The Middle East and North Africa Region (MENA) has taken great strides in education. It has quadrupled the average level of schooling since 1960, halved illiteracy since 1980 and achieved almost complete gender parity for primary education.
Access: Enrolment in the region’s school systems has increased significantly over the past decade to the point where universal primary education has been achieved for girls and boys in most of the MENA countries. Net enrolment ratios (NER) rose from 86 to 94 percent between 2000 and 2010. Secondary enrolment increased as well, though not as pervasively: NER rose from 62 to 70 percent over the same period.
Literacy: One result of the region-wide push for greater access is that literacy rates for the adult population (defined as 15+ years) have improved dramatically in the last 20 years, rising from 59 percent in 1990 to 78 percent in 2010.
Gender Gap: Unlike the rest of the world, there is a ‘reverse’ gender gap in the region with girls outperforming boys in grade 4 math results, a trend that generally continues into grade 8. In a region not known for gender equity, these statistics raise a number of interesting questions that merit further exploration..
Government Financing Commitment: MENA governments have shown strong commitment to funding public education. The average public investment in education across the region as a percentage of GDP is above 5.3% of GDP.
These impressive achievements are marred by an uncomfortable fact: for too many students across the region, schooling has not been synonymous with learning.
Educational quality: Evidence demonstrates that school systems in MENA are generally of low quality. Basic skills are not being learnt, a fact most clearly captured by international standardized tests, whose results reveal that the Region is still below the level expected given MENA countries’ per capita income (Figure 1).
Skills Mismatch: At the same time, evidence points to a pervasive mismatch between the skills required by the job market and those taught in schools. In global studies more firms in MENA contend that inadequate labor force skills, both technical and soft, impede their growth and ability to hire employees.
Surveyed employers report that only about one third of new graduates are ready for the workplace. The Region invests little in pre-and in-service training as a whole, comparatively speaking; yet, of those that do, more than half add that they must address this lack of work-readiness by providing training, which is time-consuming and costly. Students are as aware as employers of this skills mismatch: when interviewed, only one third believed that they were adequately prepared to enter the workforce. Interestingly, over one third of students were willing to pay for their education if it were to lead to better job prospects.
Youth Bulge: Exacerbating this situation, demographic projections reveal that the region’s youth population (up to 24 years old) will grow steadily by about 2 million up to 2015, then surge by about 10 million between 2015 and 2030. This sudden growth in the youth population will create increased demand for educational services at all levels and will place immense pressure on existing educational institutions. Clearly, the persistent, dual challenges of quality and relevance must be addressed before the anticipated surge. If they can, this rising tide of young people could become an engine growth for the region.