Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Education: Middle East education systems need to address new challenges

A new report by the World Bank finds that countries in the Middle East and North Africa need to overhaul their education systems to meet the demands of an increasingly competitive world.

“The Road Not Traveled: Education Reform in the Middle East and North Africa,” which provides a comprehensive economic analysis of the impact of education investments on the region, was released today in Amman, Jordan.

The report notes that 40 years of education investments have closed the gender gap at the primary school level and resulted in nearly universal education.

However, the region – which still lags behind East Asia and Latin America in literacy and in average years of schooling among people 15 and older – faces new challenges posed by globalization and the “increasing importance of knowledge in the development process.”

“Since education is the main source of knowledge creation, the task is clear,” the report says. “The education systems must be changed to deliver new skills and expertise necessary to excel in a more competitive environment.”

This means that students in the region need to acquire a new set of “soft skills” – problem solving, communications, foreign language – that are critical to further advancement.

“In order to become competitive, there has got to be a shift from the ability to perform routine tasks towards those soft skills which are absolutely essential for increasing productivity,” says Michal Rutkowski, Sector Director for Human Development in the World Bank’s Middle East and North Africa region.

“This shift is in the process, but the countries really need to accelerate it in order to remain competitive,” he adds.

Mr. Rutkowski also notes that countries in the region are not enjoying the same returns on education investment at the higher-education level as some fast-growing middle-income countries in Asia, such as Malaysia and the Republic of Korea.

“What we see in the region is that those who graduate from universities cannot find jobs. The unemployment rate is very high among them. Therefore, the average return that you observe is also not high, and this is a serious problem,” he says.