Some 21.5% of the region's population-about 70 million people-is between the ages of 15 and 24, while another 45% of the population is younger than 15 years. To some, this represents a demographic time bomb, especially in a region where post-graduate employment opportunities are notoriously scarce. But change the perspective just a little and the MENA area can be seen as a gold mine of potential talent, skills and innovation that could transform the region into a significant global player.
The region already invests heavily in its children's education. Most countries in the Middle East and North Africa region offer essentially free education at all levels of instruction. On average, they spend nearly 20% of their total public expenditures, and nearly 6% of GDP on education. The World Bank finds that the region spends a much higher amount per pupil relative to its per capita income than both developing and developed countries, particularly for upper secondary and higher education. Indeed, most university students often pay only a symbolic fee that bears no relation to the true cost of their instruction.
The decision to commit so much public spending to education has resulted in some impressive gains. The number of adults in the region who had no formal schooling halved between 1975 and 2000, from about 75% to about 40%. The wide availability of schooling helped to narrow gender and socioeconomic gaps within countries and contributed to the region's economic growth over the past few decades.
But are students in the region learning what they need to know to compete in a knowledge-based global economy? Despite thriving universities in the major cities, students from the region tend to look to universities in OECD countries.
On average, only about a third of university students in MENA countries major in scientific fields-the traditional drivers of innovation. The vast majority of students-more than 70% in Morocco, Oman, and Saudi Arabia-favour the arts and humanities. And most students who enter higher education are unprepared for the rigours of critical thinking that are required both in competitive universities and in today's knowledge-driven labour market. Despite some countries' efforts to revise teaching methods over the past two decades, children in the region's primary and secondary schools are still typically passive recipients of knowledge, required to do little more than copy from the blackboard and listen to their teachers. Group work, creative thinking, and self-starter learning in the classroom are rare.
While providing free education may be a laudable goal of governments, countries in the MENA area are facing a looming crisis. The percentage of youth in MENA's population will remain high for decades, a consequence of high fertility rates in the region during the 1960s and 1970s.
Demand for formal education will grow accordingly. The World Bank estimates that the population of secondary school students will grow by a third over the next 30 years, while the number of students in higher education will double over the same period. Governments in the region will have to find or create new ways of funding education if they want to build a workforce that is trained to compete in-and to help build-a competitive, knowledge-based labour market.
One way to avoid this crisis is to make greater use of private funding. Enrollment in private education is very low in some countries, such as Algeria, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen, but high in others, particularly Lebanon. Increasingly, OECD countries are investing in higher education in the region. On the broad, policy level, the MENA-OECD Investment Programme is formulating national and regional policy recommendations to foster the development of small and medium-sized enterprises, entrepreneurship and human capital. Policies on higher education fit neatly into this area. Individual institutions of higher learning are also stepping up to the plate.
INSEAD, one of the world's largest business graduate schools with headquarters near Paris, opened a Centre of Executive Education and Research in Abu Dhabi in 2007, offering seven short-term openenrollment programmes on such topics as achieving and sustaining better business performance, learning to lead, and family enterprises. In October 2010, the school will launch the same executive MBA programme that it already offers in France and at its campus in Singapore. INSEAD administrators cite the region's economic growth rate and the need for well-trained local workers as convincing reasons to have a presence in the area. Says an INSEAD spokesperson, "We are convinced that more and more Arabs, as well as expatriates living in the Gulf area, will choose to stay in the Gulf for higher studies, as of the moment where the quality of these studies is good. The change has already been tremendous if you look back twenty years and compare with the current offerings. The change has been from Bedouin to boardroom in one generation. The expanding economy will continue to drive this trend."
Universities in Egypt-which have been offering free education since 1962-have been strengthening and restructuring their business programmes to better meet local and international needs. In 2007, Cairo University's Faculty of Commerce and Georgia State (US) University's J. Mack Robinson School of Business launched a joint MBA programme with the aim of preparing "future executives to assume responsible positions in a swiftly expanding Middle Eastern business environment". According to school administrators, the recent expansion of multinational companies into Egypt, the increased number of joint ventures, an emerging private sector and planned privatisation of government-held companies in Egypt provided the motivation to create the programme. Funded by a threeyear, US$400,000 grant through USAID, the programme requires that Egyptian students spend at least one semester studying in Atlanta while Georgia State students can opt to enroll in certain MBA courses in Cairo.
Meanwhile, this past summer, the American University in Cairo launched a new business school with departments in accounting, economics and management. School administrators expect that the emphasis on such practical subjects will be welcomed by the local business community.
Morocco has also been attracting attention. The ESC Rennes School of Business, part of the prestigious French grandes écoles system, announced this summer that it will be opening a new school in Rabat. The Rennes-Rabat Business School will be built on the 20 hectare campus of the new International University of Rabat. Scheduled to open for the 2010-2011 academic year, the school will offer undergraduates an International Bachelor Programme in Management, while graduate students can enrol in the school's Grande École Programme, sources at Rennes say.
Another France-based school, the International Institute of Information Technologies, or SUPINFO International University, opened a campus in Casablanca last year. The private, non-profit university, which hopes to have some 60 schools in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas by 2012, recently opened another two schools in Rabat and Marrakech and has plans to open schools in Tangier, Agadir, Fez and Oujda over the next few years.
To be sure, these initiatives answer only a tiny fraction of the region's demand for world-class higher education, and represent a miniscule amount of the funding that will be needed to ensure that the region's vast young generation will have access to quality-and relevant-instruction as it works its way through the education system. But these kinds of investments, in concert with continued public commitment to education throughout the region, will help students in the Middle East and North Africa to achieve their personal professional goals and help their countries to compete successfully in an ever more demanding global market. MA, MS, CF
OECD Observer interviews, 2009
© OECD Observer, No. 275, November 2009