High levels of social and economic inequality in NATO's regional partner countries, a grievance common to all the Arab Spring protest movements, causes dissatisfaction among general populations, often leading to civil unrest.
Inequality is particularly manifest in access to higher education, with grave repercussions for democracy as a consequence of the restriction it puts of social mobility. Those most affected by unequal access to higher education are women, minority groups, people from lower socio-economic groups and people living in rural areas.
I therefore propose that NATO establish an entry-level online education and skills training program for young people in regional partner countries, in conjunction with existing or nascent institutions in the region. The objectives being to give young people the knowledge and skills to develop civil society and to enhance entrepreneurial opportunities. Through such a program the Alliance would not only support the long-term transition process underway in regional partner countries but also increase its influence (soft power) in the region.
NATO would first establish a working group tasked with developing a proposal to be put forward to partner countries at Work Program meetings. Countries that agree to the scheme would then call on national universities and technical schools for course development proposals. These would then be given to the working group who would put the courses together and finalise them with assistance from professional course developers, possibly from NATO's own educational institutions. This process would be relatively fast because the material and expertise exists already. In addition, all reading material and learning aids will be licensed under creative commons, and therefore free. One potential difficulty would be the fact that the course language will be Arabic while NATO works in English and French, however, this should be overcome easily.
Once finalised, NATO will make the courses available online, using a learning system such as Blackboard. The program would be advertised through both NATO and the participating institutions in a multi-media campaign.
The program must comprise the following features in order to be successful:
- It must be free in order to be accessible to the greatest possible number of people, and to differentiate itself from existing online universities.
- It must be expandable to allow addition of new courses and extension of existing courses
- It must be accessible across all operating platforms.
- Course records must be stored on a server, not the computer being used, because many people will access the program on public computers. Privacy coding is also essentially to ensure students would never be placed at risk.
- A discussion forum should be included to encourage communication among users.
- Sensitive subjects such as religion should be avoided.
- Courses must be in standard Arabic and use plain language.
- Courses should be structured in a beginner to advanced system, to motivate and keep students interested.
- Courses must be updated regularly so that student’s skills and knowledge remains relevant.
The course subjects would be selected primarily for their relevance to targeted users, for example:
- Health and nutrition
- Business and entrepreneurship
- Public policy
- Conflict resolution
- Managing public sector and community organisation accounts
- Training in representation process and procedure to improve government standards
Marking and Accreditation
Markers would be recruited on a volunteer basis from the universities that co-developed the courses. If not enough volunteers were found, the scope would have to be widened to include other universities and academic institutions. All graduates will be given a certificate or diploma on completion of the course. Outstanding students will also have the opportunity to apply for internships, work placement and scholarships.
I also propose that NATO and partner-countries co-establish a fund to offer start-up capital to business/entrepreneurship graduates who present viable business plans. This would be a strong incentive for people to return to their homes and promote peace and stability needed to conduct business. Furthermore, it would be a step towards reducing economic inequality, and improving local and domestic economies.
I am proposing a no-fee, classroom and paper free learning environment aimed at people with a high-school education, accessible on any internet supporting platform. This will make previously un-attainable education available to a much broader section of the population.
The success of the online University of the People, launched in cooperation with the United Nations, highlights the viability and effectiveness of such a program. However, the proposed program differs from its antecedent by using Arabic as the language of instruction and focusing on practical skills to fill skills shortfalls.
Directing resources towards young people, who make up a large proportion of the populations, is the most effective of reaching those who started the transition process. This program would have quantifiable positive impact on users’ lives, and although it is not an immediate solution, it will ensure that change comes from within with lasting effects.
Isabelle Summerson is a journalism and international relations student at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. She is currently on a six month exchange at the University of Maastricht in The Netherlands studying conflict resolution, earth sciences and Arabic.