Dr. Senthil Nathan co-founded and heads Edu Alliance Ltd, Abu Dhabi – a boutique management consultancy specializing in education. In the past 7 years, he has consulted for over 25 universities and investors and helped establish new universities. The client list includes NYU Abu Dhabi, UAE University, Heriot-Watt University – Dubai, Antioch University – USA, KIMEP University – Almaty, Dubai Investments, University of Wollongong – Dubai, AURAK, Abu Dhabi University, Ajman University, American University in Cairo, and the like. He is an experienced academic leader with over 30 years of experience in university academic and administrative leadership and engineering. He is also a co-founder of EdTech company Edorer Inc., San Francisco, USA.
Universities and academics are often accused of living in ivory towers. An ivory tower, according to Oxford Languages, is “a state of privileged seclusion or separation from the facts and practicalities of the real world.” For those who straddle the world of academia and industry, this is often apparent – but not so for those who are entrenched within the four walls of the universities.
Secondly, the products of universities are young graduates on the cusp of starting their professional careers. But, interestingly, unlike typical businesses, universities do not generally need to take responsibility to market and place their graduates. Hence, in the business parlance, universities occupy a unique place – of being not under the constraint of having to sell what they produce – unlike any other business sector. More often than not, this leads to skill gaps and unemployment of graduates.
This disparity is more so in emerging economies and developing nations in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The following statistics from a Brookings Report entitled “Youth Employment in the Middle East and North Africa: Revisiting and Reframing the Challenge” (2019) provide evidence to this looming gap between what the universities produce and what the industry/businesses need:
- The MENA region has the largest youth population in the world, with more than half of residents under the age of 25.
- The MENA region has the world’s highest youth unemployment rate, standing at 27.2% in the Middle East and 29% in North Africa, according to the World Bank. This is more than twice the global average.
- University graduates are making up nearly 30% of the total unemployed pool in the region.
- According to a study of CEOs in the region, 46% of the region’s employers do not consider graduates to possess the right skills set. And 65 to 80% of the employers reported that graduates were not work-ready.
This is indeed alarming – but this trend has been going on for several years now. While there are several structural and socio-political reasons for the above situation, there is one factor that is within the control of the universities to help address these disquieting trends and gaps.
There are some important lessons that the universities can emulate from the business sector that need to address this supply-demand gap faced by their products, namely by market research. Universities can and must pursue quality market research about:
- the programs they offer,
- the contents they include in the curriculum and
- the intended graduate outcomes of their programs.
Why market research on the program front is a key to the long-term success of universities and their graduates?
- Many academics are not actively engaged with the relevant industry; many have never worked in their industry or may have worked a long time ago.
- While some academics keep themselves up to date on the research needs of the relevant industry, most of them are not aware of specific skills expected today of entry-level professionals by relevant industries.
- In the wake of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the future of work and associated jobs are going thru a fast major revolution and transformation. Even under the normal pace of change in the socio-economic environment, university faculty have had difficulties keeping up with changes. Today, this is much more of a challenge than it has ever been. Hence, the imperative for universities to be in continual engagement with the industry takes on a much more urgent and significant dimension.
There are different types of market research that universities must be engaged in:
- Institutional level: Market research must be done at the university level – about the set of programs they are currently offering – and are planning to launch over the next five years or so. Such a program rationalization exercise must be done as part of the university’s Strategic Planning exercise – typically undertaken in a five-year cycle.
- Program level: every new program that is initiated at a university must be accompanied by a proper feasibility study that includes objective market research, preferably done by an external group (given the possible internal bias and the internal lack of engagement with industry as outlined earlier).
- Program evaluation: Program level KPIs must include annual measurement of their graduate career placement rates within a few months upon graduation. Those programs that show poor placement records (as compared to the national averages or similar measures) must be placed on feasibility review and market research.
What is market research? Sound market research – either at the institutional level or program level – would include secondary research, considering objective data sets that are in the public domain; and primary market research with a focus on specific employers/regions that the graduates are targeted for. Triangulating various objective data, subjective pieces of evidence, and specific feedback from individual employers, and analyzing for business intelligence require informed and well-experienced experts within the academic domain. Market research in academia – done by marketing specialists from other businesses such as F&B, manufacturing, technology, and the like – are likely to result in uninformed analyses and inappropriate recommendations that may be difficult to implement in a university setting.
Benefits of market research:
Well-designed market research could become effective and useful channels of communication: if the faculty members are kept engaged through the process, they will learn a great deal from the interactions with the industry. And potential employers engaged in this process will also learn from these interactions – what universities can do and what employers must do as part of on-the-job training once fresh graduates are employed. These benefits are priceless and often more important and lasting than the final reports and data sets presented in the market research reports.
Well-designed market research could inform curriculum design including desired graduate outcomes, need for features such as internships, capstone projects, portfolio assessments, and the like. It is fairly a common occurrence for faculty to discover what they considered as absolutely critical may take a backseat in the view of employers and some skills that the faculty may not even consider as part of the curriculum may be considered essential by employers. Industry and community stakeholder feedback often provide much-needed clarity to curriculum debates within departments.
If any university in the region consistently practices this, their faculty members and academic leadership would gain in many ways:
in addition to the primary objective of ensuring that they offer the right programs with the right content and producing the right employable skills in the graduates, the faculty will also become aware of:
- the number of graduates that the market can take (thus informing program enrollment targets),
- internship opportunities for their students,
- applied research and consulting opportunities for faculty,
- higher-level organizational collaborations and
- potential benefits of these networks for the university leadership.
Well-satisfied industry and student-parent community are the best forms of promotion and advertisement for a university. These stakeholders speak much louder than university or program rankings, research conferences, fellow academics, and so on. The very fact that the university cares enough to consult the stakeholders in their program offerings and consider the feedback seriously would build tremendous goodwill – much more than what expensive promotional campaigns could.
At this juncture, universities of the MENA region are still in the early stages of deploying the full potential of market research. As a regional best practice: national and emirate-wide accreditation and licensing agencies in the UAE require market research and feasibility studies and the expectations of these reviewers are becoming more stringent. This may be emulated in other countries of the region as well – particularly in those countries with increasing graduate unemployment rates. Whether or not accreditation agencies require such market research, it is a healthy practice for universities and faculty to be engaged in objective market research for many benefits that this would bring both in the short term and the long term.