“I got both my masters degree and PhD thanks to scholarships,” says Sanjay Sarma, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “I could not have afforded to come to the US otherwise. I grew up in India and, while my parents were intellectuals, they didn’t have bags of money lying around to send their son to a school in America.”
Fast forward some twenty years, and Sarma is MIT’s dean of digital learning and an entrepreneur with a clutch of patents to his name. He credits those early helping hands for his success. “We shouldn’t think of them as scholarships. We should think of them as investments in the future,” he says.
Sarma’s story is not so unusual in the US, where scholarships – a grant that lets less wealthy students carry on their education – have a long history. In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), scholarships to elite institutions for bright, poorer students are fewer and far between. Yet the need for access to quality, higher education has never been so great, for so many. MENA youth enrolment in tertiary education is 28 per cent, compared to 76 per cent in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.
“We shouldn’t think of them as scholarships. We should think of them as investments in the future”
Poor quality education – which limits students’ chances to gain the necessary grades – and poverty keep many youth out of the best universities at home and abroad. More troubling still, regional conflicts have spawned a generation of out-of-school refugee children with little money or the formal school records to go to college. Getting these underserved youth into quality colleges would put them on a more hopeful trajectory – a critical tool to tackling MENA’s chronic unemployment rate which, at almost one-third of the region’s young people, is the highest in the world.
To tackle the issue, the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education (AGFE) has launched its own scholarship programme. “There are many charitable initiatives and small foundations in the Arab world offering scholarships, but the need far outweighs the supply,” according to Maysa Jalbout, the foundation’s CEO.
The programme will help Emirati and Arab students across MENA attend some of the region’s top universities, and go to overseas institutions in the coming years. Each bursary will be decided on a needs-assessment basis and on academic achievement, as well as factors such as leadership skills, communication skills and a desire to give back. The funding will comprise either a full scholarship – covering the full gamut of educational costs such as fees, housing, books and transport – or a partial scholarship, says Jalbout. The foundation will work with both students and universities to find beneficiaries. So far, AGFE has partnerships with the American University of Sharjah and Khalifa University in the UAE; the American University of Beirut; the American University in Cairo; and MIT for its online learning programme.
“We’re targeting kids that don’t even think about going to university because paying as low as $1,000 a year is prohibitive,” explains Jalbout. The aim is to create a pool of exceptional students who will leverage their education to create better opportunities for themselves, their families and community.
Regional data on the impact of scholarships is sparse (something the foundation, too, hopes to address) but the global trends are encouraging and persuaded AGFE to fill this niche in the Arab world. A study by the Dell Scholars Program in the US – backed by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation– showed getting a degree boosted students’ earnings by $16,000 a year. Moreover, they were almost 20 per cent more likely to stick with, and complete, a degree thanks to the initiative. The grant helped, but equally important was the guidance and moral support that kept students on track, something AGFE has taken heed of.
A degree is often a prerequisite to getting a job in the Middle East, something MENA’s young people need desperately. Youth unemployment was an estimated 28 per cent in the Middle East and 30 per cent in North Africa in 2014, according to the ILO. “Access to the labour market in the region is often dependent on earning a university degree,” says Kevin Mitchell, interim provost at the UAE’s American University of Sharjah. “For bright students without financial means, the prospects are rather bleak.”
Scholarships can also serve as a badge of distinction that marks them out to prospective employers. “In an increasingly competitive job market, awards and scholarships can serve to indicate potential,” says Mitchell.
In the Arab world, AGFE will focus on areas in which high-quality job growth is highest: namely in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects. “Our research found growth is in these sectors, but there is a dearth of skilled graduates,” says Jalbout. Still, she acknowledges, encouraging young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter STEM fields – traditionally viewed as difficult subjects to enrol in – will be a challenge.
“If students go to elite schools, they are better placed to empower the communities from which they come”
At MIT, Sarma notes that beyond immediate job prospects, helping underserved pupils get into the world’s best universities also fosters academic excellence and a diversity of ideas that enables innovation and creativity, which benefits everyone. It is this quest for excellence that really makes a difference and which AGFE’s programme hopes to achieve. High performing students often end up in low quality universities simply because they do not have access to the best advice with regards applying to university, choosing the right programmes, and more. To address this, the foundation will offer students career counseling and mentoring on choosing a degree, to prompt them to think of well-regarded institutions that simply “aren’t on their radar”, says Jalbout.
Finally, scholarships can breed social capital, by enabling underprivileged youth to rub shoulders with the elite at world-class colleges – and perhaps developing future world leaders or captains of industry, from the unlikeliest of backgrounds. According to Sami Mahroum, director of INSEAD’s innovation and policy initiative, poorer youth lack the “savviness” to distinguish between low and high-quality universities, and this has a profound impact on future career path.
It might seem snobbish, Mahroum admits, but where and who you study with matters – and not just for the individual. “If they go to elite schools, they are better placed to empower the communities from which they come,” he says. The sending countries will have more citizens walking the corridors of big banks or corporations, who in effect become their “informal ambassadors”.
Jalbout agrees these opportunities matter, and hopes the foundation’s scholarship programme will let underserved Arab youth plug into influential networks by enrolling in leadership training, internships and accessing jobs. “We hope they will be the future leaders of the region,” she says. “And contribute to more solutions, more innovation and ultimately a better path to sustainable development.”
For Sarma at MIT, the quiet power of scholarships is their wide-ranging social impact. “The foundations and people who make these investments in scholarships are unsung heroes,” he observes. “The only benefit they get is knowing that something great happened. But the direct benefit to society is huge.”