Over the last year, COVID-19 has put students’ lives through a pressure cooker.
While virtually all are trying to learn without the normal sources of support, many are also struggling to cover the cost of living, partly due to difficulties in finding paid employment. In the second quarter of 2020, unemployment in Saudi Arabia hit a record high of over 15 per cent, with young Saudis making up nearly two-thirds of all unemployed.
Similarly, 41 per cent of young people in the UAE say that finding a new job is more difficult now than before the pandemic. Today’s students also often feel that the tuition bills they pay are out of all proportion to the educational experience they are getting during the pandemic.
Adding to the unemployed
Moreover, they know that when they graduate, they will begin their careers with fewer opportunities than previous generations. Even before the pandemic, youth unemployment rates in the Middle East and North Africa were reaching roughly double the global average. Against this background, students may fear that the pandemic has the potential to mar not just 2021, but the following decades too.
The Chegg.org Global Student Survey gives us a detailed picture of the views, hopes and fears of students in Saudi Arabia and 20 other countries as the pandemic upends their lives. Students in the Middle East have shown great determination to keep learning – yet the study also shows the toll being taken on their mental well-being.
Higher incidence of worries
In Saudi Arabia, 63 per cent say their mental health has suffered during the pandemic, with nearly 6 per cent reporting that they have self-harmed, and 9 per cent saying they have sought help for their mental health. Given that 60 per cent of all Saudi students said they had struggled to afford housing, food, bills or medical expenses in the last year, cost-of-living worries are likely contributing to poor mental health.
Other financial pressures come from student debt. 40 per cent have a loan or debt related to their studies, which for many is a great source of anxiety. A staggering two-thirds of students with debt say they lose sleep over their loan, and a similar number (69 per cent) say it has made them so anxious they have sought medical help.
And 74 per cent of respondents with debt said it makes them wish they’d made a different choice, and 65 per cent say they don’t think they’ll ever pay their debt off.
Cost to society
This state of affairs cannot continue – particularly given the extra economic pressure created by COVID-19. If the price of higher education is the loss of one’s health or unmanageable levels of debt, students will eventually seek other routes to their career goals. In fact, our study indicated that most Saudi students (or their parents) are paying for private online educational tools not provided by their university or college.
Saudi students still primarily go to university for the career benefits it is thought to bring, with half reporting a career-related motivation for studying. Yet there remains a significant gap between what employers need and what educational institutions currently provide.
In 2017, the UAE Minister of Higher Education, Dr. Ahmad Belhoul, confirmed that 40 per cent of Emirati students have skills not needed by the job market. The situation is similar in Saudi Arabia, where over half of employers say that skills gaps make them less productive.
As COVID-19 forces students to adapt to a new set of circumstances, many will be wondering whether they can justify the huge cost commitment of campus-based higher education.
Adapt to survive
How, then, can universities adapt and survive, whilst at the same time giving students a fairer deal? It is clear that they need to offer a more flexible and affordable higher education model – and students seem to agree. Now that Saudi students have had a taste of the benefits of online learning, an overwhelming 78 per cent say they would like their university to incorporate more of it after the pandemic.
Two-thirds say they would prefer a shorter degree if it was cheaper, and nearly three-quarters say they would rather their university offered the choice of more online learning if it meant paying lower tuition fees.
Some think such a shift is inevitable. Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Minister of Education, Dr. Mohammed Al-Sudairy, recently said that e-learning should no longer be viewed simply as a response to emergencies, but as the “path to the future”.
And one survey of a dozen higher education leaders across the Middle East found that almost all felt e-learning was here to stay – and could make a much stronger contribution to higher education in the years ahead. More online learning would give young people access to on-demand, affordable higher education, accessible anywhere from their favorite device.
It could also reduce the time it takes to graduate, helping to shrink student debt and attract talented students who might otherwise be shut out.
Despite all the obstacles they have experienced – and the challenges that lie ahead as they enter the workplace – 76 per cent of Saudi students say they feel optimistic. Faced with setbacks, they are looking to the future with hope.
The reform of higher education will allow the next generation of students to benefit from the lessons of today – and will help give them the opportunities that the pandemic has denied to so many.