What Will It Take to ‘Skill Up’ the MENA Region?

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Tuesday, March 14, 2023
By Tricia Bisoux
The Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai (Photo by iStock/dblight)
Business schools in the Middle East and North Africa must stay flexible, agile, and industry-connected to meet the evolving needs of their markets.
  • Participants in a recent AACSB virtual roundtable discussed the best practices they must adopt to meet the evolving needs of organizations in MENA countries.
  • In lieu of creating new programs, schools can make existing courses more flexible by incorporating easily adaptable elements such as case studies and guest lectures.
  • Most important, to ensure students develop market-ready skills, schools must work harder to involve industry in the design and delivery of their courses and programs.


How can business schools design curricula and initiatives that evolve apace with the needs of employers? Particularly those schools in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), where educators must stay in tune with regional markets that are transforming at an exceptionally rapid rate? In February, representatives of MENA-based schools came together for an invitation-only virtual roundtable, where they discussed how their institutions can best serve regional employers and prepare their students for the future of work.

Facilitated by Ihsan Zakri, regional head of the Middle East and North Africa for AACSB International, the roundtable featured two educators who lead schools in the region. Assaad Farah shared his perspective as dean of the School of Business Administration and associate professor of management at the American University in Dubai, as well as chair of the MENA Advisory Council for AACSB. Udo Brändle is CEO of University Management Research and Innovation at the University of Applied Sciences Krems (IMC Krems) in Austria, and formerly served as dean of the Dubai Business School at the University of Dubai.

The speakers tackled four central questions, with the intent of sparking a larger ongoing conversation about advancing business education in the MENA region:

  • How do we survey the market, and when do we know it’s time to create a new program?   
  • How can we be more agile as we incorporate new content and create new programs?   
  • How can we differentiate between fads and innovation, and how can we keep up?   
  • How can MENA schools ensure they provide learners at all stages with the skills they need to thrive? 

Participants agreed that, to address these questions successfully, schools cannot act in isolation. Instead, they must cultivate and maintain strong connections with industry partners, who can keep them informed of market needs. Then, they must come together with other business schools to address challenges and share best practices in designing programs tailored to the needs of their local regions.

‘How Do We Survey the Market?’

The first step to keeping up with a swiftly changing business climate is to frequently survey stakeholders, both formally and informally, Farah and Brändle emphasized. Schools can use the immediate feedback to ensure that any changes they make to their programs make sense, in terms of the skills students learn and the talent businesses need. “It is important for academia to really listen to the voice of the industry,” Farah said.

He noted that the American University of Dubai regularly turns to its advisory board for guidance on program content. For example, when the school considered launching new master’s programs in fintech and cryptocurrency, its advisory board members recommended against it. Instead, they recommended that the school incorporate fintech and cryptocurrency into existing course content. That feedback saved the school from launching resource-intensive programs that the market would not necessarily value.

Farah also advocated for widening the scope of feedback to target alumni, corporate partners, and graduate students via surveys, focus groups, and other discussions. Surveying alumni and graduate students could be especially fruitful, he said, because “they are in the market, they’re fresh [out of their programs, and] they know what they learned and what they did not learn.”

‘How Can We Be More Agile?’

Brändle wholeheartedly agreed that “involving the industry is key.” But for business schools to remain agile in the face of change, they must go beyond surveying the industry. They also must send administrators and faculty out into industry, whether to engage with leaders at their businesses or to interact with academics and practitioners at conferences.

“Go there, have your ear there, listen to what they tell you,” Brändle said. “It keeps you up on what’s happening in the market.” Such conversations with industry, he added, act like direct “request forms” from corporate partners about the direction they would like curricular content to go. With this information, schools can remain agile and can be sure to always “have in our drawer” new curricular content ready to be implemented, Brändle said.

“Listen to the industry. If the industry tells you that you need a finance program with a specialization in fintech, go this way. Be flexible.”—Udo Brändle, IMC Krems

To maintain agile, at-the-ready programs, “involve all of your stakeholders in the design process,” he added. “Don’t just have two or three people in the business school sitting together and thinking about designing a new program.” 

If conducting market research is the critical first step of collaborating closely with industry, he added, then truly listening to stakeholders is the critical next step in that process. “When you go into these meetings, you might have on your agenda, ‘I need a fintech program,’” said Brändle. “But listen to the industry. If the industry tells you that … you need a finance program with a specialization in fintech, go this way. Be flexible.” 

‘How Do We Differentiate Between Fad and Innovation?’

Both Farah and Brändle agreed that the accreditation process is a perfect mechanism to help schools determine when a new practice is a passing fad and when it is an innovation that’s here to stay. The “long journey” of getting any program accredited requires a great deal of market research and industry input, Farah said. “We want to make sure that we really need to add this new program.”

In many cases, schools will discover that an emerging trend is not worth launching an entirely new offering. Because the fundamental theoretical frameworks of any given discipline tend not to change rapidly, faculty can maintain the underlying structure of their courses over time. They then can keep up with emerging trends by bringing industry into their classrooms.

Cases, team projects, industry visits, and guest speakers can be easily changed, providing schools with the flexibility to expose students to new practices at will. For example, Farah mentioned that at the American University in Dubai, the senior leadership team of food delivery service Talabat came to campus to visit classes and work with faculty to build case studies. 

Of course, once schools determine that a new program is in order, they must take steps to ensure its long-term success. This means not only completing a detailed market analysis to make sure program content meets the requirements of regional and global accreditation, but also inviting industry to work with faculty during the design of the program—not just after. Only then, said Brändle, can a school ensure that its newly launched program will offer students the most important advantage of all: employability.

To get new programs approved with campus leadership and local governing boards, most schools must prove that the proposed programs will add value to the market, Farah and Brändle emphasized. This is particularly true for publicly funded universities such as IMC Krems, which can receive government funding only if administrators show that programs will support student employability. But “if you can show the employability, then go for it. Hang on! Fight for it!” Brändle said. “The windmills are always there that you’re fighting against, but at the end of the day, it’s worth it.”

‘How Do We Ensure All Learners Thrive?’

To answer this question, said Brändle, MENA schools should take advantage of what he called the “magic triangle”—interactions between the business school, industry, and learners. It is vital for schools to ensure that no corner of that triangle works in isolation.

For instance, at IMC Krems, a corporate relations center helps bring the triangle together. The center not only supports collaboration between the school and corporate partners, but also helps coordinate practical training experiences in which students spend one semester working at companies abroad.

MENA schools should take advantage of the “magic triangle”—interactions between the business school, industry, and learners. It is vital that no corner of that triangle works in isolation.

Of course, providing students with the training they need also requires that schools use technology to make that training as accessible as possible, Brändle added. Schools can provide programs appropriate for working professionals, as well as online options for students who cannot make it to campus.

Business schools can serve their markets by giving students “the peace of mind that they can have the ease of, after work, opening their laptops and joining our classes,” said Brändle. “Technology allows all of that.”

Bringing Together Academia and Industry

Other participants included Khaled Hutaibat, a professor at Mutah University in Jordan, and Nur Naha Abu Mansor, dean of the Faculty of Business at Sohar University in Oman. After the formal presentations, both added their perspectives, agreeing that business schools must do more to involve industry in designing and delivering their curricula. But they also pointed out that doing so isn’t always easy.

In fact, industry’s interest in working with local business schools can vary widely from country to country—and even among regions in the same country. To address this challenge, the entire group suggested the following strategies:

Highlight access to talent. If schools “show the benefits that industry [leaders] would have from these connections—particularly when it comes to attracting the right talent and developing future talent—then they would see the value,” Zakri said.

Establish train-to-hire programs. Hutaibat suggested that schools work with companies to set up “train-to-hire” positions. Such programs could upskill and reskill students more efficiently than standalone degree offerings, while also acting as pathways to employment. “Students will be very keen to do train-to-hire programs,” he said.

Collaborate with other disciplines. While Brändle was at the University of Dubai, the business school worked closely with the College of Engineering & IT to gain access to companies in technical fields. Such collaborations “were door openers for me,” Brändle said. The collaboration with his engineering colleagues, he added, also led to a joint degree program.

Find a liaison with industry. Mansor pointed out that while deans can turn to alumni and LinkedIn to expand their networks, it can be invaluable for them to find someone local to act as a liaison. “Networking is not as simple as you would see in certain regions, where companies are more reachable,” Mansor pointed out. It can be helpful, she suggested, to have someone who can make introductions to corporate partners—to act as “an engager.”

Establish hubs of knowledge. Mansor also emphasized the value of opening centers of excellence dedicated to different industry sectors. By bringing together alumni, corporate partners, faculty, and students, such centers can help schools coordinate activities with industry, gain insights on market trends, and source experiential learning opportunities.

Final Talking Points

By the end of the discussion, participants had established a set of best practices for keeping up with the pace of change: Seek frequent feedback from stakeholders, connect with local companies, listen to employers, use technology to make learning accessible, integrate easily adapted elements into courses, involve industry in course content and delivery, and launch new programs only in response to proven market demand.

Most important, Zakri said, schools across the MENA region should share ideas and learn from one other by attending conferences and seminars. They also can seek out benchmarking data (via resources such as AACSB’s Data Direct) and engage with each other on platforms such as the AACSB Exchange.

“We want to have more and more of these kinds of conversations, helping provide this feedback to other schools to learn and see they are not alone in this,” Zakri said. This roundtable, he said, “will be just the beginning for this group and this conversation.”

Tricia Bisoux
Editor, AACSB Insights
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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