Educational reforms in the Middle East and North Africa: what is to be done?

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.

Measuring Job Quality.

Extract from LLAKES newsletter n4.

What do we mean by “job quality”, and how can we design indices to measure it? These are the central questions in another LLAKES European research project being led by Francis Green.

The project follows a call from the European Foundation for Living and Working Conditions, an agency of the European Union based in Dublin, to carry out analyses of its 5th European Working Conditions Survey, which was completed in 34 countries during 2010. Working together with LLAKES researcher, Tarek Mostafa, Francis’s bid won the contract to devise job quality indices from the data, and to use the indices to describe the distribution and growth of job quality in Europe.

From the outset, the idea of job quality needed to be defined, the concept was focused squarely on objective features of the job, rather than on personal characteristics of the worker. Indices for wages, intrinsic work quality, employment quality (security and prospects), and work-life balance features were devised. Rather than focusing just on wages, which economists generally favoured, or combining them artificially to form a single index, it was decided to analyse the four indices separately. Tarek and Francis have since been busy analysing how these aspects of jobs vary across socioeconomic groups, and between European countries. We know that wages were increasing steadily in many countries, prior to the great recession of 2008, and that earnings had become much more unequal, including in Britain. Of particular interest is what’s been happening to the non-wage aspects of job quality over time. Is it getting any better? If so, in what dimensions? Is it becoming more unequally distributed across the population? Up to now very little has been known about these matters. Francis presented some initial findings on these issues to a conference on job quality in early November at Cornell University, New York State, organised by the Industrial and Labor Relations Review, in a paper entitled “Is job quality becoming more unequal?” In US conferences one is sometimes urged to make sure to include his “elevator” answer in his presentation, (i.e. the summary you would give to someone important if you found yourself describing your paper’s argument during a ride in the lift). In this case, Francis’ elevator statement required less than one floor: “not in Europe”. It was found that work quality, work intensity and work-life balance features were all becoming less, not more, unequal between 1995 and 2010; while environmental security (i.e. absence of physical and ergonomic hazards) was pretty stable.

Preschool Education and Care: a Win-Win Policy

A new study that I conducted with Professor Andy Green suggests that preschool education and care has a positive effect on female employment and on educational performance at the age of 15, but it does not help close the gap between poorer students and their peers.

Debates about policy frequently involve identifying social and economic trade-offs. A policy which is designed to boost economic competitiveness may have negative social consequences or, conversely, policies designed to enhance social cohesion may come at a high economic cost. The tensions between economic and social goals seem particularly evident in times of economic austerity. However, social scientists occasionally identify policies which they claim would have clear benefits, both on the economic and social side. Pre-primary education and care (PSEC) is one such policy area.

A new study that I conducted with Professor Andy Green showed clearly that PSEC opens the doors of employment for women. Affordable and accessible pre-school provision frees up mothers of young children to undertake paid work and is thus likely to increase the employment rates of women in general. Raising rates of employment makes an important contribution to raising GDP per capita and improving living standards. At the same time participation in PSEC is held to improve the cognitive abilities of young children. These gains would come at little net costs since they are off-set by the increases in productivity and in tax revenues which will accrue.

We used two datasets: The first is a macro dataset that covers Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK, and the USA from 1980 to 2008. We included a large number of determinants of employment. These determinants are: PSEC, expenditure on unemployment (welfare), rigidity of employment, union coverage, coordinated wage bargaining, unemployment benefits’ duration and replacement rate, the rate of house ownership, and prison population. We also included the following variables: The degree of centralization of wage coordination (plant, firm, industry, or economy level), an index of employment protection, migrant stock, the ratio of minimum to average wage, taxes on labour, and union density. These variables did not have a significant effect on total or female employment and were taken out of the equation. The second is a micro-dataset: the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA 2009). Using this data we assessed the impact of attending preschool education on the achievements of 15 year-olds in Mathematics in the same countries mentioned above.

The findings are interesting. An increase in PSEC of 10% (making pre-primary education affordable and accessible) increases female employment by 6.1%. This result is substantial and intuitive since women are the major benefiters of PSEC. For the rest of the variables the impact on female employment is as follows. Expenditure on employment (welfare), rigidity of employment, and union coverage have a negative and significant effect on it, while the impact of coordinated wage bargaining, house ownership, and prison population is positive and significant. By contrast, unemployment benefits’ duration and replacement rate have an insignificant effect.

It is also worth noting that prison population accounts for a large difference in employment rates between the US and the rest of the countries. This happens because inmates are not considered as unemployed and as a consequence are taken out of the statistics. This artificially inflates employment rates in the US. Anecdotally, the prison population of the US is of 743 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants in 2008, and in Sweden it is of 78 inmates. This corresponds to 12.6% difference in total employment rates in favour of the US. Such a higher level of employment is artificial and does not result in higher productivity and it has high social and economic costs related to the need to operate prisons and to incarcerate so many people.

When comparing the social democratic economies with the liberal ones, it is possible to see that they attain high levels of employment through different roads. In the liberal economies flexibility is paramount while in social democratic economies publicly provided PSEC and coordinated wage bargaining play an important role.

On the other hand, using the PISA 2009 dataset, we were able to prove that attending PSEC is positively and significantly related to performance scores on reading at the age of 15 for all social groups. Hence, the cross-national analysis does not support the argument that raising levels of PSEC participation necessarily reduces social gaps in attainment at 15 years of age. Participation in PSEC increases educational performance by similar amounts for children of all social groups in most countries. Social gaps in performance at 15 may only be mitigated by high levels of PSEC provision where children from less advantaged families get more – or better quality – provision.

The important implication of this for policy is that for PSEC to reduce social gaps in school attainment it is not sufficient merely to increase aggregate PSEC participation rates. It would require policies with a substantial bias towards children from disadvantaged families so that they receive more – or better quality – PSEC than children from other social groups. Policy in England seems to be moving in this direction. On Sept 19th 2011 the Department for Education set out plans to extend the existing free entitlement of PSEC to 15 hours per week, which currently applies to all three and four year olds, and to all disadvantaged two year olds (i.e. for those qualifying for free school means or in local authority care). This should increase PSEC participation rates for disadvantaged families. DFE estimates that approximately 140000 two year olds would be eligible to benefit. However, it remains to be seen whether this will bias participation towards this group sufficiently to reduce inequalities in learning outcomes.

This study also appeared on Montrose42’s blog, on Nursery World, and on the page of the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the IOE.