Moving Arab educational systems beyond diplomas
In most Arab countries these are the last days of the school year, the days when students rejoice while their families, as well as governments and educational organisations, assess the results of the school year.
Because of war and conflict, about 13 million children in the Middle East and North Africa region did not attend school, according to the United Nations. Even when not faced by war, educational systems in the Arab world face many challenges.
The main challenge is the debilitating inability of educational systems to meet the aspirations of young people and particularly to prepare university students for quality jobs.
For decades in many parts of the Arab world schools have ceased being guarantors of success and social mobility they were promised to be after independence. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), 46% of young Arab women and 24% of young Arab men are unemployed.
The social implications of this trend are huge. Millions of young Arabs are stuck in what US scholar Diane Singerman calls “waithood”: A prolonged limbo stage during which young people are unemployed and unable to move on with their lives. Widespread “waithood” has been one of the causes of unrest in the region.
And the “youth bulge” continues: 33% of the Arab world was under age 15 in 2015.
According to the UN Development Programme, the region needs to create 56 million jobs by 2020 to reach full employment and guarantee a high ratio of employment for women.
The lack of adequate jobs is pushing young Arabs to migrate, depriving the Arab world of its best-trained elites: 35% of university graduates in Lebanon and 17% in Morocco leave their homelands.
It is more crucial than ever to close the gap between educational systems and the job market. Schools must provide young Arabs with the skills and creativeness that modern life requires and not just with diplomas.
The crisis of unemployed university graduates is particularly acute for young women. Although young women outperform young men in rates of access to university and performance in maths and science exams, their rate of employment is half that of young men.
Deficiencies in educational systems are creating two-tier systems: Because budget pressures limit the ability of public education to deliver results, private schools are favoured among those who can afford them. Expensive private tutoring is another alternative for families who want to overcome the deficiencies of school education.
According to some estimates, Egyptians spend $1 billion a year on private tutoring to make up for the shortcomings of public education.
Private initiatives are providing promising sources of support and trying to take advantage of the potential offered by the internet to overcome the problem of overcrowded classes and onerous tutoring.
Egypt’s private online educational platform Nafham, for example, provides tutorial videos that attract 60 million views on a monthly basis. With a $ 1.14 billion education fund, the Abdulla al-Ghurair Foundation aims to provide scholarships to top universities for 15,000 students from across the region over the next ten years.
There is considerable private wealth and a great potential for non-government initiatives in the Middle East and North Africa. More of these resources need to be mobilised for education, and not just for elites but for all Arab youth.