Sunday, July 3, 2016

Quotable: Shanta Devarajan on higher education in the Middle East and North Africa

Saturday, July 2nd 2016
The Public Diplomacy officers of the Foreign Service have a natural rapport with educators and students in the countries where they are assigned.  Local academics welcome the Fulbright and other exchanges – and the information resources, English teaching, and cultural preservation programs of U.S. Public Diplomacy.  FSO's give lectures and join academic conferences.  They often help U.S. universities establish local campuses and organize study abroad programs.  Promoting education in the U.S. also brings Public Diplomacy officers in contact with students and their families.  More than any other officers at an embassy or consulate, then, it’s Public Diplomacy officers who best come to understand the strengths, weaknesses, and cultural contours of local secondary and tertiary education.

In a June 27, 2016, article on the website of The Brookings Institution, “The paradox of higher education in MENA,” Shanta Devarajan (Chief Economist, Middle East and North Africa, at the World Bank) discussed some factors which have adversely affected quality higher education in the Middle East and North Africa.  The same essay – drawing on his speech to a recent education conference in Algiers -- also suggests the varieties of surprise for the region’s students when they arrive at U.S. colleges and universities. 

“More...If we can bring about . . . two changes—a shift in the focus of higher education away from public-sector jobs and a system of financing that aligns incentives with quality—we can go a long way towards restoring the grandeur of higher education in MENA,” he concluded.

Here are a few quotes:

  • . . . today the quality of higher education in MENA is among the lowest in the world. Only two or three Arab universities are in the list of the top 500 universities in the world (and none are in the top 200).  Employers in the region complain that university graduates lack the skills needed to work in the global marketplace. Many are not trained in science, mathematics, engineering, and other technical subjects where the jobs are. Furthermore, these graduates lack the “soft skills,” including creativity and teamwork, partly because their training has emphasized memorization and rote learning.

  • The nature of the curriculum, with its emphasis on memory, repeating what the professor says without questioning or debating, may have been acceptable for the public sector—but it didn’t help the private sector, which is looking for creative minds who will invent the next Uber, for example.  This curriculum may have also made it easier for radicalized groups to recruit students. 

  • . . . there is one feature that is common to all the countries in the region:  The majority of university graduates received jobs in the public sector. The state was the employer of first and last resort.

  • The second, more controversial, reason has to do with the pricing of university education. Almost all the universities provided education free of charge, based on the notion that poor people should have access to higher education as a means of escaping poverty. Unfortunately, the result has been that the overwhelming majority of students in universities come from therichest parts of the population.

  • Whenever something is provided for free, there is excess demand. Universities ration the excess demand by requiring students to pass an entrance exam. The rich can afford to send their children to the best secondary schools to prepare them to pass the entrance exam. As a result, the universities are full of students from the richest strata of society.

  • The university has little to gain by investing in improving the curriculum (since more students doesn’t mean more revenue). Meanwhile, students don’t demand better quality as much as they would if they were paying for the education and needed to recoup their investment.

  • To be sure, simply charging for higher education will not solve the problems of universities in MENA.  For one thing, poor people should still be able to afford tertiary education, but this should be addressed by providing means-tested scholarships, rather than an across-the-board subsidy that, as we noted, the rich can take advantage of.

  • If we can bring about these two changes—a shift in the focus of higher education away from public-sector jobs and a system of financing that aligns incentives with quality—we can go a long way towards restoring the grandeur of higher education in MENA. 

  • As I mentioned at the beginning, the whole world owes the MENA region a huge debt for having created and nurtured university education a millennium ago. It is time to repay that debt.

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