Education has the potential to shape the development trajectory of nations, boost growth and spread prosperity but in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) it is not achieving its potential, according to a new World Bank report.
Despite the region’s large investments in education, young people are not learning the skills they need to compete in the labor market, contributing to one of the world’s highest rates of youth unemployment. The report, Expectations and Aspirations, A New Framework for Education in the Middle East and North Africa, identifies the tensions holding back education in the region and calls for collective efforts to unleash the power of education to realize the potential of the region’s large youth population and contribute to future growth and stability.
“Education is the key to turning the drive and aspirations of the region’s young people into an engine of growth,” said Ferid Belhaj, World Bank Vice President for the Middle East and North Africa. “What is now a source of frustration for the millions of unemployed graduates could become a launch pad for innovations that transform the region’s economies. The goal is not to catch up with other education systems, but to leverage new technologies and the creativity of young people to triple-jump into the future.”
MENA has achieved big gains in schooling but now it needs to focus on learning. In international standardized tests, 15-year-old students from across MENA lagged behind the global average by two to four years of schooling. The report identifies four key tensions that are holding back the region’s education: The tensions between credentials and skills; discipline and inquiry; control and autonomy; and tradition and modernity. It maps out a strategy to tackle these tensions and unleash the power of education through a concerted push for learning, a stronger pull for skills, and a new pact for education among all national stakeholders in support of education reforms.
A push for learning requires a focus on the early years and early grades of the child to build the foundations for learning. It also requires qualified teachers and school leaders, new pedagogical practices, better assessment of learning, and reaching all children regardless of gender, race, background or ability. There are some positive signs in the region, such as the United Arab Emirates commitment to universal preprimary enrollment by 2021, and Egypt’s education reform 2.0, which is embarking on a system wide transformation using technology to deliver, support, measure and manage learning and the professional development of teachers.
A push is not sufficient without a stronger pull for skills from the labor market and from parents demanding skills, not just credentials, from the education system. Moreover, reforming the education system must be accompanied by other sectoral reforms. For example, civil service reforms are necessary because teachers are selected and recruited through the civil service function of governments. Labor market reforms are also important because labor market policies create incentives for employers to use open channels to identify skills.
The pull for skills also requires curricula to be modernized to move away from rote-learning, and instead promote critical thinking and creativity. It is also essential that students learn digital skills to be ready for the jobs of the future, and that teachers can draw on the benefits of technology to improve the learning environment. With the push and pull for learning and skills, governments and societies will need to rally around a renewed vision for education and establish a new pact where everyone is responsible, and everyone is accountable.
“Accumulating years of schooling is not enough; what matters is how much children are actually learning. Having a credential or a certificate will be increasingly less valuable if it’s not accompanied by the skills young people need to be more productive,” said Jaime Saavedra, World Bank Senior Director for Education. “The region needs to dramatically improve the quality of education. This will require a concerted effort to give teachers and schools the tools to equip students with fundamental skills while fostering inquisitive minds that are essential in an ever more challenging world.”
The large pool of unemployed graduates in MENA is both a waste of valuable human capital and a clear sign of a disconnect between education systems and potential employers. This is especially true for young women, who outnumber men at universities but have double the unemployment rate of their male peers. A stronger pull for skills is needed from the private sector to shift the focus of students and schools away from the public sector, along with better systems for matching graduates with jobs and facilitating the transition from school work. In this way, education systems can be the source of the skills required for diversifying economies and building dynamic private sectors that generate growth and jobs.
“Despite decades of reforms, all MENA countries, regardless of geography, demography or economy have untapped education potential,” said Safaa El Tayeb El-Kogali, World Bank MENA Education Practice Manager and author of the new report. “Unleashing this potential requires a shift in mindset and tackling deeply held social norms, reforms that go beyond the education system, and alignment of interests among all stakeholders on a shared vision of the goals of education.”