship. “If you don’t go to Germany, you can’t graduate,” explains the director of the university’s international office, Dorothea Jecht. “It’s critical to the process and we’re quite strict.”
The students also have to find an internship to complete in Jordan before leaving for their year abroad. The students’ only choices of majors are applied sciences, engineering sciences, architecture and design, language studies and business related programs.
The result of the university’s offerings are trilingual students with an education in high-demand majors and international work experience. That’s what makes them attractive to employees. “It’s no secret recipe,” says Jecht.
Most students and staff commute to the university, which is off the road to the Amman airport, from central Amman.
Once out of the urban landscape, drivers are greeted with a multi-lane, free-flowing and flat highway. A few miles off one of the feeder roads lies the German Jordanian University campus.
The buildings are tall, modern and constructed from the same sandstone that typifies the townhouses of Amman. The landscaped gardens are made up of saplings yet to grow into the vital shade they will one day provide.
The campus has the potential to be strikingly attractive, but for now it has the feel of an unfinished project—some buildings are still on their way up and the campus is peppered with construction barriers.
Farah Nimri graduated in 2013 after studying industrial engineering and management. A couple of months after finishing her degree, she began working for the German railway company Deutsche Bahn in Amman.
“The company needs people who can help them with the booming rail projects in the region,” explains Nimri. “GJU graduates are a good source, because we speak all three languages.” They provide Deutsche Bahn with a link between clients in the Middle East and production engineering back in Germany.
Nimri says that while the education gave her a leg up and she would be unlikely to have her current job without it, it was taxing at times.
“It was challenging, but otherwise they wouldn’t come up with the same caliber of graduates,” she says. “You have to find the internships yourself, you have to deal with a foreign language on daily basis. You’re thrown into it.”
A couple of years ago, Nimri relocated to the company’s office in Berlin.
Other graduates often leave Jordan in pursuit of greener pastures. One alumnus, now a tech tycoon who likes to hire other graduates from the university, says it can be hard to convince them to stay put.
“One of the biggest misfortunes with GJU graduates,” says Yousef Wadi, “is that they’re so good. There’s a bit of a brain drain going on.”
The director of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) information center in Amman, Andreas Wutz, admits the project sometimes gets criticism for causing brain drain. But he says that’s only a half-truth. “After a few years,” he says, students “usually go back because they want to build or do something in the Arab world.”
About 30 percent of graduates leave Jordan for employment or more education, estimates Britta Kähler, the director of the university’s office for industrial links. She stresses that this is just a rough approximation.
Wadi once left Jordan himself. He studied computer engineering and was part of the first cohort to graduate from the university in 2010. He moved to the United States, where he worked for Microsoft and then Yahoo, but he soon got bored of the corporate world and moved back to Jordan, where he created a start-up tech firm with a couple of his former classmates. While it received recognition and funding from Microsoft, it eventually failed.
He says he learned from the mistakes and has since set up another company called Arabian Weather, which he says is the most accurate weather forecasting service in the Middle East. He sells data to companies such as Royal Jordanian Airlines.
He credits the German Jordanian University for nurturing his entrepreneurial spirit and recognizes that other students from the university seem to be more aware of how business works than the average Jordanian graduate. They’re taught how to write a cover letter and resume, and they have real-world experience. “They just get it,” he says.
The institution is funded by both the German and Jordanian governments, but not at a level that eliminates or reduces tuition fees. That makes it the country’s most expensive state university. The first semester’s tuition costs between $2,250 and and $3,100 for Jordanian students. Approximately 19 percent of students receive scholarships to help with their tuition or the costs of studying abroad.
Despite any risk of a brain drain, the model has intrigued other Arab nations. “A delegation from Tunisia came to see how they could replicate it,” says Jecht, of the university’s international office.
There have since been meetings between the Tunisian and German governments to discuss the potential of a similar Tunisian Germany University. Although Isabell Mering, who leads transnational education projects in the Middle East for DAAD, says it’s still not possible to say whether the project will definitely go ahead.
“But Tunisia, like other countries in the region, is in search of an innovative university with an eye on employability,” she says, “and they’ve seen GJU as a success model.”
The model is attractive to countries in the region, she says, because it’s more of a bridge between two cultures and education systems than an imposition of one over the other. “It’s very different from branch campuses,” she says.