Sonia Ben Jaafar
In our pursuit of transforming the future of education, we must confront the stark reality of global youth unrest. Recent events in countries like France have highlighted the deep divisions and fragmentation faced by young adults. The unfortunately frequent instances of youth responding to violence with violence, mirror their profound frustration and yearning for change.
This surge of unrest is not exclusive to France – it is a global trend. The tragic deaths of individuals like Nahel in France, George Floyd in the United States and Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia, to name just a few instances, have ignited worldwide reactions, sparking movements that demand justice and equality from those who feel unheard and unseen. In the face of these issues, higher education institutions – colleges and universities – have a unique and critical role to play. These places are not mere centres of learning but potent catalysts for transformation. Education today must provide young adults with the necessary knowledge, skills, and critical thinking abilities to engage in constructive dialogue and tackle complex problems.
To effectively drive positive change, higher education must foster inclusive environments that value diversity and create spaces where all voices are heard and respected. Too many young adults feel overlooked and anxious about the future. These tragic events in different parts of the world have laid bare the systemic issues that afflict our societies. They have kindled a fire in the hearts of young people, inspiring them to seek solutions and demand change.
This is a generation that refuses to be silenced; a generation ready to challenge the status quo and fight for a brighter future. Leaders in all sectors must support them in finding their voice and the opportunities to fulfil their purpose responsibly. As we process the news and share in the collective anger and pain, we know that violent responses are merely expressions of the frustration and anger felt by those who feel they have no other way to voice their grievances.
Yet any transformation will not stem from conference room conversations and auditorium speeches. It will need a recognition of the overlooked potential of education and employment, especially among the growing young population. It will come when we challenge the quiet acceptance of chronic obstacles in education and embrace greater diversity and inclusion among higher education leadership. Higher education institutions must up their game and focus on practical solutions if they are to serve as the foundation for the leaders of today and tomorrow to engage in resilient, inclusive and forward-thinking innovations that cultivate peace, security, and sustainable development.
When these institutions foster an environment that not only educates but also empowers students to address societal issues, they cultivate leaders who make themselves and their communities resistant to recruitment tactics for radicalisation and violence. Higher education has always aimed to equip students with the tools to dissect and understand complex problems, foster critical thinking and facilitate open dialogue. The world’s leading institutions empower students to become active contributors in their communities, promoting civic engagement and human rights.
This is most effective when there is a genuine, deep connection between the theoretical aspects of higher education and the realities of the non-academic setting – the world of work and growth opportunities surrounding these eager young minds. The World Bank has highlighted youth unemployment in Arab states and its potential radicalisation implications. Universities and colleges can counteract this by prioritising practical skills aligned with job market demands, moving beyond purely academic teachings.
Discussions like those at the United Nations Transforming Education Summit in September 2022 are important but need to result in concrete actions. One such action is the work of the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation, partnering with 24 universities as part of their outreach to provide 200,000 Arab youth with accessible professional learning for high-demand jobs.
As part of this effort, the foundation leverages participatory design methods to promote wider offerings of professional graduate diplomas that have employment outcomes for these youth. One such approach is in artificial intelligence and data science from the American University of Beirut, which includes regionally relevant applications and the integration of ethics as a core component, with connections to real market opportunities. We must fervently engage with our youth, especially those who may feel sidelined or despondent, ensuring they feel embraced and empowered. Diversity is the key to understanding and connecting with the lived reality of those who were not born with privilege.
If we want to see real change, we must be willing to challenge existing norms within these institutions and break down some longstanding barriers to higher education. If we don’t, we risk seeing further outbursts of anger and violence from a disappointed segment of society, ultimately causing harm to both themselves and the world around them.