We have been hearing about the gap between job markets and education systems since before the young job seekers of today were even born. How has this gap evolved over the years, and how have education systems been keeping pace? We speak to Nelly El Zayat, who puts on several hats related to this area. El Zayat is co-founder and director of Newton Education Services, advisor to the Minister of Education and Technical Education, and has been part of the team working on the national education reform program, Education 2.0.
What gap(s) is Newton Education Services addressing?
We (the founders) are all a group of Egyptians who had studied abroad ourselves. So, we were looking at how to help others who need guidance on where to start, where to go, how to find a good fit university based on their interests and their credentials, and how to prepare. We first started off offering advising services for both undergraduates and graduates who want to study abroad. At the same time, we also launched test preparation courses for the tests that are required with university applications like the SAT, the ACT, the GRE, the GMAT, etc.
Of course, tied to this is the whole scholarship management area that we work in, because more people every day cannot afford to study abroad. We help students find suitable scholarships, and we also manage scholarships for scholarship providers. For example, we have been managing the Yousriya Loza Scholarship provided by the Sawiris Foundation for six years. We also manage the Souraya El Salti scholarship provided by the MBC group. Right now, we are working with the American University in Cairo (AUC) on a big scholarship program called the USAID Scholars Activity that offers students from all over Egypt opportunities for undergraduate studies at AUC.
We also do consultations for educational institutions in areas like outreach and recruitment strategies. And we also have a blog that we invite those looking for information on education to follow.
How has COVID-19 affected the choices of those looking for the international education experience?
It certainly made a lot of students hesitant to apply to study abroad as they will not be getting the full experience. A major part of the study abroad experience is being abroad and interacting culturally. On the receiving end, universities face travel and healthcare restrictions on international students, which also slows down things in that regard. This opens more doors in online education, pushing people to explore how to determine whether a program is of good quality or not. Also for now, unfortunately, a lot of scholarship providers are hesitant or against funding students to enroll in international universities and then end up at home on their laptops. A lot of scholarship providers in Egypt are now turning to fund students inside Egypt rather than abroad.
After almost two years into the pandemic-related restrictions on education, what could we say about distance learning?
I do not think distance learning will ever replace the face-to-face experience, but I am sure that we will keep some of what we learnt. Distance learning has benefits that we have personally seen at Newton in our test preparation courses, like attracting students who usually would not come physically due to distance or other reasons.
Are there any new trends in what people are choosing to study?
There will always be a good mix between the sciences, arts and humanities and social sciences. However, with the COVID situation there are areas that are gaining attention, like FinTech, public health, and how the pharmaceutical world meets the business world. For example, with the current situation with vaccinations, there is an emphasis on supply chain management, logistics and finance. What is happening is that some of the fields that were not necessarily considered part of business education are now converging under it because there is a need for that.
How has attitude to life-long learning been affected?
I see life-long learning will definitely be on the rise. Executive education will be really growing because people will be looking at a specific area they want to improve on or learn about, without going for a degree that requires a long time commitment, but rather a short course on something in particular. On-demand and customized sort of courses will be on the rise.
Do you see that the gap between market needs and education system outputs is closing in any way?
Yes, I would say there is more teaching of more relevant content. COVID-19 came to expedite this trend. When everything went online and everyone’s life was affected one way or the other by what was going on, people started to look for what really matters and what is relevant, whether on the personal or the professional level. I think education is catching up in the same way. There’s more focus on skills. 21st century skills like communication, problem solving, empathy, etc. All of that is being embedded and included in different curricula, even at the K-12 level and at the higher education level as well.
The final question is about Egypt’s educational reform and your involvement in that effort. What skills do students ideally need to gain from K-12 education?
The team who has been working on Education 2.0 actually started asking this very question. ‘What is it that we want our students to learn? Who do we want them to be in the future?’ We did a lot of research, and we worked closely on the life skills and citizenship education framework that was developed by UNICEF and a lot of other partners.
The framework highlights a number of skills; 12 skills in different areas. What we added for our Egyptian context are two other skills which we thought are important for Egypt. One of them was accountability, and the other one was productivity. All the 14 skills are weaved into the curriculum, starting from kindergarten, all the way until a student graduates.
Besides this set of skills, you obviously want them [students] to be competent in literacy, in language, and hopefully more than one language, as well numeracy and social sciences.
And I think the important thing this curriculum is giving students is the flexibility and agility to be open to learning more. We hope to instill the notion that the book a student gets from the Ministry is not the curriculum. The objective is that students are here to learn and to understand, not to memorize this book.
I think there is a whole cultural shift and a shift in the mindset that will take some time to unfold but I think we will eventually get there.
Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.