15 minute read

Middle East and North Africa

Regional Background, Educational Perspective, Future Challenges and Direction, Conclusion

This entry provides an overview of the status of education in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. It contains both statistically based assessments of individual countries as well as a discussion of the overall factors that are currently affecting the level of and accessibility to primary, secondary, and tertiary education. Current and future systemic challenges are also exposed, and possible solutions from similar case studies are advanced.

Regional Background

Depending upon the scope, origin, and purpose of study, the MENA region can include the countries of Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malta, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Yemen, and West Bank-Gaza. (While the State of Israel is geographically located within this region, this article focuses on those countries that are classified as Arab through their common usage of and reliance on the Arabic language [except Iran, where Farsi is predominant].) For the purposes of this article, MENA includes all of the above, except Malta, Djibouti, Mauritania, and Sudan. Although the region is bound, to a large extent, by the prevalence of the Islamic religion and the commonality of Arabic as a language, it is diverse in ethnicity, tradition, history, and spoken Arabic. As a region it has a population of more than 295 million that reflects diversities in social stratification and economic development ranging from the high-income, oil-rich countries of Kuwait, Qatar, and UAE to the low-income countries of Egypt and Morocco.

Owing to rising oil revenues in the 1970s, oil-producing countries underwent a major economic boom that resulted in a tremendous expansion in social services, construction, and basic infrastructure. Non-oil-producing countries such as Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia also benefited from the influx of capital by exporting their human capital in the form of professional and lay labor. According to the World Bank, from the early 1970s to the late 1990s, MENA grew faster than any other region except East Asia.

Because of the emphasis placed on upstream and downstream oil production, revenues from these activities continue to be the dominant generator of funds throughout MENA, and the central government became both the storehouse and distributor of these funds. As such, governmental social ministries were created to disperse, invest, and manage these appropriations as it deemed fit, with little or no initial studies and a deficit of long-term planning and analysis. In part, this is due to the general receptivity of centralized planning and manpower forecasting that was dominant in the 1950s. Manpower forecasting makes the assumption that a nation can reasonably predict its human capital requirement based on its potential growth rate and its developing infrastructure. While this method may provide viable predictions for a country that has a measured growth rate from a diverse and sustainable resource base, it is less reliable for single-resource-based economies, especially those that experience tremendous revenue variations from the single main resource. Given these conditions, governments in the MENA region initiated and managed revenue streams that fed into industry, agriculture, and social services.

Because of these factors, the countries of MENA continue to experience fluctuations in economic performance (see Figure 1), resulting in a region that exhibits an overall low economic growth rate, rising populations, sporadic civil unrest, and a lack of regional transparency and cooperation in many governmental areas, not excluding education. Governments that in boom years had ingested most of its graduates in swelling public-service sectors, find themselves each year with a growing number of graduates who expect their government to offer them an encompassing position in perpetuity–not only a job, but a lifelong career. While there are movements throughout MENA to "nationalize" positions that once were held by expatriates, it is logical to predict that the public sector will eventually build to capacity and the private sector will need to alleviate this influx of human capital.

Oman, for example, employs most of its workforce in public service, but the state can no longer offer positions for the nearly 30,000 Omanis who enter the workforce annually. As a result, the state mandated that financial and banking corporations begin hiring from the national base. The swelling numbers mean that other private sectors will also need to be included. It is also important to note that if an educational system were training its workforce at submarket levels, a rapid nationalization would have a negative effect, resulting in falling productivity, output, and national income. Although some of the questions concerning nationalization of public and private enterprise are beginning to find answers, the deeper question remains: How are the state-driven educational systems going to enable the workforce to compete on national, regional, and global levels? (See Figure 2.)

Educational Perspective

To understand the scope of the problem, it is important to study some of the weak points in the implementing of the educational system.

Access, literacy, and equity. In a regional comparison, MENA accounts for only 0.1 percent of the global expenditure on research and development, which is lower than that of every other region except Sub-Saharan Africa. While there is a considerable lack of regional cooperation, there is also a weak communication network that impedes the transfer and flow of knowledge, with fewer than fifteen main telephone lines per 100 people in urban settings and fewer than five lines per 100 people in rural environments (see Figure 3). This is less than 65 percent that of the Europe and Central Asia region and less than 25 percent that of the nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Because all countries operate from a fixed budget and most countries have several ministries that serve the different levels of education, there is competition between ministries for prominence and funding (see Table 1). This leads to a number of questions, including: If funding for primary education is increased, which ministry is willing to suffer a reduced budget and by what amount? Within the continuous cycle of education, how is it feasible to diminish one level of education without compromising the remaining levels? Furthermore, with the inherent nature of the accelerating and steep learning curve of the technology in the global market, how will educational ministries be able to secure


higher funding within countries whose economies are already strapped?

In 1960 a large percentage of the population in the MENA countries were illiterate; by 1995 literacy rates had doubled. While overall literacy increased more than in any other region, countries with a significant rural population, such as Egypt, Morocco, and Yemen, reported a lower literacy increase than those with high urban populations. Also, countries with high rural populations exhibit the lowest literacy rates among women. Women in rural Morocco and Yemen have the least educational opportunity, with literacy rates of less than 10 percent.

Equity among educational systems is not encouraging, with 5 million children aged six to ten and 4 million children aged eleven to fifteen out of a regular school program, in 1995. By 2015 it is estimated that this number will grow by 40 percent, resulting in projected figures of 7.5 million and 5.6 million, respectively (see also Figure 4). While all countries offer compulsory education, there is limited ability to track student progression, and retention rates from the early 1990s do not indicate a strong success factor. Nearly 30 percent of primary students in Tunisia fail to complete the seven-year cycle, and in Yemen female school retention falls from 31 percent in first grade to only 25 percent in sixth grade.

Although the formal language or language of instruction (especially with regard to religious education) may be Arabic, formal and written Arabic is grammatically different from the vernacular of the spoken dialect. This can constitute a disadvantage especially to those of rural backgrounds with little or no formal exposure to a grammatical understanding of Arabic. Even at the level of the dialect, there are differences that are evident enough to distinguish rural from urban students, differences that can highlight class division rather than encourage educational unity.

In addition to language obstacles, there is also an opportunity compromise mentality that exists, especially within disadvantaged communities. With the lack of child labor laws and a financially struggling economic class, what is the financial incentive for retaining a child in the educational system versus the lost wage opportunity of a working child if there is no foreseeable cost–benefit factor? While this effect may be dominant within rural cultures, it is not uncommon in urban society either because of strong perceptions that the educational systems are misguided and dysfunctional. It is not surprising that there is a generational continuance of poor retention rates in public schools in such countries as Egypt, Morocco, and Yemen.


Quality of teaching. It is difficult to gauge the quality of education administered throughout the region because only two middle-income countries have participated in objective international assessments: Iran (in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study of 1995) and Jordan (in the International Assessment of Educational Progress of 1991). Other countries, however, have already indicated a willingness to participate in similar future studies. Once it becomes evident that such studies not only provide a baseline of national educational strengths and weaknesses but also suggest methods and directions for systemic improvement, there will be more of an incentive for regional cooperation and participation.

A more complex issue, however, centers around the method of teaching, the relevancy of the material, and the students' ability to manipulate and apply knowledge and data in a manner that will lead to effective problem solving, as well as theory and analysis. Data from 1995 indicate that although the number of secondary education teachers rose, the percentage of teachers with university degrees fell from 85 percent to 77 percent, and this was accompanied by an average decline in salary expenditure. This reveals a system that is not only reticent about placing an emphasis upon creating a progressive learning environment but that also fails to recognize educational programs as less than a formulation of inputs and outputs. As a consequence of this lack of consistent commitment to faculty and staff, there exists an unbalance in teacher–student ratios.

In addition, there is regional deterioration of the infrastructure of the learning environment. There is not a correlating commitment to libraries, laboratories, and technology workshops for the influx of students, and those facilities that do exist are overburdened and in need of repair.

Quality of educational materials. Because the central government continues to play such a dominant role in the management of national education, the quality of educational materials tends to reflect a system


plagued by micromanagement and misapplication. Educational ministries obtain their educational materials through a centrally funded governmental appropriation that is contracted out to either a governmental printing agency or a private agency that relies heavily upon such business. All content, nature, scope, and graphics for educational materials (print and computer-based) are decided from within the hierarchy of the ministry of education, without field study analysis of the needs of the ministry's constituencies. Because this process must be one that stresses cost-effectiveness, texts are a homogenized production that are not able to reflect issues in an authoritatively complete manner, nor are they specifically targeted at different constituent populations. This process, if left unchecked, has the potential to further isolate national student populations from the global market by insulating them from both the technology and the ideas that under-pin international commerce. (See Figure 5.)

Cultural aspects of education. In their dogmatic mode of planning and their uniform approach to sector problem solving, the central governments of the MENA region are similar to the centrally planned regimes of the former Eastern bloc countries. In contrast to the nonreligious Eastern bloc regimes, however, the MENA governments have a very strong religious component that permeates the social and political culture. With the rise of state wealth based on oil reserves came the governmental drive to create educational institutions that were governed by Islamic law–new institutions that were in addition to the public establishments. Because of the prominence afforded to Islamic thought, however, all of the educational institutions took on an aspect of Islamic doctrine that was incorporated into religious studies, the study of Arabic, or both. Being forced to respond to many masters is not a unique position in the educational field, especially with the emphasis upon creating the diverse revenue streams of institutional planning and advancement. Nevertheless, because the educational institutions of the countries of MENA are public establishments and rely upon single-source revenues, they must carefully negotiate several powerful relationships within that revenue stream. This results in institutions that are by and large politically, economically, and directionally powerless.

Accompanying the rise of the central government was the creation of the welfare state. Prior to


the oil boom, the work ethic was closely affiliated with local indigenous industries that remained largely unchanged for generations. With the rapid influx of funds, populations began to rely upon the state to provide for their basic needs, including major sectors of education, health, and employment. This has greatly enhanced the general perception of the responsibilities of the state while diminishing the need for social responsibility and achievement. It is not surprising that vocational training is unpopular, as are blue-collar jobs in comparison with white-collar positions. This attitude of a state-reliant labor force and the general popular disinclination toward bottom-to-top corporate ladder climbing puts the educational system into a distinct role: that of educating a workforce that is focused solely upon receiving prominent state-sponsored positions. In this position, the educational system is blamed both for not adequately preparing the workforce to create new jobs and for not adequately training the workers to be able to participate in the economy. Because of this, there is little curricular incentive to emphasize the importance of acquiring and honing the managerial, operational, and technical skills that are basic to the formation of a progressive, evolving, and adapting society.

Under the pressures of central control, religious persuasion, and the micromanaged process that largely characterizes public education, the system will continue to flounder and be directionless. Such a state of affairs has the potential to further discourage the population from participation if, at some point, the system cannot demonstrate its efficacy in producing national, regional, and international leaders.

Future Challenges and Direction

Without a doubt, the leadership of the MENA countries will have to develop an acute awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of their educational systems. Based upon this awareness, they will need to design plans and solutions that are both realistic and practical.

Testing, benchmarking, and information exchange. If educational systems in MENA are to succeed and effectively integrate with the global community, education must return to its primary goal: "learning should be understanding concepts and principles in order to make inferences from that knowledge and to apply it in daily life" (Heyneman 1990, p. 187). Usage of regional testing of these concepts can and needs to be employed. Creating a "national assessment" that is provided at regular intervals will enable both national progress and overall regional standing to be determined and to be tracked over time. This should not necessarily encourage partisanship among countries, because comprehensive regional progress will become a reality with only interregional cooperation. Although initially countries may be hesitant to divulge such previously "sensitive" information, it will become apparent that the introduction to and full participation in the global environment will necessitate such transparency.

Financing strategies. Although the state may remain the organizational and licensing body of education, providers and consumers of education need to understand the ineffectiveness of a state-sponsored educational system. While this does not indicate a total financial withdrawal of the government from the educational arena, it does suggest a reevaluation of the government's ability to simultaneously finance a growing population and an improvement in the educational services that are provided. It should be determined to what position the state could be expected to recede, but such a transformation should be implemented incrementally over at least one generational period.

Along similar lines, as sectors within the educational ministry are privatized, the state should encourage and initially subsidize private sources of funding. This will result in a competitive environment within the educational industries, encouraging lean costs, higher quality, product accountability, and enhanced consumer choice.

The method of government-controlled educational materials must also be privatized, with the central government operating as "quality control" in the general sense, without overt religious overtones and control. Governments will need to provide subsidy incentives to jump-start this private industry, but as in other countries this will encourage competition and a healthy environment.

The encouragement of compulsory education. In encouraging compulsory education, there must be an intention to provide a framework for students that will encourage both the completion of the track and the ability to choose a direction upon completion. This implies a need to abandon the rigid prerequisites during compulsory education that are commonly associated with elite institutions. Teachers will need to be held accountable for their performance in results-oriented evaluations, rather than through strict adherence to a curriculum.



Within the countries of the MENA region, there exist systems of education that are anachronistic in character and dysfunctional with regard to adapting for the world of the future. It is imperative that if MENA is to become an active, tradable partner within the global community, it will need to ready its workforce for the market of today and the market of tomorrow. This implies the need for a self-directed, systematic, and objective look at each country from the method of governance and finance to the manner in which education is presented to the various populations. As painful, costly, and labor intensive as this may be, however, it is only the harbinger of a future in which those countries that are poised to react and adapt will prevail at the expense of countries saddled with unwilling and nonintrospective forms of government.


BAHGAT, GAWDAT. 1999. "Education in the Gulf Monarchies: Retrospect and Prospect." International Review of Education 45 (2):127–136.

HEYNEMAN, STEPHEN P. 1987. "Uses of Examinations in Developing Countries: Selection, Research, and Education Sector Management." International Journal of Educational Development 7 (4):251–263.


HEYNEMAN, STEPHEN P. 1990. "Using Examinations and Testing to Improve Educational Quality." Educational Policy 4 (3):177–192.

HEYNEMAN, STEPHEN P. 1997. "The Quality of Education in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)." International Journal of Educational Development 17 (4):449–466.

LANCASTER, PAT, and SIDDIQI, MOIN A. 2001. "Meeting the Twenty-First Century Challenges." Middle East 317:23–31.

MOJAB, SHAHRZAD. 1998. "The State, University, and the Construction of Civil Society in the Middle East." Futures 30:657–667.

SHAW, K. E. 1993. "Development Tasks for Arab Gulf Universities." Arab Studies Quarterly 15 (4):83–91.

TANSEL, AYSIT, and KAZEMI, ABBAS. 2000. "Educational Expenditure in the Middle East and North Africa." Middle Eastern Studies 36 (4):75–101.

WORLD BANK. 1998. "Education in the Middle East and North Africa: A Strategy towards Learning for Development." Paper presented at regional meeting of UNICEF education officers and other experts in Muscat, Oman, in May. Revised draft distributed at the Mediterranean Development Forum II in Marrakech, Morocco, September 1998.


Additional topics

Education - Free Encyclopedia Search EngineEducation Encyclopedia