DUBAI—During a regional meeting of business academics in Dubai last month there was a consensus that business education and research in the Arab region have a problem: They need to get more bang for their buck. Business-school graduates are not that welcome by employers, and business-school research has had little impact on corporate practices.
“Business education has been a growth industry in our region for the last few decades,” George Khalil Najjar, vice president for university advancement at the Lebanese American University, said during a presentation to the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business’s Middle East Summit. “But the question is now: Did we generate impact commensurate with the effort? That’s rhetorical because I’m contending that it isn’t.”
Since 2015, the number of business schools accredited by the association in the Middle East has increased by 54 percent, from 13 to 20.
Others agreed with Najjar’s comments. Karim Seghir, chancellor of Ajman University in the United Arab Emirates, pointed out that graduates of business schools in the region, like many other graduates, are not valued in the job market. “Unemployment is the region’s most threatening issue—even more so when you learn 38 percent of the unemployed are university graduates,” he said, making it clear he felt that figure included business graduates.
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According to data from QS University Rankings, employer recruitment of students who graduated with a Master of Business Administration degree in the Middle East and Africa grew by just 2 percent in 2019, compared to 2018. This contrasts with 18 percent growth in the Asia-Pacific region and 12 percent growth in Eastern Europe. The lower recruitment in the Middle East occurred despite the fact that employers were more willing to take graduates with little or no work experience than employers in other regions.
Not Enough Time for Research
These employment statistics are just one of the symptoms of what Najjar termed an “impact deficit.” He went on to explain that he thought the causes of this deficit were diverse, but he emphasised that he thought professors were too overworked with other responsibilities to produce ground-breaking research.
“How many people here come from institutions with a heavy teaching burden?” he asked the conference. The vast majority of the 121 attendees raised their hands.
Other data would seem to back him up. Al-Fanar Media recently conducted a survey of 650 researchers of all fields from across the Arab world and over a third of those surveyed, who included business-school professors, said they don’t have enough time to properly do their research. Teaching was their most commonly cited duty in addition to research. (See a related article, “Not Just Money: Arab Region Researchers Face a Complex Web of Barriers.”)
Despite concerns that business schools aren’t yet producing the impact they would like to, the summit’s participants didn’t seem discouraged. Instead attendees said that accepting, measuring and understanding a problem is the only way to solve it.
Impact, those presenting at the conference seemed to agree, isn’t a single metric that can be easily measured, but rather it’s the combination of a number of different factors.
“Unemployment is the region’s most threatening issue—even more so when you learn 38 percent of the unemployed are university graduates.”-Karim Seghir
Chancellor of Ajman University in the United Arab Emirates
“It’s both quantitative and qualitative,” explained Tim Mescon, executive vice president and chief officer for Europe, the Middle East and Africa for the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, who organized the summit. “Historically we’re keen to talk about the impact of research and there are great analytics to do that, such as citation indexes or replication of research, but we think we’ve moved beyond that to look at impact in a variety of areas.”
For example, business-studies professors don’t just want their work to be published in high impact journals, says Mescon, they want to feel like industry is listening to what they’re saying. To gauge that, Mescon’s association organizes meetings between prominent academics, business leaders and government officials. Interventions like this are one way to address the impact deficit, says Mescon.
Encouraging Start-Up Companies
Najjar, meanwhile, advocated for more interdisciplinary research and for encouraging students and professors to create start-up companies that would spin off from business schools. Some universities in the region have started to have success with such efforts to increase their impact.
Ayesha Abdulla, executive dean of the faculty of business at the Higher Colleges of Technology, which has 17 campuses throughout the United Arab Emirates, was also present at the meeting. She said her institution had begun to encourage start-up businesses on campuses and that they currently create an average of 23 new companies each year.
“We have an aim of 60 companies a year spinning out of the Higher Colleges of Technology annually,” she said. “That’s an ambitious aim.”
Whatever the solutions, Mescon says there is a need to make sure academia is considering the world beyond university gates.