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Education, which had been at the heart of the Middle East and North Africa region’s history and civilizations for centuries, has a large untapped potential to contribute to human capital, well-being, and wealth. Five decades of investments in education, impressive growth in enrollment rates, and gender parity at almost all levels of education have not been able to translate into increased human capital and wealth, failing to meet the aspirations of 435 million people in the region.

Despite a series of reforms, the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA1) has remained stuck in a low-learning, low-skills level. Students in the region have consistently ranked among the lowest on international learning assessments.

What can MENA countries do to emerge from this impasse and retake their position as leaders in education and innovation? 

Education has a large untapped potential to contribute to human capital, well-being, and wealth in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA). In fact, it has been at the heart of the region’s history and civilizations for centuries. In the 20th century, education was central to countries’ struggles for independence, to building modern states and economies, and to defining national identities.

Today, MENA has the lowest share of human capital in total wealth globally. While the region’s young people have attained higher educational levels than their parents, they were not able to translate their educational attainment to greater income opportunities. That is, while MENA has the highest absolute intergenerational education mobility compared to other regions in the world, it also has low intergenerational income mobility. In most other regions, educational attainment and income mobility are well correlated.

The 435 million residents of MENA are enduring a period of pronounced hardship. Ongoing threats to peace and economic stability are contributing to challenges across numerous sectors. Economic growth has remained persistently low in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, youth unemployment rates have risen, and the quality of public services has deteriorated. Even in relatively stable countries, labour market outcomes for the educated have worsened. Exacerbating these challenges was the substantial downturn in the global oil market, which has placed more pressure on resource-rich countries and created an even more urgent need to push for human capital development across MENA.

Little sibling boy riding a bike together in the park.       Photo: wckiw

The Republic of Korea Established a World-Class Education System

Despite large investments in education over the last 50 years, impressive growth in enrollment rates, and gender parity at almost all levels of education, MENA has not been able to fully reap the personal, social, and economic benefits of education. During these same 50 years, the Republic of Korea also invested in its human capital and succeeded in moving from a developing country in the early 1960s to one of the top 20 economies in the world today. Korea established a world-class education system, and its students consistently rank among the top in international learning assessments. By contrast, MENA students have consistently ranked among the lowest on such assessments.

Capacity and Resources to Leverage Technology to Create Education Systems that Will Build its Human Capital

Although much has changed politically, economically, and socially in MENA, its education systems have largely remained unchanged. Over the last decade, new technologies have emerged and spread globally, disrupting the lives of billions and changing the nature of work. Consequently, the kinds of skills needed to succeed in the labour market are changing as well. The role of technology as a demand shaper in the future of work is certain, but its role as a delivery catalyst holds great potential that the region has not yet tapped. Indeed, technology is changing how today’s students are being prepared to enter the future workforce—that is, it is influencing not only the ends of education but also the means. Technology presents a unique opportunity to help deliver high-quality education in a more efficient and effective manner.

MENA has the capacity and resources to leverage technology to create education systems that will build its human capital. The region has the tools and the opportunities to leapfrog and create prosperous and peaceful societies. However, the power of education to build human capital and to create change depends on its quality, its access to complementary economic and social environments, and its ability to leverage technology smartly.

Four tensions

The education process consists of a complex set of factors and actors at multiple levels. Factors outside the education system—political, economic, and social—formally and informally interact with the education system and shape its outcomes. Behavioural norms and ideological polarization among governments, interest groups, and citizens can hold countries back from delivering public goods. Education in MENA has been held back by these behavioural norms and ideological polarization, which are embodied in four sets of tensions (see the figure under):

Explanation of the figure above, (1) credentials and skills; (2) discipline and inquiry; (3) control and autonomy; and (4) tradition and modernity. These
tensions have held education back from evolving to deliver learning that prepares students for their future. The four tensions are deeply embedded in the region’s history, culture, and political economy, but exist to varying degrees in each country, and they largely define social and political relations.
They have informed and shaped education policy in MENA countries since independence, and they are at the heart of the current national discourses on education reforms.

Schools and classrooms are the platforms where these tensions are exercised through curricula, pedagogy, and the norms that define interactions among principals, teachers, parents, and students. These tensions ultimately shape the educational outcomes for young people in MENA and affect their lives, as well as the economies and societies in which they live. In an increasingly connected world, the effects of these tensions can reach beyond the region’s borders. Unless they are addressed, MENA will not be able to reap the full benefits of education, no matter how much money is invested.

Credentials and skills (1)

A credential in the form of a degree, diploma, or certificate is usually associated with acquiring a specific set of skills. In the labour market, credentials signal
productivity based on the assumption that more years of education are associated with higher productivity. Throughout MENA, public sector employment was historically guaranteed to anyone with a sufficient education credential. Thus checking the credential box became more valued than acquiring skills. As a result, in MENA there is little or no link between education credentials and skills. Countries are stuck in a “credentialist equilibrium,” in which a weak demand for skills and a strong demand for credentials in the labour market induce families to demand credentials from the education system more than skills. The education
system, in turn, responds to their demands by providing credentials.

Discipline and inquiry (2)

In societies in which social norms are strong, discipline ensures adherence to those norms. Concepts of discipline and inquiry are closely linked to pedagogy and curricula, as well as to the day-to-day interactions in schools and classrooms among principals, teachers, and students. Overemphasis on discipline leads to memorization and passive learning. Across MENA, curricula depend heavily on rote memorization, leaving little time for the development of critical thinking skills. Although discipline is important, too much may constrict students’ ability to learn, think, explore ideas, or question concepts. The inquiry, by contrast, allows students to understand their surroundings, contextualize concepts through questions and experimentation, and build the skills they need to learn throughout life.

The discipline. Arabic father and son.    Photo: Jasmin Merdan

Control and autonomy (3)

The tension between control and autonomy is embodied in the ongoing debate about the decentralization of education services delivery and the balance of power among central ministries, regional offices, and schools. Several MENA countries have experimented with aspects of education decentralization, autonomy, and
accountability. The success of these efforts has varied. In some instances, a decentralized model was rolled out, devolving decision-making power but without the capacity or resources to implement it at the local and school level.

Tradition and modernity (4)

According to some scholars, the greatest challenge facing MENA is aligning the development needs of a modern world and the moral imperatives of a religious society. The result is tension between modernity, or the forces of change, and tradition. This tension can lead to conflicts within education processes. In MENA,
modernity is frequently associated with Western models and approaches and is used by opponents of change to halt reforms. However, modernity is the process of renewing social norms, and there are multiple “modernities.” The issue is not replacing tradition with modernity. Rather, it is allowing review of the traditional practices and norms that hold back the potential of education and engaging in a process of renewal that prepares students to better relate to a changing world.

Push, Pull, and Pact: A New Framework for Education

To realize the potential of education, MENA needs to tackle the four tensions and establish an education system that prepares all students for a productive and successful future. Such a system would be modern and flexible and would nurture a culture of excellence and creativity in learning. It also would leverage disruptive technologies and adopt modern approaches so it can offer young people the skills they need to define their trajectories in life and adapt to local,
national, and global changes. Finally, it would be a system that would be based on a shared national vision and would connect with the overall development goals of the country. All of society would be responsible for ensuring its success. To establish such a system, MENA needs to adopt a new framework for education—one that includes a concerted push for learning, a wide-reaching pull for skills and the new pact for education.

The potential for education is achieved only when it confers the skills and knowledge that constitute human capital. It is, in fact, the skills conferred through learning that determine education’s contribution to economic growth—not the years of schooling. MENA has succeeded in providing schooling; now it needs to achieve learning. The number of actual years of schooling has increased across MENA, with several countries reaching an average that is close to a full cycle of primary and secondary education. However, when the number of actual years of schooling is adjusted for learning, the effective years of schooling in MENA are on average 2.9 less than the number of actual years of schooling. In other words, the poor quality of education in MENA is equivalent to approximately three lost years of education.

Photo: Jasmin Merdan

Seven Important Areas

To pursue a push for learning, countries must focus on seven areas:

1. Building the foundational skills—from early childhood through the early grades of school—needed for future learning and success.
2. Ensuring that teachers and school leaders, who are the most important inputs to the learning process, are qualified, well selected, effectively utilized, and incentivized to continue to develop professionally.
3. Modernizing pedagogy and instructional practices to promote inquiry, creativity, and innovation.
4. Addressing the language of instruction challenge given the gap between spoken Arabic and modern standard Arabic. The close connection between language, religion, and national identity makes it difficult to make a regional recommendation. Even though this phenomenon is a regional one, it manifests itself in many different ways in different countries. Hence, it needs to be addressed with a very specific formula in each country.
5. Applying learning assessments that regularly monitor student progress to ensure that students are learning.
6. Giving all children, regardless of gender, race, background or ability, an opportunity to learn—a requirement for raising
learning outcomes at the national level.
7. Leveraging technology to enhance the delivery of education and promote learning among students and educators and preparing students for an increasingly digital world.

A Curricula With a Change From a Credentials Equilibrium to a Skills Equilibrium

To reap the benefits of education, MENA must align its push for learning with a pull for skills. Without a realignment of the labour market that increases the demand for skills, the contribution of the education sector to the economy will not be fully realized. A concerted push for learning can lead to some progress, but it is not enough to realize the full potential of education. Such a push would move education closer to fulfilling its potential, but it would be a second-best approach that would leave most of that potential untapped. A first-best approach involves multisystem reforms that align the push for learning with a pull for
skills. It includes economic reforms to bring the skills required in the labour market in line with those conferred by education and sought by parents and students, as well as efforts to address distortions in the education sector and beyond. Employers would shift from focusing on credentials to demanding skills.
Parents and students could then demand skills from the education system, which would help MENA move away from a credentials equilibrium to a skills equilibrium. But achieving this shift will depend on employers doing a better job of signalling the skills they need. It will also depend on policymakers addressing rigid labour policies that discourage employers from seeking open, transparent ways of hiring for skills. A pull for skills will depend as well on civil service reforms that support hiring, motivating, and empowering the best teachers and placing them where they are most needed.

Finally, a pull for skills will depend on curricula that reflect the skills that prepare students for social and economic life. Curricula reforms must, then, ensure alignment of what students learn with the skills they need. In fact, curricula should serve as the nexus for the multiple spheres of society, the labour market, and the education system. Meanwhile, the shift from a credentials equilibrium to a skills equilibrium should be evident in curricula. Systems are aligned when official curricula reflect the skills demanded by society and the labour market. Conversely, when official curricula are outdated and disconnected from real life, the result is a mismatch between what students acquire and what society and employers require.

Photo: Anamul Rezwan 

Context matters

Education reforms in MENA through a push for learning and a pull for skills will not achieve the same results in all contexts. There are multiple models for
transforming education. Finland and Korea were both top scorers in the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a sign of strong learning. And yet the two education systems that produced this learning are quite different. MENA countries need to roll out reform efforts based on what is feasible in education, economic, and social reform—that is, successful education reforms will depend on understanding the existing constraints. How reforms are designed, introduced, approved, and implemented within a specific country also determines their success. The effectiveness of different policy options often depends on whether complementary conditions are in place and whether sufficient resources are available.

Making any substantial changes in education calls for tackling inefficient social norms that inhibit reform. Changing social norms is not easy, but it can be done. Raising awareness about the costs or inefficiencies of certain norms, or the benefits that would accrue to society from reforms, can help shift the social mindset. However, such an effort must be based on credible evidence not linked to any ideological or political rhetoric, and it must focus on real, substantial reforms and not minor changes in policies. Changing laws can also lead to a shift in norms. However, enactment of laws alone is not sufficient; they must be strictly implemented and compliance encouraged. A behavioural response to incentives in the short run can lead to longer-term shifts in behaviour and social norms.

A pact for education

Improving education is not the responsibility of educators alone; it must involve all members of society—politicians, businesspeople, and community and religious leaders, as well as parents, teachers, school principals, and the students themselves. Education can potentially play many roles in an economy and society, but there are tensions among stakeholders’ goals. By far the most difficult is often-opposing views, strongly held convictions, and divergent interests. The dissonance across different stakeholders’ goals for education is a substantial obstacle.

Establishing a new pact for education is therefore critical. The interests of a wide variety of stakeholders—including teachers, principals, inspectors, politicians, communities, employers, and students—need to be aligned by building a powerful alliance. This requires a unified vision that takes into account the four tensions holding back education, the local context, and the social norms that define the tensions. It also requires strong leadership to align interests and rally support around common national goals to which education must contribute. A new pact also will depend on common sense that everyone is responsible and everyone is accountable for the provision of education—that is, accountability needs to go beyond the education system. Finally, a new pact requires reconciling investments and resources with the vision’s priorities. High-performing education systems—such as those in Japan, Korea, and Singapore—are good examples of strong education pacts across stakeholders. These countries have adopted a unified vision for education and have consistently and coherently instituted reforms to
achieve human capital–driven economic growth.

MENA has the history, culture, and resources to leapfrog into a future founded on a learned society and a knowledge economy. The region has great expectations and aspirations. Unleashing the potential of education is attainable, but it will take a commitment by all to make education not only a national priority but also a national emergency.



1 The World Bank defines MENA as including these countries and economies:

Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Arab Republic of Egypt, Islamic Republic of Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malta, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syrian Arab Republic, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, West Bank and Gaza, and the Republic of Yemen. (This article excludes Malta from the analysis as it has little in common with the rest of the region).



Lucubrate Magazine, Issue 47, November 16th, 2018

The photo on top: Pem Sherwood 


The article is the Executive summary in the report “Expectations and Aspirations. A New Framework for Education in The Middle East and North Africa“, The World Bank (November 2018). [The Lucubrate Magazine editorial staff has filled in new headlines and pictures]

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Lucubrate Magazine highlights trends in education and development. Development in this context can be technological, educational, individual, social or global, and everything related to education.
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