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Economics & Development | Global Arab Network
Some good news - The quality of education in the Middle East and North Africa
Thursday, 20 February 2014 16:39

The quality of education in MENA Some good news

In some respects, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has a very strong record in the area of education.

  For example, if we rank countries by increases in the average number of years of schooling between 1980 and 2010, nine of the top twenty are from the MENA region.  This good performance in the quantity of education stands in sharp contrast to the comparatively weak performance of the region in sustaining high economic growth over the last three decades.  In part, the discrepancy could be due to deficiencies in the quality of education.

One source of globally comparable information on the quality of education is the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).  This study is conducted every four years to assess proficiency in mathematics and science at the fourth (9 to 10 year olds) and eighth (13 to 14 year olds) grades.  Thirteen MENA countries participated in one or more modules of this study in 2007, most for the first time.  The initial results were disappointing.  None of the thirteen scored at or above the global average and most were clustered at the bottom of the table with countries that had much lower levels of per capita income.

The most recent TIMSS round conducted in 2011, however, gives reason to think that the situation is turning around (see here for relevant data). While all participating MENA countries still scored below the global average, many showed improvement. Of the 20 scores that can be compared between 2007 and 2011, 13 show improvement while 7 show deterioration.  If we include scores reported with statistical reservations, 35 pairwise comparisons are possible. Of these, 22 show improvement while 13 show deterioration.

While one must be cautious about reading too much into one round of TIMSS results, the improvement in scores across a wide range of MENA countries does suggest that recent efforts to improve the quality of education are paying dividends.

Some other notable items from the 2011 TIMSS:

  •     Iran shows improvement in all cases.  Indeed, Iran has participated in TIMSS since 1995 and has steadily improved its scores ever since.
  •     Qatar has experienced huge improvements.  For example, between 2007 and 2011, it improved its fourth grade mathematics score by 117 points from 296 to 413 and its eighth grade science score by 100 points from 319 to 419. Too good to be true?
  •     Dubai scores highest among all MENA education systems.  At 485, its eighth grade science score was close to the global average of 500 (although lower than the 489 it achieved in 2007).


The Middle East and North Africa Region (MENA) has taken great strides in education. It has quadrupled the average level of schooling since 1960, halved illiteracy since 1980 and achieved almost complete gender parity for primary education.

Access: Enrolment in the region’s school systems has increased significantly over the past decade to the point where universal primary education has been achieved for girls and boys in most of the MENA countries.  Net enrolment ratios (NER) rose from 86 to 94 percent between 2000 and 2010.  Secondary enrolment increased as well, though not as pervasively: NER rose from 62 to 70 percent over the same period.

Literacy: One result of the region-wide push for greater access is that literacy rates for the adult population (defined as 15+ years) have improved dramatically in the last 20 years, rising from 59 percent in 1990 to 78 percent in 2010.

Gender Gap: Unlike the rest of the world, there is a ‘reverse’ gender gap in the region with girls outperforming boys in grade 4 math results, a trend that generally continues into grade 8. In a region not known for gender equity, these statistics raise a number of interesting questions that merit further exploration..

Government Financing Commitment: MENA governments have shown strong commitment to funding public education. The average public investment in education across the region as a percentage of GDP is above 5.3% of GDP.


These impressive achievements are marred by an uncomfortable fact:  for too many students across the region, schooling has not been synonymous with learning.

Educational quality: Evidence demonstrates that school systems in MENA are generally of low quality. Basic skills are not being learnt, a fact most clearly captured by international standardized tests, whose results reveal that the Region is still below the level expected given MENA countries’ per capita income (Figure 1).

Skills Mismatch: At the same time, evidence points to a pervasive mismatch between the skills required by the job market and those taught in schools.  In global studies more firms in MENA contend that inadequate labor force skills, both technical and soft, impede their growth and ability to hire employees.

Surveyed employers report that only about one third of new graduates are ready for the workplace. The Region invests little in pre-and in-service training as a whole, comparatively speaking; yet, of those that do, more than half add that they must address this lack of work-readiness by providing training, which is time-consuming and costly. Students are as aware as employers of this skills mismatch: when interviewed, only one third believed that they were adequately prepared to enter the workforce. Interestingly, over one third of students were willing to pay for their education if it were to lead to better job prospects.

Youth Bulge: Exacerbating this situation, demographic projections reveal that the region’s youth population (up to 24 years old) will grow  steadily by about 2 million up to 2015, then surge by about 10 million between 2015 and 2030.   This sudden growth in the youth population will create increased demand for educational services at all levels and will place immense pressure on existing educational institutions. Clearly, the persistent, dual challenges of quality and relevance must be addressed before the anticipated surge. If they can, this rising tide of young people could become an engine growth for the region.


Governance and accountability: In the wake of the Arab Spring, the demands for greater accountability and more responsive public service delivery echoed across the Region with many of the demands focused directly on education, with, for instance, calls for more accountability on the part of schools and teachers for the outcomes of student learning.  These demands must still be addressed.

The Syrian Crisis: Adequately addressing the educational challenges associated with the wave of school-age refugees s into neighboring countries – most predominantly Jordan and Lebanon -- is an immediate challenge for the region. Even if the crisis were to end immediately, which is highly unlikely, UN projections suggest that it will take on the order of 8 to 10 years for the displaced refugees to return to Syria. The emergency response to the humanitarian crisis is only the beginning. Catering for the growth in the school-age population will be a development priority for the near-term.


In line with the World Bank Education Sector Strategy, Learning for All (2012), the MENA Region Education Strategy proposes a two-pronged approach based on i areas of focus and  engagement strategies.

How we contribute

The World Bank Group is supporting education in MENA countries through knowledge exchanges, promoting innovations, diverse financing mechanisms and partnerships to develop integrated solutions to the remaining challenges. The World Bank Group supports early childhood, primary, secondary, technical, vocational, and tertiary education. Yemen and Djibouti benefit from credits to support such activities as school construction and rehabilitation, teacher training, and conditional cash transfers to support girls’ school attendance. In Middle Income Countries, project lending is currently focused on initiatives that aim to improve quality, while in the GCC countries we offer technical assistance through Reimbursable Advisory Services.

Knowledge, partnership and innovation

A key message of The Road Not Traveled, the MENA Flagship Report on Education (World Bank, 2008), is that for too many students in the region, schooling has not resulted in learning, and it is highly likely that poor quality and weak accountability mechanisms are to blame.

Acknowledging this, the region’s 22 Ministers of Education came to together to endorse the Doha Declaration on Education Quality in November 2010 calling in effect for action on this pressing issue.

As a response, the World Bank helped develop, the Arab Regional Agenda for Improving Education Quality (ARAIEQ), an umbrella initiative that ties many existing regional initiatives and institutions together with new programs into a coherent and efficient network. Core regional programs, in Early Childhood Education (ECD), Information and Communication Technology (ICT), Teacher Policy and Practice, Assessment, and Entrepreneurship, aim to improve the quality of education across MENA.

Jobs for Shared Prosperity. Time for Action in the Middle East and North Africa,  this regional Flagship Report, discusses how the rules and the incentives that govern labor markets in MENA countries have led to inefficient and inequitable outcomes from the personal and collective standpoint. Several underlying distortions prevent a more productive use of human capital and have led to a widespread sense of unfairness and exclusion, of which the Arab Spring was a powerful expression. The report highlights the critical role of the region’s education systems both in contributing toward inefficient labor markets and as an integral part of potential solutions.

SABER Early Childhood Development (ECD) and Workforce Development Regional Reports: The Systems Approach for Better Education Results (SABER) is an initiative to produce comparative data and knowledge on education policies and institutions, with the aim of helping countries systematically strengthen their education systems. SABER evaluates the quality of education policies against evidence-based global standards, using new diagnostic tools and detailed policy data collected for the initiative. The latest SABER work in the region has focused on Workforce Development and ECD, two areas recognized for their essential contribution to education reform.

Governance and Social Service Delivery: Good governance is an underlying condition for effective and efficient public policies, programs, and services. It presupposes that improved interaction between government and constituents depends on transparency, accountability, and participation. Governance reforms rank high on the development agenda of many MENA countries, particularly in regard to public service delivery in education and health. The World Bank Group is building on the available evidence in this area and developing policy proposals to assist regional governments as they formulate their strategies for the way forward.

by Farrukh Iqbal   

Farrukh Iqbal has had more than thirty years of research and management experience in the World Bank across a diverse range of countries and sectors.  Among countries, he has worked on Korea, Philippines, Indonesia, China, Iran, Egypt, and the GCC.  Among sectors, he has worked and published on various aspects of economic development including growth, poverty, small and medium enterprises, trade and foreign investment, health insurance, local government development, and political economy issues.  He holds a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and a Ph. D. in economics from Yale University.   © 2014 The World Bank Group, All Rights Reserved.


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