This post is excerpted from “The Seven Pillars of the Arab Future.” The full version is available at Democracy, and is reprinted here with permission.
The early days of the Arab uprisings were uncomplicated and inspiring, as they reaffirmed many Westerners’ long-held beliefs regarding universal values, human rights, and democratization. With the fall of long-standing dictators and the spread of unrest and protest, historical parallels were quickly drawn to the transformative events of 1989, which witnessed the fall of the Communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe and the acceleration of events that soon thereafter led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The ultimate success of the Arab uprisings will depend heavily on the development of seven core areas. This post discusses the second of those seven pillars: Education. Previous posts discussed the first pillar, Economic Growth and Equality, and provided an an introduction to the series, which offers an overview of the Arab uprising and its recent aftermath, and provides a high-level sketch of the seven pillars.
Second Pillar: Education
What is the state of education in the Arab world? The UN Human Development Index offers the following statistics: In Libya, students have 7.3 years of schooling on average; Tunisia, 6.5 years; Egypt, 6.4 years; Syria, 5.7 years; Yemen, a sobering 2.5 years (for the United States, it’s 12.4 years).
A March 2011 UNESCO report found that while the region has made progress on elementary and secondary education in the last decade, it still lags behind most of the world. Over six million primary school-aged children—the vast majority of them girls—do not attend school. Enrollment in post-secondary education is 21 percent, below the worldwide average of 26 percent. Teacher salaries are often abysmal—in Egypt, for example, the starting salary is $20 a month, rising to $70 a month after five years. This has led to perverse practices, such as teachers withholding information in the classroom to encourage participation in private tutoring sessions for those few students whose parents can pay for the extra time.
Another problem is the rigid and outmoded pedagogy that is practiced in the region’s schools. There is a heavy emphasis throughout secondary education on rote memorization and a lack of focus on analytical and creative thinking, which are essential to advanced learning. This approach has limited the capacity of students to translate their education to the labor market.
Educational participation also reflects clear patterns of inequality. A 2007 World Bank study focusing on economic performance in the Middle East and North Africa noted that “[p]overty and level of education are strongly and consistently correlated in populations in the region, meaning that programs targeting secondary and higher education will reach few if any poor children.”
Aside from poor investment and outcomes, education in the region faces an additional problem: The educational systems of the region have been corrupted by the imperatives of regime survival. Among their primary functions, schools have been a means of maintaining order and control. This has led to censorship and limitations on research deemed threatening to the state. Today, Islamist regimes pose another threat. Mohammed Faour of the Carnegie Middle East Center predicts that “the Islamists of Egypt and Tunisia will target education reform to ensure more Islamic content is included in all students’ schooling.” This will create new barriers to inquiry and research.
To the extent that the educational sectors of transitioning societies have seen reforms, they have largely centered on political activism and expression. State interference in political life in Egyptian universities, for example, has declined since the fall of Hosni Mubarak. Similarly, university administrations have been shielded from direct political intervention, with Cairo University and other campuses holding internal elections for administrative leadership positions.
What needs to be done? The most urgent priority must be dealing with the mismatch between educational attainment and the requirements of the labor market. Closing this gap will require investment in advanced research and scientific institutions. It will also require greater coordination with the private sector to better tailor educational programs to labor demands, as well as pedagogy reform that begins a shift toward critical thinking and analysis and away from the more traditional and outmoded forms of learning. Vocational training and technical schools should also be encouraged as practical alternatives to university education and contributors to the production of skilled labor. Finally, it is critical that reformers protect inquiry, creativity, and expression against the potentially stifling imperatives of ruling Islamist political parties.
The financial strains on educational systems will be difficult to ameliorate at a time when resources are stretched. The youth bulge has put further pressure on the education sector. The countries of the region must reassess their budgetary priorities and consider options once thought politically untenable. For example, national universities in Egypt are currently free. Ursula Lindsey, The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Middle East correspondent, argues that some students should be charged fees in light of current budgetary realities.
The pressures on public education have also encouraged private institutions of higher learning to proliferate in some Arab countries. While some have adopted higher standards (exacerbating social divisions in the process), others are nakedly opportunistic enterprises responding to market demand and often do a poor job of preparing students. As such, the establishment of accreditation bodies is absolutely necessary to ensure baseline metrics for the approval of new institutions of higher learning.