I was delighted to attend in the last few weeks two extremely interesting conferences, both of them hosted in Dubai, my home city. The first was the Iraq Education and Technology Summit, which ran from 23-24 February at the Hyatt Regency Hotel.

This conference brought together a very interesting group of senior people from the Iraqi Government, NGOs and the private sector.  Among the speakers was H.E. Ali Al-Adeeb, Iraq’s Minister of Higher Education & Scientific Research (MoHESR) and Mr Ali Musa’ad Al-Ibrahimi, Iraq’s Deputy Minister of Education.

The background of the summit was the fact that Iraq’s Parliament is in the process of passing a new Infrastructure Law, which will become a key component of Iraqi Government strategy. The summit aimed therefore to establish and strengthen relationships between the Iraq Government and leading international organisations which can help accelerate Iraq’s development in technology, training and management skills.

What came across very strongly at the summit was the very high priority placed by the Iraq Government on the need to develop appropriate and effective education and training programmes to address the twin challenges of high unemployment and an inadequately skilled workforce. Many of the speakers noted the benefits that technology can bring in enabling step-changes in a country recovering from years of neglect and still suffering from significant logistical and security problems.

And, provided that it can overcome political divisions to agree a coherent strategy, Iraq has the resources to meet these challenges. According to World Bank and IMF forecasts, GDP is likely to see double-digit growth for the next few years, driven mainly by steadily increasing oil production and robust oil prices.  As oil revenues rise, Iraq’s government is making plans to spend a significantly larger proportion of its budget on essential services such as education and healthcare.

Among the most interesting sessions for me was that of Dr Abdul Salam Al-Jammas, Director General, Reconstruction and Projects in the MoHESR, who emphasized the Ministry’s commitment to renovating Iraq’s legacy universities and to achieving its ambitious plans to build new universities across the country. This theme was continued in the presentations of Dr Mohammed Al-Saraj, Director General, Research & Development, MoHESR, and of Dr Mohammed Al-Saraj, Director General, Research & Development, MoHESR, both of whom noted the potential of ICT to scale scarce faculty resources, to help ensure equity of access to quality education across the nation and to provide a richer learning  and teaching environment.

In meetings with the Presidents of Baghdad University and Basrah University, I sensed the same awareness that technology, when used appropriately and effectively and combined with the judicious deployment of human resources, could play a key role in ensuring that Iraq’s education system regains its place as a leader in the Middle East.

In both the Iraq summit and the inaugural Global Education and Skills Forum – GESF (held at the Atlantis Hotel, 14-17 March), it was clear that the crucial role of public-private partnerships in education transformation in the region is not only widely acknowledged but also is becoming ever more a topic  of formal discussion. At the Iraq summit, there were important contributions from GEMS Education and ICDL representatives. Indeed, this PPP theme was dominant at the GESF (sponsored by the UAE Ministry of Education, UNESCO, the Commonwealth Business Council, GEMS Education, and the Varkey GEMS Foundation. Bill Clinton, in his hour-long presentation by video-link, stressed that governments everywhere can no longer cope alone with the ever more urgent need to provide universal access to quality education. Tony Blair, who attended in person, made a similar point. The GESF proved to be a remarkably interesting event, bringing together people as diverse as the President of Burundi, the former President of Nigeria (Olusegun Obasanjo), Ministers from Cameroon, Jordan, Malawi, Mauritius,  the UAE, South Sudan, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, and senior representatives of UNESCO, The Commonwealth Business Council, the Asian Development Bank, the Development Bank of South Africa, the IFC, Standard Chartered Bank and the Qatar Foundation as well as leading educationalists such as Martin Bean (Vice Chancellor of the Open University) and Ananth Agarwal (President, EdX).

There were numerous excellent presentations but, for the sake of brevity, I will mention just one: Paramjit Pabby, Group HR Director of Dangote (a major Nigerian conglomerate) described the work of the Dangote Academy and a particular initiative it had launched. The project involves sponsoring the training of 2,000 prospective truck drivers, 75% of whom would then go on to join team of drivers of the 5,000-strong fleet of Dangote trucks. What I found most thought-provoking and innovative about this project was two things: first, the way in which it encourages entrepreneurship (after driving 300,000 kilometres, the driver gets to keep the truck); and, second, the fact that a significant number of the numerous applicants to the project have MBAs or PhDs – an interesting reflection of the balance required today in Africa and other emerging regions between academic and vocational qualifications!

I welcome the decision to make the GESF an annual event and very much look forward to next year’s forum. I believe this annual event could become a genuine landmark in the annual cycle of education conferences.