Report explores tensions behind the failure of education

A new World Bank report identifies the tenuous link between credentials and skills as one of four key “tensions” behind the failure of the Middle East and North Africa region to fully reap the personal, social and economic benefits of education.

Despite five decades of investment and impressive growth in enrolment rates and gender parity at all levels of education in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, education, including tertiary education, has failed to produce the expected human capital needed to create jobs and generate wealth in the region, according to a new World Bank report titled Expectations and Aspirations: A new framework for education in the Middle East and North Africa.

The flagship report on the status of education in the MENA region notes that while the region’s young generation has attained higher educational levels than their parents, it still has the lowest share of human capital in total wealth globally.


There are more paradoxes: while the region’s average spending on education is above the world average, learning outcomes are among the lowest and it has the highest gender gap among all countries, with girls far outperforming boys. Despite this, the region has the lowest female labour force participation rates in the world and the highest youth unemployment rates and these rates are mostly among the educated, especially women.

“In recent years, the region has witnessed the devastating effects of the unmet expectations and unrealised aspirations,” said Ferid Belhaj, the World Bank’s vice president for MENA.

Belhaj said while there had been a strong push for learning, an equally aggressive demand for skills in higher education from employers and parents had been lacking. Subsequently, the situation has resulted in the high production of unemployable graduates, which is now a key driver of frustration and despair in almost all MENA countries.

In addition to the mismatch between credentials and skills, the report identifies three further tensions that are holding back the region’s educational progress and the delivery of learning and skills: between discipline and inquiry, control and autonomy, and tradition and modernity.

Credentials and skills

The report argues that there is “little or no” link between credentials and skills. Countries are stuck in “credentialist equilibrium”, a scenario whereby there is a weak demand for skills but robust demand for credentials in terms of degrees and diplomas.

In the last 50 years, higher education in the region had been locked into producing bureaucrats for the public sector, a factor that has continued to influence parents and young people’s educational and career decisions. “MENA countries do not apply hiring criteria and processes that look beyond academic degrees to assess candidates’ subject knowledge and pedagogical and other skills,” said Safaa El-Kogali, currently the education practice manager for the MENA region at the World Bank and lead author of the report.

Across the region, desire for public sector jobs is motivated by higher wages and a better working environment, particularly for women.

“Expectations of the public sector are also high because employment opportunities are often treated as a right, further disconnecting these opportunities from education,” says the report.

Discipline and inquiry

The report finds that across MENA, institutional curricula depend heavily on rote memorisation, leaving little time for the development of critical thinking skills. Although discipline is important, too much may constrict students’ ability to learn, think, explore ideas or question concepts. Inquiry, by contrast, allows students to understand their surroundings, contextualise concepts through questions and experimentation, and build the skills they need to learn throughout life.

Tension between discipline and inquiry hampers the push for solution-focused, multidisciplinary, high-impact research, notes the report.

The issue is that whereas effective post-secondary education programmes are expected to emphasise practical training instead of theoretical knowledge, this is not the case in MENA. “Such programmes are skewed toward theory over practice and they tend to have outdated curricula focused on theory and memorisation,” says Karma El-Hassan, associate professor of educational psychology measurement and evaluation at the American University of Beirut.

Control and autonomy

Although access to higher education in MENA has expanded to the extent that the region currently enjoys the highest intergenerational mobility in education in the world, universities have very little autonomy, especially the public universities that are largely state funded.

According to the World Bank, while greater autonomy in higher education institutions tends to be associated with better performance, most universities in MENA have very limited autonomy over academic, staffing and financial matters.

Quoting a 2012 World Bank study, Universities through the Looking Glass: Benchmarking university governance to enable higher education modernization in MENA, that scrutinised governance practices of 100 universities in the region, the current study found that little has changed in terms of academic programmmes, hiring of lecturers and funding.

Tradition and modernity

Another significant challenge for universities in MENA lies in their search for identity and alignment between tradition and modernity.

According to the report’s authors, the key debate is whether universities and the rest of the education sector should focus primarily on acquisition of knowledge and on science, or should concentrate on development and acquisition of religious and moral values.

A new framework and a pact

To establish a system that helps to realise the potential of education in the region, the report recommends the adoption of a new framework for education – one that includes a “concerted push for learning, a wide-reaching pull for skills, and a new pact for education”.

In terms of the “pull for skills”, the report notes that without a realignment of the labour market that increases the demand for skills, the contribution of the education sector to the economy will not be fully realised.

It recommends economic reforms to bring the skills needed in the labour market in line with those conferred by education and sought by parents and students, as well as efforts to address “distortions” in the education sector and beyond.

“Employers would shift from focusing on credentials to demanding skills. Parents and students could then demand skills from the education system, which would help MENA move away from a credentialist equilibrium to a skills equilibrium.

“A pull for skills will depend as well on civil service reforms that support hiring, motivating and empowering the best teachers and placing them where they are most needed. Finally, a pull for skills will depend on curricula that reflect the skills that prepare students for social and economic life.”

The report concludes that a pact for education involving all stakeholders is critical. Such a pact would require a unified vision that would take into account the four tensions impinging upon education as well as local context and social norms. It would also need strong leadership and accountability. It would involve reconciling investments and resources with the vision’s priorities.
  • For the purposes of the World Bank report, MENA countries include Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, West Bank and Gaza, and Yemen.