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Reforms Needed in Higher Education to Meet the Needs of Youth in the Middle East and North Africa

October 20, 2011

Feature Story Template

1. What is the relationship between higher education and development?

There is a very close link between higher education and development. Universities are key institutions that help to create new knowledge, to develop new skills, and in that respect contribute very directly to economic growth, and productivity. Apart from developing the skills and knowledge necessary for economic growth, they also play a critical role in the building of democratic societies.

2. What are the investment rates for higher education in MENA, and have they produced satisfactory results?

The investment rates in the MENA region are relatively high. If you look at a GDP per capita comparison, some MENA countries are even spending more than the average OECD country. However, when we look at the results, they are somewhat disappointing. There is a lot of evidence that university systems in the MENA region are not giving graduates the skills needed to succeed in today's labor markets.

3. How should the system of higher education in MENA respond to the demands of the 'Arab Spring?'

The higher education systems in the MENA region are under a lot of pressure right now precisely because of the challenges expressed by the 'Arab Spring.' One of the key questions, and one of the key demands from the 'Arab Spring,' and young people in the Arab world, is exactly how to get a good education - a good quality education - and a good job. So universities need to respond in ways that will allow them to meet this very critical demand, and equip young people with the sort of skills relevant to today's labor markets.

4. What are the participation rates for women in MENA in higher education, and have they translated into further social and economic benefits?

The MENA region has had very good results in terms of increasing access to higher Education for women. There are more women going to universities than men, and in the Gulf region, in particular, 60 percent of the students are women. Very good progress has been made in increasing the participation of women in higher education over the last ten years in the MENA region. However, when we look at, for example, employment rates: women do not necessarily have the same employment rates as men, and they do not necessarily get the same types of jobs. The social and economic benefits that one would expect from increased enrollment have yet to materialize. We still have a long way to go to achieve gender parity in key social indicators such as employment.

5. What is the forecast for future enrollment in MENA higher education, and will the region be able to sustain the cost of any needed expansion?

Enrollment rates in higher education have been increasing at a very rapid rate for the last ten years. The forecast is that this will increase at about the same rate over the next ten years. Therefore enrollment could increase by as much as 50 percent in ten years. Public expenditure on higher education has not been increasing at the same rate as enrollment. Public resources are limited today, and, looking ahead, it will be a challenge to meet the demands of society with increasingly limited budgets. Higher education systems will need to look for alternate sources of funding to meet the growing demand. Tax increases are highly unlikely. They will need to review expenditures, to determine if there is a more effective way of managing current resources. They should also look at cost sharing. Higher education on the whole has good private returns, and therefore it is important that families and students contribute to its cost. In order to mitigate the inequality that this might produce, cost sharing needs to be balanced with measures such as student grants and student loans. This would ensure that students with low income capacities, but high academic standards, would not face economic barriers to reaching university.

6. Is access to higher education the overriding goal when developing future policies, or are there competing considerations?

This is an excellent question because, of course, access is an important goal, but it cannot come at the price of quality. You really do not meet society's expectations, and the expectations of the young people, if you simply increase access to low quality services. Which, in a way, is what has happened over the last ten years. So, the competing goals are: how do you increase access, but at the same time how do you meet the quality standards that society requires, and that the labor market demands? How do you address equity concerns? How do you ensure that all who merit to have tertiary and higher education have the means and opportunity to do so? The challenge for policy makers is how to strike a balance between these competing goals: access, quality, relevance and equity. Each country has different priorities, and the challenge for policy makers is to identify very clearly what the policy goals are. For each set of policy goals, you can have different strategies, with different financing possibilities. It is important to have a balanced approach. In this report we provide a menu of policy options. Each country has to decide how to combine this menu of policy options to meet their specific social and economic goals.

7. What role does private higher education currently play in MENA, and is it likely to grow?

The private provision of higher education in MENA is low, except for Lebanon, where most of the universities are private, but this is unique. Most of the higher education systems in MENA are public. However, there is a new trend toward private universities. Many MENA countries include education in their private sector development strategies as a way of increasing access. Although some have invested in private education with the goal of increasing quality. If we take the last five years as an example, statistics suggest that private enrollment over the next ten years will increase at a much faster rate than the last decade.

8. What models are there for increasing the private funding of higher education without adding to the financial burden of students, and would they work in MENA?

This is a very good question. We have been looking at models in countries like the US, where philanthropic resources play an important role in financing the private education system, and, more and more, the public education system. Even Europe, with the financial crisis, is now looking into the US model. One of our client countries, Saudi Arabia, has asked us if we could share with them the 'secrets' of the endowments of US universities. This is what we found: tapping into philanthropic resources has been very successful in the United States, and we think it could also be successful in the MENA region. There are challenges both in developing and managing this model. It requires the creation of a culture of philanthropy and the financial skills to manage the funds over the long term. The MENA diaspora makes a very important economic contribution to the region, and we think that they could play a role in developing endowments for higher education in MENA. Once established, the funds need to be put aside, and managed for the long term. It is demanding, it is challenging and it takes time, but it is worth exploring.