Redefining higher education in the Middle East and Africa

Haifa Al Kaylani

In the first QS Higher Ed Summit of 2022, we’ll be bringing together educators from across the globe to share and explore the latest higher education trends in the Middle East and Africa.

Registrations are now open for the QS Higher Ed Summit: Middle East and Africa, which takes place on 1-3 March 2022, in Dubai and virtually. The theme for the conference is Innovation-enabling Environments: Redefining Education in the Middle East and Africa. 

Among the outstanding line-up of expert speakers and panel chairs at this year’s event is Haifa Al Kaylani, President and Founder of the Arab International Women’s Forum and a member of the Summit’s Global Advisory Committee.

We spoke to Al Kaylani this week to ask her views on some of the major themes in higher education and what they mean for the region. She explains the “pivotal” role which universities play in achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and her views on progress in gender equality and how this has been impacted by the pandemic: 

What do you think is the greatest barrier to universities and industry in the region in forming more successful partnerships?

Al Kaylani: “Despite phenomenal investment into world-class satellite universities in Arab states, increased funding and more interdisciplinary research collaboration between universities in the region and beyond the region, research culture in the region is seriously inhibited, and this is the greatest barrier to universities being able to form more successful partnerships both within the region and internationally. Brain drain among Arab researchers is also exceptionally high, with a 2019 survey demonstrating that 91% of researchers in the Arab world were looking to leave their home country, a significant problem for those Arab states looking to build ‘knowledge economies’ to diversify away from oil.  

“There is a general lack of homegrown data and research in the region, especially in the Arabic language. For academics and researchers, funding is a major challenge. 52% of Arab researchers don’t have access to subscription-only academic journals. 47% don’t have sufficient internet access, and 71% find it impossible to attend global conferences because of limitations on female academics travelling alone, or difficulties for Arab researchers in securing visas to travel or government permission to participate in such conferences. Government approvals take a notoriously long time to come through – years sometimes – which often renders research projects irrelevant or obsolete.   

“All of this has made it very difficult for Arab researchers and Arab universities to form valuable Arab-global institutional partnerships, or for Arab research teams to collaborate with their counterparts in international faculties and labs. This needs to be addressed with urgency, as a thriving Arab research culture would also foster greater opportunities for intra-regional and Arab-global research collaboration, which is seriously lacking at the moment.”   

How important do you think universities are in driving the world’s progress towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals?

Al Kaylani: “Universities are pivotal to the world’s progress towards realising sustainability by 2030 and they are at the core of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. They produce invaluable research and knowledge, and they deliver vital teaching that inspires and informs the next generation. Innovation is fostered at universities, innovation which helps society to transform great ideas into pathways and platforms for sustainable development towards a more inclusive, equitable and just future for us all.  

Importantly, universities have a special place as a social institution at the heart of community leadership, a true hub for humanity’s continued growth and development.

“It is therefore essential that universities are able to implement sustainability in the delivery of learning, their core operations, and in their contributions not only to local communities but to the global community overall. It is up to universities to instill in their learners a holistic, quality education but also an awareness of global issues and challenges so that they may innovate much-needed solutions for the future.  

“The SDG framework models such a framework for examining global and local problems. Universities are incubators for the type of innovations that will help us power towards the 2030 goals, and so it makes sense that universities should also take a substantive approach to curriculum reform, giving their students opportunities to engage with and immerse themselves in sustainability education and the chance to become globally aware of how business and society adversely impacts sustainability and human rights more broadly. Beyond students, universities have the opportunity to develop their faculty members to be more aware of the SDGs, and to embed global perspectives and approaches to sustainability and human rights into their curricula.  

“The drive for universities to adopt the sustainability agenda often comes from learners themselves. If universities are serious about adopting and honouring the SDG Agenda, they must make sustainability a core part of their operations and an integral part of their academic offering. They can do this by establishing ‘Office for Sustainability’ divisions, but also by engaging with all stakeholders – students, faculty, university staff, NGOs and civil society that work closely with institutions of education, and with industry where graduates will later work, to ensure that sustainability truly makes its way into the heart of the faculty and becomes a core part of students’ academic journey.  

“If we want our future business leaders to be in touch with sustainability concerns in their sectors more specifically and in business more generally, we must introduce them to sustainability through well-designed, multi-stakeholder, dialogue-led programmes of sustainability education at the outset of their journey towards business leadership, towards law, finance, STEM, and any one of the many disciplines where sustainability is an active concern.” 

Which of the many achievements in 20 years of the Arab International Women’s Forum (AIWF) are you most proud of?

Al Kaylani: “I founded AIWF in London in 2001 as a non-profit, non-political, non-governmental organisation that links Arab business leaders with each other and importantly with their counterparts in the international community to exchange knowledge, experience and develop their business potential.  

“AIWF is dedicated to empowering the talented, vibrant MENA workforce, focused on ensuring a sustainable future for the Arab region, on economic prosperity and growth, on job creation for Arab youth and with a special emphasis on ‘Women as Engines of Economic Growth’, empowering a critical mass of women who represent 50% of human capital in the Arab world.  

“AIWF was founded on two guiding principles: firstly, from my firm belief that there is no development in any community, or politically, socially, or economically, without empowering women. And secondly, that the Arab world is part of the global community and women in the Arab region need to connect both together in the region but importantly with their counterparts internationally to exchange experience and knowledge, to do business, and break stereotypes.  

“For 20 years AIWF has worked at the heart of the Arab world and internationally to move the agenda for women’s empowerment forward, addressing salient development issues that directly impact women and young people, and advocating for legislative and public policy change to remove roadblocks to women’s participation in Arab political systems.  

“AIWF, as an NGO Member of the UN Global Compact, is focused on integrating the SDGs into the programming of all its conferences, initiatives, and activities. In the last 20 years AIWF has hosted and partnered on key events, initiatives and conferences, held alternately between London, Western European capitals and major business hubs throughout the MENA as well as virtually. Events held since 2001 have examined strategies for job creation, inclusive sustainable development; the role of women as engines of economic growth; women, peace and security, refugee maternal health and refugee entrepreneurship; women in law and the professions; women-led entrepreneurship, research and innovation; food security, water scarcity, climate action and sustainable energy; women in healthcare, sustainability and STEM; and education.  

“Every one of these initiatives has brought our valued stakeholders together to understand the challenges, identify opportunities, and document a strategic plan for action in our Reports and Recommendations, which are always disseminated widely within our global advocacy network to impact both policy and practice and advance legislative reform, gender parity in policy, and better linkage between industry and education.  

“Young Arab Women Leaders has been one of our most successful initiatives,  launched in 2011, a platform that supports young aspiring Arab women to engage and network with mentors in political, economic and social leadership roles in the Arab world. We are equipping young women leaders with the skills to start, grow and lead successful businesses; increasing access to technical and professional education; and all the time, strengthening links between women in the UK and the MENA to create new business alliances and exchange experiences, opportunities, and best practices.  

“Personally, I am most proud of the global connectivity of AIWF, and that people have engaged in our events and initiatives knowing that AIWF brings together the best and brightest in the Arab world together with their counterparts in the international community. Our conferences have always been held at the highest level, with major international institutional partners and some of the world’s biggest corporations, and have attracted some of the most respected men and women thought leaders and experts as valued speakers and participants.  

“I am proud of our global reputation and our ability to bring stakeholders together to effect real, positive change for women in the region. AIWF has members who have been staunch supporters of our organisation for nearly 20 years. Many of our Board Members have given the last two decades of their lives, entirely voluntarily, to support our mission for women and young people in the Arab world. And many of our partners, among them PepsiCo, Shell, PwC and Pfizer, have been with us since the early 2000s, supporting our mission and working closely with us to create a brighter landscape of opportunities for the Arab region’s highly educated, ambitious, driven but marginalised millions.  

“For me personally, my work has been the realisation of over three decades of dedication to encouraging greater cultural understanding between Arab and international communities, and I am exceptionally proud to have devoted a great deal my working life to supporting a strong role for women in that process.” 

How far away do you think we are from gender equality in the sense of men and women having equal opportunity to progress into senior leadership positions?

Al Kaylani: “Gender inequality is a persistent and universal challenge not limited to the MENA Region, which still has the lowest rate of female labour force participation in the world at just 24.6%. Globally, gender inequality has major economic implications for women, communities, societies and countries in a wide range of areas.  

“Even before the pandemic gender bias was still deeply rooted in many parts of the region and gender inequality existed at work because it existed in society and at home, and vice versa. The reality for women, not only in the Arab world but also for women in Europe, Asia and the United States, is that success is often achieved in the face of deep-rooted gender bias and cultural resistance, with women still expected to bear most of the burden of essential caring, household and family responsibilities all over the world. Women do an average of 75% of the world’s total unpaid-care work, including childcare, caring for the elderly, cooking, and cleaning. In some parts of the world, including South Asia and the MENA Region, women’s share of unpaid-care work is as high as 80 – 90%. The ILO calculates that on average women around the world perform 4 hours and 25 minutes of unpaid care work every day compared with 1 hour and 23 minutes for men.  

“The burdens of the care economy on women have escalated substantially during the pandemic. In April 2020, a UN Report confirmed that unpaid care work had increased around the world because of the lockdown, due to children being at home with school closures, increased needs of older relatives, and health services that have across the world been greatly overwhelmed. This has put women at serious risk of losing career momentum, and being sidelined for promotions with male employees.  

“It is important to recognise that the region has come a long way and has made considerable progress in areas such as maternal mortality, women in professional and technical jobs, and representation at political/parliamentary level. There is greater acceptance and greater visibility for women’s leadership in every aspect of societal and economic development in the MENA countries. And there is clear and established support across MENA society for intervention from the highest levels on gender equality. Government support has been crucial, as has legislative support – indeed, in the UAE equal pay for men and women is now mandated in law, a true milestone for gender equality in the region.  

“The role of the private sector is also critical, as it is within the private sector that workplace policy that addresses gender imbalance in work/life balance, can be best addressed and benchmarks set. Most companies have introduced flexible working policies, and a great number of leading multinationals in the region have already implemented gender-neutral parental leave reform – all pivotal first steps to lessening the burden of care on women and empowering them to prioritise work/life balance, which is intrinsic to women’s professional success.  

“There is no doubt that ensuring that women and girls enjoy the same rights and opportunities as men and boys is the right thing to do, not only from a moral and ethical standpoint, but with a clear economic imperative. The World Bank estimates that if women had the same lifetime earnings as men, global wealth would increase in the 141 countries studied by $160 trillion. The OECD finds the Middle East and North African economies are collectively losing an estimated $575 billion a year due to the legal and social barriers that exist around women’s access to jobs and careers.  

“The importance of gender equality and women’s inclusion was also identified as a global priority area by the ILO Global Commission on the Future of Work, on which I was most proud to serve as the only Commissioner from the Arab world. The ILO Future of Work Report, which we delivered in January 2019 commemorating the Centenary of the ILO, called for a ‘human-centred’ approach to implementing a transformative and measurable agenda for gender equality. I quote:  

‘The world of work begins at home. From parental leave to investment in public care services, policies need to foster the sharing of unpaid care work in the home to create genuine equality of opportunity in the workplace. Strengthening women’s voices and leadership, eliminating violence and harassment at work and implementing pay transparency policies are preconditions for gender equality. Specific measures are also needed to address gender equality in the technology-enabled jobs of tomorrow.’  

“The key to unlocking gender inequality in the MENA region and beyond is strengthening women’s voices and leadership. To tackle gender equality, we need bold action and clear commitment from all parties, working together cohesively to put into practice the ambitious but certainly achievable ‘Visions’ that call for narrowing the gender gap in the region by 2030. The private sector, governments, civil society, academia and the media all have vital roles to play in mainstreaming gender equality and ushering in normative acceptance of women’s leadership at all levels, in all sectors, and in all spheres, as well as inspiring a paradigm shift in attitudes of both men and women towards the division of family, care and household responsibilities.  

Quite simply, without empowering that 50% of women in public life, in business, in civil society, in all the Arab world will not be able to achieve its development, prosperity, peace, progress.  

“Men have a key role to play in achieving this vision; indeed, they are not the problem, they are part of the solution as our partners in bringing about lasting gender equality.” 

Can successful partnerships can be developed virtually and has your view changed during the pandemic?  

Al Kaylani:  “Since our inception AIWF has always worked with a coalition of partners that include governments, global institutions, leading multinational organisations and the private sector, industry, civil society, universities, the media, and most importantly, women and young people themselves, to advocate for legislative reform, gender parity in policy, better linkage between industry and education, and a decisive blueprint for action on youth unemployment and women’s low participation in the workforce.  

“Our Annual Programmes of conferences, seminars, initiatives, publications of reports and recommendations, and collaborations with other key partners both virtual and – prior to COVID – on in-person events, have always welcomed and attracted the engagement and commitment of a diverse and very high-level constituency of Arab and international governments, the international development and financial institutions, the private sector, civil society, academia, media and importantly, women and young people themselves.  

“Every AIWF initiative aims to bring these stakeholders together to understand the challenges, identify the opportunities, and document a strategic plan for action in our Reports as a series of Recommendations, which are always disseminated widely within our global advocacy network, all of civil society organisations, private sector representatives and development professionals cascading valuable information and in doing so, bringing more people into the network.  

“What we have seen over the last couple of years is the near overnight adoption of technology, for work, study and life. NGOs like AIWF have been able to adopt virtual conferencing and event platforms such as Zoom and Teams and in my opinion we have been able to strengthen our global outreach, make new partnership, foster new growth relationships, and engage with constituents and stakeholders that we may have been previously prevented from engaging with because of the limitations on travel, visas, and logistics. Now, civil society organisations can simply connect via a link and foster meaningful connections with just about anyone else on earth, and this in my view has really enabled organisations like AIWF to navigate the challenges of the pandemic and ultimately, enrich their offerings and their stakeholder base. If we had not had the technology available much valuable work and momentum would have been lost. And I truly believe that virtual connectivity is here to stay, and that the hybrid model will be the default model for all future events and advocacy – and possibly, even for education.”  


Haifa Al Kaylani will be chairing a panel discussion on Bridging the Industry Academia Gap at the QS Higher Ed Summit: Middle East & Africa 2022 on 1-3 March. Find out more and register to attend the conference and explore the latest insights for higher education in the Middle East & Africa.

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