Bridging the Gap between Academia and Industry in the Middle East


We have always looked to higher education, business and industrial research and development to create individual prosperity, drive societal economic development and elevate the position of the Middle East in global commerce.


However, several chronic and persistent disconnects between and within higher education and industry have created a gap that slows, stalls or even prevents progress. We are too satisfied with copying products and business models others have developed. University graduates, when motivated toward entrepreneurship, will often settle for operating a franchise or founding a distributorship rather than doing something new and creative. We are not aiming far enough.


These problems are not beyond our ability to solve, but it requires new ways of viewing some long-established systems and relationships, and the willingness to break with tradition for the betterment of both academia and industry.


I have identified eight areas where we can do much better. I am going to look more closely at each of these areas and you will see as we proceed that there is a good deal of interconnectivity between several.


1. Curricula and job market do not correspond


There is a huge gap between what is being taught in our universities and what industry actually needs in terms of professional skills and talents. Universities in the Middle East, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, tend to focus on theory. The reasons for this are easy to understand. After all, higher education is itself an industry, and as such it tends to find the best ways to perpetuate itself. To do that it has made the elevation and advancement of theories one of its primary “products.” I don’t want to shortchange the importance of theories or market analyses at all. Great business minds always need to be looking at where we are, how economies function and more.


However, today too much teaching is concentrated in these areas and not enough in providing industry with graduates who are ready to “hit the ground running” when they enter the private workforce. Why do we put the burden on industry to essentially retrain our graduates in the more practical aspects of commerce?


2. Internships vs cooperative education


The short-term internship is a standard component of many higher education degree programs. On the face of it, it seems like a great idea: Get students out into companies for some practical experience. But in my observation, the system has degraded badly. It has become such an ordinary and automatic requirement that few give it the attention it deserves.


From the academic side, it is merely a requirement that must be met. From the industry side, it is often a barely tolerated workplace disruption. Students swarm into the office, commanding the time of regular employees only to be quickly gone. Interns typically spend their time as document controllers and pick up little or no practical knowledge.


The mold needs to be broken and a more cooperative approach established between business and academia. Elevate the importance of internships and the amount of time invested in them. Schools need to more closely monitor the duties and responsibilities interns are given to be sure they are substantive.


Let us consider the fact that students, when doing their internships, tend to avoid working at a startup even if it is very promising. They lean toward having the big names on their CVs; this attitude harms not only startups that are looking for fresh minds, but the students themselves. Frankly, the amount of experience students acquire while working at a corporation cannot be compared to what they get working for a startup. In startups they don’t have templates, they learn to improvise, think on their feet and think outside the box. Universities should make students aware of these differences and encourage students to be more daring. Yes, a big name on your CV will help you get a good job. I suggest doing two internships!


3. Intellectual Property Ownership


Mark Zuckerberg, who “invented” Facebook, did it on his own time while a student at Harvard. Would he have bothered if he knew that all the royalties or income from Facebook would go into university coffers? Further, was the university system itself even capable of making something like Zuckerberg created? He didn’t think so. Zuckerberg told the campus newspaper, “Everyone’s been talking a lot about a universal face book within Harvard. I think it is kind of silly that it would take the University a couple of years to get around to it as I can do it better than they can, and I can do it in a week.”


Sadly, campus-based research and development—in MENA and around the world—is in a sorry state. Undergraduate and graduate students see it as a burden at best and a dead end at worst. Students work for professors who are conducting research mostly to solidify their university careers. Any intellectual property students might develop becomes the property of the university so they have less incentive to work hard or be creative. (If they have some great ideas, the wise ones will hold on to them until after they graduate.)


A system in which students could enjoy the financial fruits of their intellectual property and entrepreneurial ideas is desperately needed. If such a system creates more good ideas, in the long run universities would enjoy even greater financial benefits than they do today, not to mention increased stature.


4. Industry-experienced professors


This discussion started with the need for more practical and less theoretical teaching. Another dimension of that is to find ways to offer more classes taught by professors who have a wealth of industry experience. The old model of getting an undergraduate degree, followed by advanced degrees, followed by a university teaching position is woefully inadequate today. Universities must require their professors to have serious industry experience before securing a teaching position. Students relate much better to professors who can speak from real-life situations and more fully express the practical implications of case studies. Also, professors with practical experience will be sought after by industries looking for solutions to problems. This will strengthen the ties between universities and industry and create many ancillary benefits for students.


5. The rush for advanced degrees


For many students there is no question that they will move straight to grad school after being awarded their bachelor’s degree. The market for MBAs is saturated. That depresses salaries and perhaps the entire MBA-mill is dulling our ability to sense what is really important.


Recently Forbes named its top 10 entrepreneurs for 2013. I don’t think one MBA holder made the list, although college dropout Evan Spiegel did. Spiegel, who founded Snapchat, turned down a $3 billion buyout offer from Facebook. Moreover, if you think a business or technical degree is critical, consider Bre Petits who is a major player in the 3-D printing revolution. He studied psychology, mythology and performing arts on his way to a bachelor’s degree. And how about author and investor Tim Ferriss who has a degree in East Asian Studies?


Certainly we need people with the knowledge and skills gained in most MBA programs. But more than that we need people who can see beyond what exists today and have the courage and ambition to create tomorrow’s new realities. And this leads to my final three points.


6. R&D is under appreciated


A theme that runs through much of what I have been saying here is that in the Middle East—in both industry and academia—research and development is under appreciated. Frankly, it should be treasured the most in both places and its position intentionally elevated. More resources must be invested in R&D. Hey, what will we do if the other guys run out of ideas? I don’t think we should have any trouble attracting the world’s best minds to MENA, but they won’t come here if there aren’t exciting new areas being researched and new products and services being developed. To me, this potential is exciting.


7. Universities as incubators


We should begin to see universities as startup incubators. For example, a group of students doing their senior design project could be given an intellectual property of the university’s and start a company around it under the auspices of the university. The university has a good infrastructure and could also offer faculty supervision, which would be very helpful if the professors have strong real-world experience. Everyone benefits from relationships like these. If the startup is successful, jobs are created along with income for the school, an enhanced reputation for the university and an ongoing synergy between the school and business.


8. Link technical and business schools


Engineering students get little or no exposure to the realities of business. However, the ultimate success or failure of anything they develop depends entirely on the product’s success in the marketplace. On the other hand, business students don’t know what tomorrow’s engineers are capable of creating. Top tier universities in the United States, including Stanford, are making an entrepreneurship and commercial viability element part of their curriculum for engineering students. Who knows what will happen after teaming up business and engineering students. The possibilities are virtually endless.


This is my list of eight strategies to unleash real entrepreneurship throughout the Middle East. I am sure there are other things that could be done. But no matter how long our “to do” lists are, the important thing is to start now.


About Hamzeh Al Fuqha:

Hamzeh Al Fuqha is a serial entrepreneur, inventor and angel investor. He founded Next Presentations and co-founded SmartAd. Hamzeh is a frequent speaker at industry seminars and guest lecturer at the American University of Sharjah on entrepreneurship and leadership. He has received several awards and won numerous national public speaking and debating competitions. Hamzeh has trained various public figures and high-level managers on executive communication skills and speech delivery techniques.


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