University Career Services in MENA: Challenges and Way Forward
Source: University of North Carolina
Strengthening career services can be a major entry point to foster the labor market orientation of higher education institutions. While there have been several donor-funded initiatives in recent years to strengthen career services in MENA, career services in the region often remain fragile. Future efforts must address a range of priority areas, such as leadership support, human resources, stronger employer engagement, and quality management.
Labor-market oriented higher education and the role of career services
Promoting the labor market integration of young people requires multiple strategies. In regions and countries (such as across the Middle East and North Africa) where many young people opt for higher education, but where higher education does typically not translate into better labor market opportunities, policies must specifically enhance transitions from formal education to work. Hence, in addition to policies dealing with the stock of graduates already un- or underemployed, we also need strategies that make education systems more responsive to the labor market (preventative approach) so that current and future generations of students can be more successful upon graduation.
Against this background, improving the labor market orientation of higher education has been an important policy objective in many countries. This raises the question what determines whether a higher education institution is responsive to labor market needs? The truth is, there are many influencing factors:
- At the institutional level, it includes elements such as the selection of study fields offered (do they reflect market needs?), the student intake system (how many students are enrolled relative to what the market can absorb), and the hiring and appraisal system for faculty (are practical experience outside higher education and close industry connections valued?).
- At the student-facing level, what matters are factors such as relevant and up-to-date curricula (potentially through private sector involvement), adequate teaching practices, career orientation, fostering students’ job search and other specific skills, as well as offering work-based learning (WBL) opportunities.
One area through which many higher education institutions seek to provide several of the student-facing activities are “career services”. Career services generally seek to increase students’ preparedness for the labor market through one or more of the following services:
In practice, such career services can be organized in many different ways, including different levels of centralization (university and/or faculty level), divisions of responsibility (self-standing career units vs. shared responsibilities with other departments), setting (e.g., physical center, specialized courses, special “programs” with external providers) and different modes of delivery (e.g., one-on-one counselling, group workshops, online and distance learning and resources, etc.).
To get a better understanding of the state of university career services in the MENA region, we looked at recent literature and talked to over 20 stakeholders across the region, incl. career guidance experts, universities, NGOs, and donor organizations.
Here is what we found…
Many reform initiatives in recent years
First, it is interesting to note that there have been quite a number of initiatives in recent years seeking to enhance higher education career services in the MENA region, many of which supported through USAID or German development cooperation (GIZ). Some examples include:
- Egypt: The “University Centers for Career Development Project”, implemented by the American University in Cairo, has been running since 2017 and plans to work with 34 partner universities by 2026.
- Lebanon: The “Higher Education Capacity Development Program”, implemented by EDC, seeks to foster students’ job readiness skills in 8-12 higher education institutions.
- Iraq: The “U.S.–Iraq Higher Education Partnerships Program”, implemented by IREX, works with higher education institutions on a range of topics, including career development. Support to career development centers started over 10 years ago in 2012 and has expanded to reach every public university in the country.
- Tunisia: Under the “Innovation, Regional Economic Development and Employment (IDEE) Project”, GIZ worked with 10 career offices to enhance their services (e.g., equipment, capacity development for career office personnel, etc.).
- Palestine: Under the “TVET and Employment Promotion Program” GIZ developed career units in 10 universities and 2 technical colleges.
Similar efforts have also been going on in Morocco and Jordan.
Challenges for university career services in MENA
What have been the challenges for career services in the region? Here is what some of our interview partners had to say:
Overall, the picture that emerges is that most career services in higher education institutions in MENA are small and have only been able to reach a small fraction of students and with limited quality. Based on conversations with practitioners across the region, the underlying reasons can be organized in two main categories: 1) A fragile institutional setup of career services, and 2) A weak enabling environment that affects the delivery of career service (see figure). .
Enhancing career services in MENA: What does it take?
No single intervention can address the multiple challenges described above. Therefore, enhancing the quality of career services in the MENA region requires working on several topics. Based on our research, we have identified eight main priority areas that higher education institutions and development partners need to consider (See figure).
Here are a few selected examples of the key issues we identified:
- Underfunding: In most higher education institutions in the MENA region only very limited resources are dedicated to career services. In part, this has to do with general budget deficits but also low prioritization of career services by many university leaders. Moreover, funding can fluctuate greatly, affecting the continuity in services (and thereby reducing trust by students & employers). Due to this lack of public sector funding, most initiatives in the region are donor-driven with uncertain sustainability.
- Understaffing: Reflecting limited financial resources, career services in many higher education institutions in the region are severely understaffed. There are usually no more than 1-3 people with a responsibility for career services (for thousands of students), and high staff turnover is common. Even then, those responsible are often not full-time dedicated staff, but rather existing faculty or administrative staff who act as part-time volunteers. Moreover, internal academic or administrative staff typically neither have a background in career guidance nor do they have experience in the private sector, making it difficult to fulfil their mandate.
- Unbalanced services: Another interesting finding that emerges is that where career services exist, they tend to have a limited offering. While there is a common emphasis on job search skills training and career fairs, personalized career counseling is typically not available. Moreover, employer engagement often remains weak, leading to a lack of work-based learning opportunities for students.
- Lack of labor market information: Many MENA countries suffer from fragmented and incomplete labor market information (e.g., on occupations in demand, wages by occupation, etc.). Moreover, occupational databases such as O*NET from the U.S. or ESCO from Europe which are used to provide information on different occupations are not specific to the region. As a result, career service staff can face significant obstacles in collecting and processing information, and the overall process becomes more prone to mistakes, thus negatively affecting the career guidance provided.
- Lack of evidence on career service impact: When higher education institutions benefit from support through international development agencies, efforts are made to conduct tracer studies to better understand satisfaction rates and employment outcomes of students who used career services. However, studies that seek to rigorously measure the impact of career services on graduates’ employment outcomes remain almost inexistent. This lack of clear evidence on the benefits of career services might be one contributing factor to commonly perceived lack of support from higher level university leadership.
Area 1 – Leadership support & funding: Growing the relevance and quality of career services in MENA cannot be achieved without stronger institutional support from top university administrators. Only when the university leadership sees the value in career services (beyond lip service), adequate budgets can be allocated. The German Jordanian University (GJU) providers a good example. Over the last few years, increasing graduates’ employability and alumni engagement was included as an objective in the university’s strategic plan. While the total funds received by the university from the government may stay the same, different departments at the university receive larger or smaller funds based on the importance of the department in the strategic plan. This has helped the university’s “Office of Industrial Links” which oversees career services to receive steady funding.
Area 2 – Adequate human resources: There is no doubt that providing quality career is contingent on quality core staff. Hence, attracting and retaining qualified personnel to manage career counselling, skills development and employer engagement is essential. Since there is often no proper educational pathway for career guidance professionals in MENA countries, continuous professional development must remain a priority. Moreover, education institutions need to be creative in how to grow the career service team beyond its core staff. For instance, training students as peer career assistants and leveraging committed faculty members as additional volunteers can be promising strategies that can also function well in the context of limited budgets.
Area 5 – Dual-client perspective: Career services can only be effective if they not only consider students as their target group, but also employers. Indeed, strong employer relations represent the foundation for almost all career service activities, and especially for offering sufficient work-based learning opportunities (e.g., internships) and facilitating job matching. In addition to serving as a good entry point for dialogue and engagement with the private sector, career services therefore need to invest significant effort in developing strong relations with and services for employers, showing their value added and building trust over time (so that the sane employers stay engaged and continue to offer opportunities). One main strategy for building and maintaining strong employer relations is through alumni who are already employed.
Area 7 – Quality management and impact measurement: To professionalize career services in the region, quality management is key. This must involve setting up proper internal performance metrics (e.g., related to number of students reached by type of service, student and employer satisfaction, etc.) as well as conducting regular tracer studies to understand graduates’ employment outcomes. In addition, while there can be methodological challenges, conducting robust impact studies should be explored to grow the evidence base on the benefits of higher education career services. That said, such impact studies must be properly sequenced, making sure that the evaluated career services are properly resourced and meet quality standards.
Career services in higher education institutions should not be considered solely responsible for graduates’ career outcomes. Strengthening the labor market orientation of higher education also requires other reforms (e.g., with regards to curricula, teaching practices, etc.). That said, career services represent an important entry point for promoting graduates’ employability.
The interesting feature of career service interventions is that they can serve different policy agendas. Quality career services contribute to policy objectives in higher education, labor market integration, and private sector development (e.g., a job-ready workforce as ingredient for industry competitiveness). Hence, strengthening career services can be a component of broader reform efforts across all these policy areas.
As governments and development partners support this agenda in MENA and beyond, it is important to not only focus on the direct inputs to the delivery of career services (such as equipment, training of personnel, etc.) but also to strengthen the enabling environment for career services to be as effective as possible. For instance, addressing existing weaknesses in labor market information systems can contribute to improved career counselling. Similarly, by building more robust evidence on how career services can improve graduates’ employment prospects can help overcome current issues related to low prioritization by university leaders and underfunding.
Are you working on career services or would you like to learn more about our work in this area? Send us an email.