Arab Youth: Missing Educational Foundations for a Productive Life?

Editor’s Note: In a new paper, Brookings experts and colleagues examine education in the Arab world, including key issues, youth employment and improving learning. Explore the related interactive »

Recent events continue to underline the fragility of the
Arab region. Civil war rages in Syria, refugees surge
across borders and the lasting effects of the Arab
Spring are uncertain. What is certain, however, is that
it is essential to give attention to the welfare of the region’s
young people and to economic health in order
to build the foundations for lasting political stability
and, in many countries, for a transition to democracy.
Education is central to this effort. In particular, the ability
of educational systems to help the region’s children
and youth develop the competencies and skills that will
serve them well for their future lives and livelihoods.

Economic conditions in a number of countries have
deteriorated recently, contributing to a sense of disillusionment
and frustration among the population and especially
youth. In Egypt and Tunisia, for example, citizen
attitude surveys indicate that 83 percent of Tunisians
and more than 70 percent of Egyptians are unhappy
with current economic conditions (Pew Research
Center 2012). Youth unemployment is a grave concern.
Official unemployment figures tend to underestimate the
magnitude of the problem, and especially the problems
related to youth exclusion and women’s access to jobs.

In Tunisia, for instance, youth make up 33 percent of
the labor force but account for 75 percent of the unemployed.
Most governments have so far concentrated on
stimulating labor’s demand side (e.g., through investment
climate policies) but have been paying less attention
to the supply side (e.g., ensuring that youth have
the necessary skills to compete in the labor market).

The purpose of this report is to shine a spotlight on
education in the Arab world at a time when most public
attention is focused elsewhere, and thereby to open a
dialogue about this key issue. It is crucial now, more
than ever, to provide support for the ongoing efforts
of Arab educationalists—the many actors and innovators
who are working day by day to provide education
to the region’s young people. Progressive and smart
investments in education made today, including those
focused on children affected by conflict, will reap large
benefits in the future.

Increasingly, global actors are focusing both on who has
access to education but also, of particular importance,
on the types of skills, competencies and values that
young people acquire through their educational experience
(United Nations 2013). New data show, globally,
that 250 million children are not able to read, write or count well, even though many of them spent four years in school, and that 200 million youth do not have the skills needed for their future lives (UNESCO 2012).

But what about the young people in the Arab world? Our analysis provides a regional overview of children’s and youth’s ability to access, stay in and learn in school. According to the latest data available at the primary and lower secondary school levels, we find that

  1. Getting into School: There are 3.1 million fewer children out of school since 2002 in the Arab region, but 8.5 million children remain excluded. Many of them are girls from poor, rural communities often living in regions affected by conflict.
  2. Staying in School: More children are finishing primary school than ever before, yet in many countries more youth are dropping out of lower secondary school than a decade ago.
  3. Learning Foundational Skills: Using available learning assessments in 13 Arab countries, the average proportion of children not learning while in school stands at 56 percent at the primary level and 48 percent at the lower secondary level.
  4. Regional Learning Crisis with Wide Variation Across Countries: Learning outcomes vary significantly across countries in the region for which we have data but are particularly worrying in Yemen, Morocco, Kuwait and Tunisia where between two-thirds and ninety percent of primary-age students are failing to learn. At the lower secondary level, over 60 percent of students are not learning in Morocco and Oman. The learning performance of children in Arab countries is also below expectations, given the countries’ income levels.
  5. Girls versus Boys: There is a mixed, or “boomerang,” dynamic for girls. While girls are less likely to enter school than boys, they are more likely to make the transition from primary to secondary education, and they tend to outperform boys in terms of learning. However, despite significant investment and better performance in education, young adult women are much less likely to be employed than are men.
  6. Education Data Gaps: There are multiple gaps in education data in Arab countries—only a small handful of countries systematically measure literacy and numeracy at both the primary and lower secondary levels.
  7. Education for a Productive Life—Youth Employment Link: The lack of appropriate foundational skills has likely contributed to the employment crisis in the region, but the dynamics between the education system and the labor market, including the different reasons for boys’ and girls’ participation in education and labor markets, need to be better understood.

The findings in this report have important implications not only for families and education systems but also for those policymakers focused on how the region can better address important economic issues, including youth unemployment. After reviewing the education outcomes in depth, we discuss their implications for youth employment in detail. In conclusion, we hope these findings lead to further dialogue among actors in the region on what actions could be most fruitful for improving young people’s learning.