February 4, 2008—Countries in the Middle East and North Africa need to overhaul their education systems to meet the demands of an increasingly competitive world and realize the potential of their large and growing youth population.
That's one of the principal findings of a new World Bank report, The Road Not Traveled: Education Reform in the Middle East and North Africa, a comprehensive economic analysis of the impact of education investments on the region, as well as demographic changes, globalization, labor migration, and the role of the labor market.
The report, released today in Amman, Jordan, points out that education reform alone will not drive economic growth. The region is home to large informal markets and generally lacks significant dynamic sectors that can compete internationally – characteristics that contrast sharply with East Asia and some economies in Latin America.
The report emphasizes that policy-makers should use incentives, public accountability, curriculum, and labor market reforms to make the region’s economies more dynamic.
After 40 years of education investments that have closed the gender gap at the primary school level and resulted in nearly universal education, the region faces new challenges posed by globalization and the “increasing importance of knowledge in the development process,” says the report.
‘The Education Systems Must Be Changed to Deliver New Skills’
Today's world of intense global competition and rapid technological change demands problem-solving, communication and language skills not being emphasized in most schools of the region, argues the report.
“Since education is the main source of knowledge creation, the task is clear,” it says. “The education systems must be changed to deliver new skills and expertise necessary to excel in a more competitive environment.”
Countries in the region are not enjoying the same returns on education investment at the higher-education level as some fast-growing middle-income countries in Asia, such as Malaysia and the Republic of Korea, and “certainly not meeting aspirations,” says Michal Rutkowski, Sector Director for Human Development in the World Bank's Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
“What we see in the region is that those who graduate from universities cannot find jobs. The unemployment rate is very high among them. Therefore the average return that you observe is also not high, and this is a serious problem,” says Rutkowski.
‘There Are No Proper Signals Sent to Higher Education Establishments’
He says the primary problem lies in a labor market dominated by the public sector in many countries, where university graduates will pass up opportunities in the private sector to wait two, three or four years for a public sector job offering lifetime employment and benefits above what the market offers.
“This is a major distortion for the labor market, but it also creates a situation in which there are no proper signals sent to higher education establishments in terms of which skills are in demand, and which skills are not in demand,” adds Rutkowski.
For that reason, the report also examines one of the most critical prior conditions to a well functioning education system—a well-functioning labor market—and recommends reforms in the area go hand-in-hand with educational reforms, notes Daniela Gressani, Vice President of the World Bank's Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, in the Foreword to the report.
Educational reforms are expected to be costly. The number of students seeking post-compulsory education is expected to increase considerably in the next decades. Countries will also have to transmit skills and competencies to a greater swathe of the population to remain competitive, says the report.
Up until now, MENA countries focused on building schools, recruiting and training teachers, and enrolling ever greater numbers of boys and girls in primary school. Special efforts were made to include girls, rural children, children of particular ethnic groups, and the disabled, says the report.
But the region still lags behind East Asia and Latin America in literacy and in average years of schooling among people 15 and older. While most boys and girls enroll in primary school, many drop out in the 5th, 6th, and 7th grades, particularly girls, to work or because of societal pressures, says Rutkowski.
Governments need to consider every investment as to how it will contribute to the education process, including how teachers are trained, and whether they're trained to do better at old-fashioned rote learning or in much needed inquiry-based learning, he adds.
‘Soft Skills’ Called Critical to Increasing Productivity
Students in the region need more inquiry-based learning and a new set of “soft skills”—problem solving, communications, foreign language—that are critical to further advancement.
“In order to become competitive, there has got to be a shift from the ability to perform routine tasks towards those soft skills which are absolutely essential for increasing productivity,” says Rutkowski. “This shift is in the process, but the countries really need to accelerate it in order to remain competitive.”
Incentives, such as rewards for good performance for both students and teachers, and public accountability will be essential tools in achieving educational goals, says the report. Education authorities need to acquire input from a number of actors, including non-governmental organizations, advocacy groups, watchdog organizations, parents, professional organizations and others. Public financing should be much more tied to outcomes, and to innovation, Rutkowski adds.
“It's very important that education becomes a sector characterized by public accountability,” he says. “That means that both at the national and local levels, it actually matters how the education system performs, that people know about it, and demand that education does better, and that parents have an influence on what's happening at school, local government has an influence over curricula, and when there is international testing the newspapers write about it so they know how students perform.”
Where Region's Education Is Today
MENA countries on average dedicated 5% of GDP and 20% of government expenditures to education—more than other developing countries at similar levels of per capita income.
MENA countries have reached almost full primary education enrollment and increased enrollment in secondary schools almost threefold between 1970 and 2003 and fivefold at the higher education level.
Gender-parity for basic education is virtually complete. Although the region started from relatively low levels of gender parity, indexes for secondary and higher education aren't significantly different from Latin America and East Asia.
Illiteracy rates have been halved in the past 20 years and the absolute difference between male and female adult literacy rates has declined rapidly.