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The crisis of Arab education

Not one Arab university features in any list of the Top 200 universities worldwide, a fact that is hugely illustrative of the state of education and learning in the region. This is especially appalling given that the region is home to the oldest university in the world in Fez, Morocco.

Given Arab contributions to mathematics, astronomy, medicine, architecture and philosophy, educational decline is a serious issue for policymakers across the region, and is the most critical factor in explaining stunted social and economic development. For more books to have been published last year in destitute Greece than in the entire Arab world is cause for concern.

In such a vast region, there are of course variations in the quality of education; islands of excellence in Jordan and the UAE provide education of an international caliber. But broadly, education systems in the Arab world suffer from serious shortcomings, particularly regarding governance and teaching. Government departments with oversight of education are at the heart of the problem.

With a mandate to “get by,” they lack the strategic vision, human resources and skills to effect world-class education. This central discord is magnified by the quality of teaching across the region, as methods remain tied to didactic learning with a diminished insistence on analytical and critical thinking.

Compounded by record levels of teachers reaching retirement age alongside unprecedented numbers of children entering the education system, UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics indicated that 1.6 million new teaching posts will need to be created in the Arab world if universal education is to be achieved. This figure is likely to increase to 3.3 million by 2030 if “drastic measures” are not taken. This is key, as all major studies have shown that the most influential factor in providing good education systems are good teachers, for which there is no substitute.

The Arab world hosts 11 ongoing armed conflicts, hugely disrupting educational efforts and perpetuating the crisis of learning. Schoolchildren are prevented from attending classes in the wake of bombings in Iraq, Palestinian students are often prohibited from traveling to school due to military checkpoints, and Syrian children can only receive rudimentary education in the makeshift schools that are provided to them.

Where conflicts have caused refugee crises, the problem is even more acute. The UNHCR estimates that the average period a person spends as a refugee is more than 10 years. In the context of schoolchildren, this can mean that a 5-year-old at the start of a conflict can remain uneducated until adolescence.

From a budgetary perspective, the average of 5.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) spent on education by Arab states is dwarfed by the sums spent on defense, with the specter of conflict ever-present. Education cannot improve in the context of instability without focused spending on improvement.

Policymakers and education systems need to design and execute curricula that encourage critical thinking and knowledge creation. An old Arabic proverb warns that ‘lack of intelligence is the greatest poverty.’  The region would do well to heed the wisdom of its forbears.

Zaid M. Belbagi

Interestingly, Israel ranks fifth among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries for total expenditure on educational institutions as a percentage of GDP, and is home to the region’s top academic intuitions despite geopolitical circumstances.

In 2006, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement assessed the reading skills of students ages 9 and 10. It ranked the children of wealthy and middle-income Arabs among the worst performers worldwide. This reflected a serious regional issue with low reading levels, which has been exacerbated by language and digitization.

In an effort to educate students bilingually, cohort upon cohort leave school having failed to master English or Arabic. Efforts to master English alongside a reliance on Arabic dialects in school prohibit students from reaching a level of fluency in either subject. This has had particularly dire consequences for fluency in classical Arabic, taught as modern standard Arabic, which is often beyond reach of students.

In North Africa, this problem is compounded by a dogged attachment to the French language, which remains the principal mode of communication in the classroom. Despite the rise of English as an increasingly dominant language spoken by 2 billion people worldwide, governments insist on French (speakers of which number 130 million) as the principal language of education. 

This dedication to a language in decline is especially damaging given the advent of online education and communication. English accounts for 53 percent of online content, so schooling students in French not only restricts them from accessing online information, but limits their academic choices and vocational opportunities.

A solution often put forward to the education crisis in the Arab world is digital learning. Though helpful in increasing connectivity, access to information and preparing students for work in modern economies, Arab education requires a more holistic overhaul. In an era where the smartphone has led to an exponential decline in reading, digital tools must be harnessed to encourage learning, not distract from it.

There is no silver-bullet solution to education in the Arab world. Policymakers and education systems need to design and execute curricula that encourage critical thinking and knowledge creation. An old Arabic proverb warns that “lack of intelligence is the greatest poverty.” The region would do well to heed the wisdom of its forbears.

• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator. He also acts as an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).