JORDAN: Soaring enrolments create problems

University enrolments in the Middle East are soaring as large youth cohorts try to find a better future through higher education. In Jordan, the number of tertiary level students has jumped from around 40,000 to 160,000 in just 17 years while the number of universities increased from only four to 26. But just as in Eastern Europe in the 1990s, this leap in educational attainment comes at a price, at least in the short term. Graduate unemployment is rampant.

The availability of detailed education statistics is quite unusual for a country in this part of the world. It shows what tremendous progress has been made through intense efforts by the National Centre for Human Resources Development to collect statistics in recent years. Its Canadian-funded Al Manar project has pioneered education and training indicators in the Middle East and is used throughout the region as an example of supporting human resources strategies with labour market data.

The centre has now published a report along the lines of Education at a Glance, published annually by the OECD of which Jordan is not a member. The report covers a raft of key indicators and benchmarks the status of higher education in Jordan against that in OECD countries.

The increase in university enrolment figures is so large it even shows in a remarkable shift in educational attainment of the entire adult population, up from 9.5% to 10% between 2001 and 2005, the five years covered by the study. This compares with Greece, Italy and Turkey but is still considerably less than the OECD average of 12 years. The figure can be expected to rise sharply as the percentage of the population under age 15 is 37%, more than double that in Britain.

The pull of higher education also shows in statistics for secondary vocational education, where enrolments dropped from 18% of the age cohort in 2001 to 12% in 2005. At the same time this indicates the lack of vertical pathways that has haunted vocational education in the region and is only beginning to be addressed.

The report is rich in interesting gender statistics, showing that females fare better in first-level tertiary education, while their presence declines dramatically at master's and PhD level. The authors conclude that girls are better at the national secondary education exams but that social and cultural barriers still keep them out of the higher levels of tertiary education.

There are several downsides to the soaring demand for university degrees. The first is the labour market skills mismatch that has resulted, at least in the short term. The number of unemployed university graduates went from 12% in 2001 to 18% in 2005, while the number of unemployed among those who quit education after secondary school decreased slightly. Today, 29% of the unemployed have a university degree whereas in 2000, the figure was still below 15%.

The other downside is the extreme focus on general secondary education, a minimum requirement for employment in the public sector and an absolute requirement for entry to higher education. It has led to a marked decline in performance in maths and sciences, simply because the number of general secondary education students is now so high that not enough qualified teachers can be recruited. This is hardest felt in the rural parts of Jordan.

The report can be downloaded here