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New International Report Strikes an Optimistic Note on Arab Education

Al-Fanar Media
November 11, 2016

CAIRO—Most countries in the Arab world have been placed in the “very high” category in a worldwide table that ranks countries based on young people’s digital skills and their access to basic and secondary education. Predictably, the Gulf states top the Arab list.

This is the conclusion of a recent report that combines 18 variables to collectively measure development and progress among youth ages 15 to 29 in 183 countries, from 2010 to 2015. Those variables make up a “Youth Development Index.”

Though the news is encouraging for the region, it goes against the grain of a consensus of results from past similar reports. For example, the Arab Human Development Reports says the average literacy rate of Arabs older than 15 is 73 percent, well below levels of 94 percent in developing Asian countries and 93 percent in Latin America’s developing nations. Meanwhile the Global Competitiveness Report has said some Arab countries, notably Egypt, are suffering a decline in educational quality.

While Arab universities are showing progress in rankings by Times Higher Education and QS World University Rankings, they are yet to break past the top 250 institutions in the world.

Some observers warn the report’s findings should be taken with a grain of salt. Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid, a professor at Egypt’s National Research Centre in Cairo, says that while many Arab countries are ranked high in their educational development, their overall education quality is still lagging.

It remains true, say other experts, that despite the new report’s rosy results, there are still significant improvements to be made in the region, especially for the few Arab countries that didn’t perform so well.

“We need to provide students with a secure and resourceful learning environment for better education in the Arab countries with low rankings,” says Soohyun Jeon, research director of the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research in the United Arab Emirates.

The report was compiled by the Commonwealth Secretariat, based in London, and considered education, health, employment, political and civic participation among young people as well as the quality, relevance and availability of data in a country. (The Commonwealth Secretariat is the key intergovernmental agency for Commonwealth nations, most of them former members of the British Empire.)

The highest-ranking Arab countries were placed alongside countries such as Cyprus and Romania, whereas countries like Yemen are rivaling Myanmar and Laos.

Educational development was measured in three ways: enrollment in secondary education; the literacy rate; and the percentage of 15–24-year-olds with five years or more experience using the Internet, which the report called “digital skills.” The data for these variables came from UNESCO and the International Telecommunications Union.

“Measuring youth educational development using access to basic and secondary education is misleading, as youth development goes beyond just having growth in students’ numbers,” says Abdelhamid.

After crunching the numbers, the report then classified countries as having very high, high, medium or low levels of youth educational development.

The MENA region has 126 million young people, the report said, which make up 28 percent of the region’s total population and 7 percent of the world’s youth population.

The report indicates that MENA’s scores, which put it in the very high category group, are better than the global average in the education domain.

Of the 21 Arab countries, 14 Arab countries rank as very high. Syria was categorized as high, while Comoros, Yemen and Sudan were classed as medium. Just three Arab countries were placed in the low category: Iraq, Djibouti and Mauritania.

Syria, while still ranking high for the time being, is on the decline. It fell 42 places in the Youth Development Index between 2013 and 2016, to 137 out of 183.

“In the cases of Yemen, Syria, Iraq and to a certain degree Sudan, ongoing conflict is the biggest barrier,” says Natasha Ridge, executive director of the Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research.

“The wealth disparity between Arab countries makes it very difficult for the poorer countries to emulate some of the reforms that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have done,” Ridge added.

In an attempt to promote education for youth development across the Arab world, a recent conference organized by the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization brought the region’s education ministers together. Held in Tunisia last month, the event saw the release of a new education strategy for Islamic and Arab countries.

It called for pre-school education to be promoted and for regional excellence centers to be established for training, educational and scientific research. The conference also called for improving educational cooperation and strengthening international and regional partnerships in the education sector.

Besides enhancing learning opportunities for children with disabilities by integrating them into mainstream education systems, the conference also recommended more attention for gifted children at all educational levels to harness their potential for scientific research and innovation.

Elaborating on further ways to improve Arab youth education, Soohyun Jeon, research director of the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research in the United Arab Emirates, points out that improvements in school infrastructure, including access to digital technology, learning materials and qualified teachers, are essential for promoting quality education for youth in low-ranking Arab countries.

But just because it has been decreed doesn’t mean things will automatically improve.

“These aspects may be a considerable challenge for some of the low-ranking Arab countries,” she emphasized.