The North African countries with the strongest education systems have been the most affected by the recent Arab uprisings, as a lack of employment opportunities breeds discontent. Published in MEED, 22 August 2013
When the Arab Uprisings broke out in Tunisia in late 2010, the lack of decent jobs was quickly identified as a key problem underlying the protests that spread throughout the region over the following months.
Across North Africa, young men and women were leaving school or university to find they had few options when it came to securing a job and earning money. The discontent this situation engendered, combined with complaints about official corruption and other long-standing grievances, helped pave the way for the revolutions that continue to convulse the region today.
The inability of the North African economies to provide enough jobs for their citizens has many causes, but the failings in their education systems are undoubtedly an important factor.
Overall, the education systems in the region have improved markedly over recent decades. In most cases, school enrolment and completion levels are far higher today than they were in the 1970s or 1980s, as are literacy rates. But there is still a long way to go before North African schools match international best practice, or even Middle East and North Africa (Mena) averages, and the shortcomings are widely acknowledged.
An executive opinion survey run by the World Economic Forum (WEF), for example, puts most of the region towards the bottom of global league tables when it comes to the quality of education. Out of 144 countries surveyed, Algeria is ranked in 131st place, Egypt in 139th and Libya in 142nd. Morocco is best-placed at 104th (Tunisia and Sudan are not covered by the survey).
Other international observers agree that more effort and investment is needed, even in the better-performing countries. “Morocco has seen increases in access to schooling at all levels of the system and enrolment in primary education is now near-universal,” said Jeffrey Waite, a World Bank task team leader, when announcing a $100m loan from the bank to support reforms in the country’s education system in May. “[However,] further reforms are needed to improve the outcomes of education, notably the quality and the overall performance of the sector.”
The poor performance of the education systems can be clearly seen in the low literacy rates. Despite its relatively high standing in the WEF rankings, the worst country in this respect is Morocco, with a literacy rate of just 56 per cent for those aged 15 or older, with 69 per cent of men and just 44 per cent of women able to meet basic standards of reading and writing.
Mauritania does not fare much better, with a literacy rate of under 58 per cent. Sudan, Egypt and Algeria all have a rate of 71-73 per cent, with Tunisia slightly higher at 78 per cent and Libya the clear leader in the field, with a literacy rate of 89 per cent.
Across North Africa, women are far less likely to have basic literacy skills, although the Libyan female literacy rate of 83 per cent is higher than the national rate for any other country. Libya has the advantage of great oil wealth and a smaller population than all of its neighbours, with the exception of Mauritania. That wealth means it can afford to have almost as many teachers as Morocco, a country with more than five times as many students. Under former leader Muammar Gaddafi, the country was also planning a massive university building programme that would have seen at least 25 new or enlarged institutions constructed at a cost of $3bn-5bn.
Libya education potential
Investment projects in Libya remain in a state of flux, but even if those particular plans are not revived, the potential is there for large-scale investment in education in the future – a luxury that other countries in North Africa do not have. However, as Libya’s poor rankings in the WEF survey show, good education is not simply a matter of how much money is spent.
Libya actually has the lowest level of education spending relative to gross domestic product (GDP), at 2.7 per cent, of any country in the region. The expenditure of other governments ranges from 3.7 per cent of GDP in the case of Mauritania to 6.2 per cent in the case of Tunisia. As a proportion of total government spending, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia typically spend more than 20 per cent of their total budgets on education, while others come in lower – Mauritania spends 15 per cent and Egypt allocates just 12 per cent.
Despite all the money that has been invested, getting to school remains a big problem for children in the poorest countries. In Sudan, for example, total school life expectancy is only 4.5 years, while in Mauritania it is just over eight years.
In Sudan, the gross enrolment rate (GER) for primary schooling – a measure of those enrolling in school regardless of age – is just 73 per cent. Every other country manages to have a GER rate of more than 100 per cent, although some still fall below the regional average of 105 per cent, including Egypt at 102 per cent and Mauritania at 101 per cent. As in other parts of the wider Mena region, there is generally a bias in favour of boys over girls at this level.
The net enrolment rate (NER), a narrower measure that only counts pupils at the official school age for that level of education, paints an even bleaker picture for Sudanese children, with a rate of just 43 per cent at primary level. The equivalent figures for the other countries range from 75 per cent in the case of Mauritania to 99 per cent for Tunisia.
Children that attend school can often find themselves in crowded classrooms. The pupil-teacher ratio is high in several North African countries, with 38 children per instructor in Sudan and 39 in Mauritania. In most other cases, the ratio is in the mid-20s, with the two exceptions being Tunisia and Libya, where it is lower, at about 17. The proportion of trained teachers is also very low in Sudan, at just under 60 per cent of all primary school teachers.
Despite that, the repetition rate at primary school is highest in Libya, at 10 per cent. Algeria and Tunisia are not far behind, at about 7 per cent each. All these countries find themselves above the regional average of 6.3 per cent at this level.
The proportion of children who complete their primary schooling ranges from 58 per cent in Sudan to 99 per cent in Egypt and Morocco. Unfortunately for Sudanese children, however, just 35 per cent of them go on to study at secondary school, which is by far the lowest rate in North Africa and well below the Mena average of 89 per cent. In the case of neighbouring countries, the progression rate ranges between 83-94 per cent.
When it comes to secondary education, Sudan is undertaken at the bottom of the pile by Mauritania, with GERs of 39 per cent and 27 per cent respectively. Libya does best at this level, with a GER of 110 per cent, followed by Algeria at 102 per cent and Tunisia at 93 per cent. In the latter three countries, the enrolment rate is higher for girls than for boys, while in the other states it is boys who continue to fare better.
There is a lack of statistics on NERs at the secondary level, but where they exist, they do not make for particularly positive reading. Mauritania has an NER of just 16 per cent, followed by Morocco with 35 per cent and Algeria with 63 per cent. In all three cases, the rate is worse for girls than boys.
Third-level education is a relative rarity in the region. In the poorest countries of Mauritania and Sudan just 5-6 per cent of people attend a university or similar institution.
Egypt does better with a rate of 28 per cent, although it remains under the Mena average of 31 per cent. Surpassing that figure are Algeria and Tunisia, with rates of 32 per cent and 37 per cent respectively, rising to 54 per cent for Libya. Women also outnumber men at this level in these three countries.
While a strong university sector is important for the long-term growth of these economies, the main issue that needs to be tackled comes earlier in students’ careers, namely improving standards and access to primary and secondary education.
Some countries are clearly more developed than others, but all need to improve their education sectors. The pressure is only likely to become greater, given the number of young people in the region. In 2010, the median age for the population of five of the North African states was in the 20s. For the other two, Mauritania and Sudan, it was below 20. All these people will need a decent education and then decent jobs.
It may not be a coincidence that, measured by the Unesco Education Index, the four best North African education systems – Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt – include three countries that have seen revolutions in the past few years. The index is only a crude measure of an education system, based on the mean years of schooling that adults have received in the past and the years of schooling that children can now expect. Nonetheless, it offers an intriguing insight into the possible links between raised expectations from an education system that are unmet by the jobs market once students leave and the recent Arab uprisings.