Serious education problems face the Arab world as children go back to school
Millions of students in the Arab world have started the new school year. The sight of children streaming into classrooms and of young men and women heading to higher educational institutions gives reason to rejoice, but also cause to ponder.
The Arab world has made tangible progress in primary school enrolment. In 2012, enrolment rates passed the 90% mark in Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. UNESCO figures, however, show that there is hard work ahead for a number of Arab countries. Enrolment rates were 71% in Mauritania and 51% in Sudan.
Attending school once was synonymous with hope in the Arab world. A good education was seen as the ultimate social elevator. But the 2011 uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa revealed the shortcomings of education in the region.
The tragic irony in many parts of the Arab world, especially in the Maghreb and Lebanon, is that employability is reversely proportionate to the level of education. University graduates are less likely to find a job than young people with secondary school-level education.
The type of training received by university graduates does not match the needs of the private sector while the bloated public sector has ceased to be an alternative for employment. Young people in many Arab countries have come to believe that a fruitful job search will require more than academic qualifications. It also will require wastas and a lot of luck.
Educational institutions in the Arab world do not deliver a training that is up to global standards. The performance of Arab students in TIMSS tests is below global averages in science and mathematics. No Arab university ranks among the top 200 universities in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.
Most public schools lack the resources to provide proper scientific and computer training. Furthermore, many schools must accommodate refugee children in addition to their regular students. The number of Syrian students in need of education is, for instance, 25% more than the 300,000 Lebanese students in public schools.
Lack of confidence in public education is pushing Arab parents to seek private education and special tutors. This widespread phenomenon is creating a double-tier system in which only the well-to-do stand to get a proper education.
Quality in education — or rather the lack of it — is in many regards the crux of the matter. Education is not promoting life capabilities nor instilling young people with the necessary mindset to succeed in the modern world. Educational systems are focused on teaching cognitive skills, which are not enough to prepare students to be fully productive in their own societies or to be real citizens of the planet.
Students should be receiving training that allows them to participate in the development of their own countries and not to view the world from the vantage point of would-be migrants. Moreover, education should instil them with proper value systems that make them impervious to radicalisation and hate.
Many of the headline crises in the Arab world demand immediate attention. But so does education. The issue may not be in the daily headlines, but is, in fact, one of the Arab world’s biggest crises.