This article was first published on the DevEd Community blog under ‘Into Africa: Special Series’.

Since the 1960s the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have witnessed a dramatic improvement in educational quality, student performance, and participation rates. However, in spite of these improvements, MENA is still lagging behind other comparatively similar countries. In fact, MENA still suffers from high dropout rates, low performance scores on international assessment tests, comparatively high rates of illiteracy, persistent gender inequalities, and the inability of the education system to generate the skills required in an increasingly competitive world.

The challenges MENA is facing

The improvements that the region knew during the last decades, though important, are still insufficient to maintain economic competitiveness and social development. In fact, most of the MENA countries were able to drastically increase participation in basic and secondary education by increasing the proportion of their GDP spent on education. In addition, they managed to almost eliminate the gender gap in participation in basic education and to reduce the illiteracy rates by significant amounts.
However, despite all such improvements, MENA is still lagging behind many of its comparator countries (e.g. Malasia) especially in the areas of secondary and higher education. In fact, more than half of the university students in MENA are pursuing degrees in social sciences instead of science and mathematics. This is the opposite of what is happening in East Asia. The major consequence of the lack of synchronicity between the education system and the labor market was the high level of unemployment among the well educated.
Similarly, the impact of education on economic growth, on the reduction of income inequalities, and on the reduction of poverty is weak. One of the reasons behind this weakness is that, even though participation has improved, the quality of education was too low to contribute to improvements in productivity and growth. Moreover, educational performances were lower in MENA than in its competitors. This meant that direct foreign investments were driven to these competitors because their economies offered the right skills for business development. Finally, the variations in the quality of instruction within MENA meant that the distribution of skills is highly unequal in terms of geographical areas, gender, and social class. Of course one has to keep in mind that each country within MENA has its own context, but nonetheless most of them share the same problems.
Today, MENA’s main challenge is to adapt and to evolve within the framework of the knowledge economy since it is no longer possible to compete on the basis of cheap unqualified labor. In fact, the absence of adequate skills means that these countries will fail to attract foreign investments. Hence, education can no longer be organized in the shape of a pyramid where the number of students decreases with the level of education. In fact what is needed now is a more diverse and comprehensive post-compulsory education system that delivers skills adapted to the needs of the economy and to each country’s context. These skills should reflect the diversity of abilities and aspirations within the student population.
Moreover, the demographic boom that these countries have experienced in the recent past means that funding the education system will also be challenging in the future since the number of students will certainly increase. One should note that in most of these countries the participation of the private sector in the delivery of education is very limited.

The reforms

Since the previous educational reforms in MENA have failed to deliver on their promises, now it is time to think of new paradigms.
Increasing the quality of educational provision: This consists of improving the quality of a combination of inputs, including teachers’ qualifications, instruction, curricula, equipment and infrastructure. The quality of these inputs should be improved simultaneously while giving attention to the distribution of such inputs in terms of geographical territory, gender and social class. The state can play an important role by coordinating the efforts of different actors (i.e. public, private, local, nongovernmental).
Reforming the incentives system: Incentives are extremely important in fostering efficient behavior among the actors on the education market. For instance, in some cases teachers and school principals can act independently of any supervision; hence new mechanisms that link educational performances to teacher and principal benefits must be established. However, one has to note that such incentives are hard to operate since it is difficult to determine what is due to teacher performances and what is due to other determinants.
Reforming the role of the state: public authorities responsible for the management of the education system should take into account the requirements of the “consumers”, and the latter should also be able to influence the decisions of educational authorities. Such reforms require the decentralization of some tasks to the local or school levels. This will allow local authorities, principals and teachers to customize educational provision and instruction according to the needs of the students (given their context, culture, economic situation, social class, gender, etc).
Synchronizing the education system with the needs of the labor market: the education system should deliver a diverse array of skills which correspond to the needs of the economy. Hence, it should become more sensitive to such needs. This requires tailoring education around the needs of the market while moving away from manufacturing standard skills into cultivating them through personalized education.
Reforming the education systems across the Middle East and North Africa should become a priority especially that the wind of change is sweeping through this part of the world. Democratization need not be limited to the political process and should extend to education among other areas. Any undertaken reforms must reflect the needs and aspirations of the people, while preparing them for the future economic and social challenges.