The demand for higher education around the world is growing. By 2030, according to UNESCO, the number of enrolled students is expected to more than double to over 414 million. Serving that population and others requires extraordinary energy and imagination, strategic thinking, and innovation.
The need for quality higher education is especially important in the Arab region as a whole, whose youth make up is the highest proportion of the youth population in the world. While the Arab world expects to widen its educated talent pool by 50% by 2030, according to the World Economic Forum, opportunities are out of reach for far too many of the region’s 105 million young people.
This means thinking differently about the kinds of institutions and the approaches to teaching and learning that will best accomplish this mission. Given the scale of need, the region could not build enough brick-and-mortar colleges fast enough. However, the advancements in online higher education make it possible to optimise existing educational resources and tap into increasingly sophisticated and flexible online degree programmes and courses that match or even exceed the traditional classroom experience.
New digital tools allow us to assess and serve the variety of ways that students absorb information and develop understanding. With a growing body of data, we can better understand how to help struggling students and provide individualised learning that allows students to work at their own pace and achieve better outcomes. Far from the early days when students simply watched a recorded lecture, today online students experience courses comprised of short learning modules, dynamic problem-solving and experimentation, interactive simulations, and real-time feedback.
And we know that Arab youth are well-positioned for this kind of learning: a recent student survey conducted by the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education (AGFE) found that 90% of Arab high school and university students are confident in using online resources for academic work, and over 55% spend at least three hours on the internet every day.
Recognising the opportunity to increase access for the widest number of qualified students, the AGFE and Arizona State University (ASU) joined forces to offer 550 scholarships to high-achieving Emirati and Arab youth under 30 years old to complete their master’s degrees online. The Al Ghurair Open Learning Scholars (OLS) Programme offers scholarships in 28 specialisations, ranging from business analytics and construction management, to systems, industrial, and electrical engineering, to early childhood education, nutrition, and sustainable tourism.
As a global leader in online education, ASU offers courses developed and taught by world-class professors who are focused on student success, both academically and professionally. The master’s programmes represent the ongoing commitment by ASU to expand its diverse and increasingly global student body, as well as the AGFE’s dedication to help train a new generation of Emirati and Arab youth who can continue to pursue their careers while tending to family and other responsibilities. This flexibility enables access for talented youth who previously lacked the opportunity to continue their education internationally.
In addition to offering a high-quality education, students enrolled through the Open Learning Scholars programme also benefit from academic counseling and coaching, one key reason ASU online students—over 30,000 worldwide—have one of the highest completion rates at over 90%.
Attainment of college and advanced degrees represents the single clearest predictor of social and economic mobility. Across the OECD countries, adults with a university degree earn on average 56% more than those with only a high school diploma. Evidence across the globe also finds that university graduates have lower rates of unemployment, better health outcomes, and longer lifespans.
This focus on education could not be more critical, both for the lives of individual students and for the positive development of society more broadly. Given the accelerating economic and technological transformations around the world, those who will prosper and meaningfully contribute to society must be creative, adaptive learners with the lifelong faculty to learn new skills and concepts, embrace new ways of thinking and learning, and pursue new careers. This is both the promise and responsibility of higher education.
The continuing evolution of high-quality online education—and the expanding investment in new digital tools and capabilities—makes it possible to provide access to higher education on a global scale. This is a great reason to be optimistic about dramatically increasing the number of Arab students with higher education credentials.
Michael M Crow is the president of Arizona State University, ranked the most innovative university in the US for three straight years by US News & World Report
Maysa Jalbout is the chief executive officer of the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education, a privately funded foundation based in Dubai