Modern Diplomacy advises that in Iraq: an Urgent Call for Education Reforms to Ensure Learning for All Children is nowadays a requirement that is not only to prepare people for life, with all knowledge and skills to contribute to a thriving society. It is to be noted that Iraq historically witnessed writing in its earliest form as a means of communication and education, etc.
Learning levels in Iraq are among the lowest in the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) region and are likely to decline even further because of the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on education service delivery, including prolonged school closures.
These low learning levels are putting the future of Iraqi children and the country at risk. A new World Bank report says that while, now more than ever, investments are needed in education to recover lost learning and turn crisis into opportunity, these investments must be accompanied by a comprehensive reform agenda that focuses the system on learning outcomes and builds a more resilient education system for all children.
Human capital is essential to achieve sustainable and inclusive economic growth. However, according to the World Bank’s 2020 Human Capital Index (HCI), a child born in Iraq today will reach, on average, only 41% of their potential productivity when they grow up.
At the heart of Iraq’s human capital crisis is a learning crisis, with far-reaching implications. Iraq’s poor performance on the HCI is largely attributed to its low learning levels. COVID-19 has led to intermittent school closures across Iraq, impacting more than 11 million Iraqi students since February 2020. This report highlights that, with schools closed over 75% of the time and opportunities for remote learning limited and unequal, Iraqi children are facing another reduction of learning‑adjusted years of schooling. Effectively, students in Iraq are facing more than a “lost year” of learning.
“Iraq can use lessons learned from the current health crisis, turn recovery into opportunity, and “build forward better,” to ensure it provides learning opportunities for all Iraqi children especially its poorest and most vulnerable children” said Saroj Kumar Jha, World Bank Mashreq Regional Director. “The World Bank is ready to support Iraq in building a more equitable and resilient post-COVID-19 education system that ensures learning for all children and generates the dividends for faster and more inclusive growth”.
The report Building Forward Better to Ensure Learning for All Children in Iraq: An Education Reform Path puts forward for discussion sector-wide reform recommendations, focusing on immediate crisis response as well as medium and long-term needs across six key strategic areas:
1. Engaging in an Emergency Crisis response through the mitigation of immediate learning loss and prevention of further dropouts.
2. Improving foundational skills to set a trajectory for learning through improved learning & teaching materials and strengthened teacher practices with a focus on learning for all children.
3. Focusing on the most urgently needed investments, while ensuring better utilization of resources.
4. Improving the governance of the education sector and promoting evidence‑based decision‑making.
5. Developing and implementing an education sector strategy that focuses on learning and “building forward better”.
6. Aligning skills with labor market needs through targeted programs and reforms.
Overall, 22 Saudi Arabian universities are ranked in the list. On average, the country performs particularly well on metrics relating to the share of international staff, international co-authorship and institutional income.
The United Arab Emirates is the only other nation with more than one institution in the top 10; Khalifa University and United Arab Emirates University are sixth and seventh respectively, with both institutions receiving high scores for metrics relating to the research environment.
Qatar has only one representative in the table – the flagship Qatar University – but it claims second place thanks to strong scores across the board.
Meanwhile, Egypt is the most-represented nation, with 31 institutions, led by Zewail City of Science and Technology in 10th place. Five other Egyptian universities feature in the top 20. The country receives a strong average score for citation impact and teaching reputation, the latter of which is based on the first THE survey exclusively dedicated to published academics in the Arab region. Egypt is also home to the most leading large universities in the region; there are 20 ranked institutions with more than 50,000 students and all of the top 10 are in the North African country.
Overall, 125 institutions from 14 countries are ranked in the inaugural Arab University Rankings, with the vast majority (100) being public institutions. A further 30 institutions are listed with “reporter” status, meaning that they provided data but did not meet our eligibility criteria to receive a rank. The top-ranked private university is Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammad Bin Fahd University in fourth place.
The ranking is THE’s most comprehensive assessment of higher education in the Arab region to date. Fifty-five of the ranked institutions, including Bahrain and Palestine’s two representatives each, did not feature in the latest World University Rankings due to its stricter eligibility criteria. Iraq is the third most-represented nation in the Arab ranking, with 16 ranked institutions (and a further 15 with reporter status), but only two of these were included in the global table.
The methodology behind the Arab ranking is based on the same framework as the global table, but some adjustments have been made and some new metrics have been included to reflect the features and missions of universities in the Arab region. There are regional measures on reputation and collaboration as well as metrics related to social impact.
Nasser Al-Aqeeli, Saudi Arabia’s deputy minister for research and innovation, said that the country’s strong performance in the ranking was partly driven by recent policies to strengthen research and innovation in universities.
The Ministry of Education has worked with a number of public and private sectors to establish 12 national research and innovation priority areas “to help universities focus their research on what is needed in Saudi Arabia”, Professor Al-Aqeeli said. It has also worked directly with institutions on their own research strategies based on their strengths and what is needed in their local cities and regions.
Meanwhile, last year the ministry initiated a new national funding system for universities. The “institutional fund program” gives a pot of research funding to each university and the university administration manages how this is distributed to its academics, instead of scholars submitting grant proposals to the ministry, to help speed up the process. As a result, Saudi Arabia was ranked first in the Arab world and 14th globally for the number of coronavirus-related research publications, Professor Al-Aqeeli said.
Habib Fardoun, director of the Observatory Center for Academic Standards and Excellence at King Abdulaziz University, said that the institution’s research projects are all done in collaboration with international, regional and national partners to acheive the strongest results, while over the last 10 years the university has worked on improving the quality of its education.
On the Arab ranking more broadly, Dr Fardoun said the methodology is “aligned with the Arab countries’ strategies”, which will enable governments to measure the outputs of their universities and to give institutions more support in shaping and fulfilling these strategies.
Phil Baty, chief knowledge officer at THE, said that universities in the Arab world have achieved “very strong progress” in recent years in the World University Rankings but “the increased presence of Arabic institutions in the global ranking does not do full justice to the rich diversity of the sector, and does not fully reflect the range of activities and missions at the regional level, or the priorities of more regionally focused institutions”.
“So it is very exciting that this new, bespoke ranking for the Arab region allows us to offer a more nuanced, regional context, allowing many more institutions in the region to benchmark themselves against a range of relevant performance indicators and deploy THE’s trusted data to support their missions and their development,” he said.
Countries represented in the Arab University Rankings 2021
ZAWYA published an article by Sara Al-Mulla on how illiteracy is still the dominant factor in the MENA region. It recommends notably no less than Radical improvements are needed to eradicate illiteracy in the region once and for all.
Radical improvements are needed to eradicate illiteracy in the region once and for all
The picture above is for illustration and is of the Gulf Times.
In today’s world, knowledge is deemed to be the key to progress; spearheading innovations in myriad futuristic sectors, commandeering global competitiveness and empowering people to live high-quality lives. Indeed, the true wealth of any nation lies in its human capital’s ability to thrive.
The Arab region has achieved great strides in the field of education in the past five decades, with the widespread establishment of schools, high enrolment rates and government support for students. Data from the World Bank demonstrates this remarkable progress, as the Arab region has lifted literacy rates from 43 percent in 1973 to 79 percent in 2019. Despite this phenomenal achievement, illiteracy remains a shortcoming in the region. It is estimated that about 50 million adults in the Arab world are illiterate today, limiting their roles as active members of their societies. These figures are aggravated by the 6 million children who have been forced out of school due to conflicts and poverty.
The calamity of illiteracy manifests itself in a number of threats. Without the basic tenets of communication, people could find themselves drastically limited in their life choices and their ability to carry out important daily tasks. For example, illiterate people are unable to examine a medicine label, read a bank statement, skim through the news, calculate a financial investment, understand government policies, or communicate with family and friends via mobile phones or online social networks.
Illiterate parents also tend to have lower expectations with regards to their children’s educational attainment, aggravating generational illiteracy. Dr. Bernadette Dwyer, a professor of literacy studies in education at Dublin City University, made a powerful statement in this regard: “Literacy permeates all areas of life, fundamentally shaping how we learn, work, and socialize. Literacy is essential to informed decision-making, personal empowerment, and community engagement.”
Illiteracy also costs the global economy an estimated $1.19 trillion annually in lost economic productivity, according to the World Literacy Foundation. Globally, illiterate people earn 30 to 42 percent less than those who are literate, severely limiting their capacity to thrive and access important goods and services, such as food, shelter, education, and healthcare services. Furthermore, illiteracy has been linked to unemployment or low-quality jobs, lower lifelong earnings, reduced access to professional development courses, poorer health outcomes, increased crime rates, lower civic participation and community involvement, lower feelings of self-worth, increased isolation, limited retirement savings, and welfare dependency.
In order to tackle the issue of illiteracy in the region, it is imperative that policymakers understand its root causes. Perhaps the greatest barrier to literacy is the rampant poverty rate in certain communities, where children are forced to work to help their families make ends meet. At the same time, low economic productivity in many Arab nations has limited public funding for schools and reduced financial support for families in the form of tuition subsidies and scholarships. Poverty has also worsened gender discrimination in many parts of the region, resulting in limited female enrolment in schools due to early marriage and pregnancy, violence or cultural norms about the role of women.
Additionally, deteriorating safety issues and raging conflicts have, in recent years, resulted in an exodus of children from schools. Another leading cause of illiteracy is the presence of children with learning disabilities or difficulties that go undetected or untreated. Special education is expensive to finance for families on their own, as they would need to pay for diagnostic tests, treatments, dedicated shadow teachers, and special resources.
Research shows that children living in rural areas are more likely to drop out of school compared to children in urban areas, as nearby schools are lacking. Other institutional aspects that undermine children’s ability to learn include unsatisfactory learning environments, overcrowded classrooms, shortages of trained teachers, unengaging school curricula, and insufficient learning resources.
As such, radical improvements are needed to eradicate illiteracy in the region once and for all. It is imperative that household data be captured to elucidate illiteracy rates according to geographical location, age group and gender. Additionally, such research should evaluate the root causes behind illiteracy so that appropriate policies and programs can be formulated to overcome these specific barriers.
Solutions could be designed based on the size of the cohorts, such as the establishment of modern schools to cater for large groups or individualized workshops that are tailored to the needs of small groups of learners. Enrolment can be encouraged by taking on local volunteers who can sign people up or via applications on online portals. Additionally, relevant and engaging educational curricula need to be designed to accommodate local workplace needs, in addition to the hiring of skilled teachers. For participants who are unable to attend school due to work or family responsibilities, one-on-one tutoring sessions could be facilitated on a weekly basis to meet their learning needs.
Perhaps the greatest challenge is the cultural attitude toward education. Nationwide grassroots and media campaigns can play an influential role in highlighting the priceless value of literacy and its beneficial effects on people’s lives, especially among cultures that have contradicting viewpoints on the subject. Furthermore, governments could partner with nonprofit and private sector organizations that dedicate their funds and efforts toward literacy programs.
Nations are today competing against one another in terms of their ability to transform knowledge into economic productivity and high-quality living for their citizens. Literacy is the key for Arab nations if they are to create a new renaissance period.
Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature. She can be contacted at http://www.amorelicious.com.
The answer to What is the State of Human Capital in the MENA Region? is given by Keiko Miwa, Regional Director, Human Development, Middle East & North Africa – World Bank and Jeremie Amoroso, Strategy & Operations Officer, Human Development, Middle East & North Africa – World Bank.
The World Bank recently released the Human Capital Index 2020 (HCI). This update covers 174 countries—17 more than when the index was first launched in 2018. Not surprisingly, the HCI scores among MENA countries vary widely from 0.67 in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to 0.37 in Yemen. Countries affected by conflict, such as Iraq and Yemen, score low on the index, which poses an important question on how to support the protection and enhancement of human capital even in the midst of conflict.
Looking at the 10-year trend, the HCI improved in 11 out of 14 MENA countries (with available data). Morocco, Oman, and the UAE registered the largest gains in the HCI during this period. School enrollment—at the preprimary and secondary levels—as well as harmonized test scores and adult survival, are the main drivers of the region’s HCI improvements. During this period, girls surpassed boys in educational attainment. On the other hand, enrollment declines in primary and lower-secondary school outweighed gains in other components of HCI for Kuwait, Tunisia, and Jordan.
Figure 1. Change in HCI 2020 and HCI 2020 in MENA countries
Source: World Bank. 2020. The Human Capital Index 2020 Update: Human Capital in the Time of COVID-19.
Note: Arrows indicate a decline in the HCI between 2010 and 2020. Data unavailable for Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon, and West Bank and Gaza for HCI 2010. See World Bank’s list of countries/economies by region.
WHAT’S NEW IN THE HUMAN CAPITAL INDEX 2020?
The HCI 2020 update introduces the Utilization-Adjusted Human Capital Index (UHCI). This is quite relevant in several MENA countries since there is a large gap between human capital and labor market outcomes. The utilization of human capital accounts for the fact that when today’s child becomes a future worker, she may not be able to find a job (Basic UHCI). And even if she can, it might not be a job where she can fully use her skills and cognitive abilities in better employment that increases her productivity (Full UHCI). When adjusting for the proportion of the working-age population who are employed, MENA’s HCI value declines by at least one-third—from 0.57 to 0.32 (Basic UHCI) and 0.38 (Full UHCI). Low female labor force participation rates in MENA countries are a key factor for the region’s low Utilization-Adjusted HCI.
Figure 2. The average MENA HCI value declines by more than a third when accounting for the proportion of the working-age population who are employed.
RISKS TO HARD-EARNED HUMAN CAPITAL
COVID-19 has cascaded into education shocks and the worst economic recession since World War II. At the height of the pandemic, almost 84 million children were out of school in MENA, and now countries that started to open schools are now reconsidering their decision due to the second wave. This could result in the loss of 0.6 years of schooling (adjusted for quality). Nevertheless, some MENA countries took early actions and adopted innovative measures to continue education. In Jordan, for example, the private sector and education officials collaborated to develop an education portal and dedicated TV channels for virtual lectures in Arabic, English, math, and science for grades one through 12. And Saudi Arabia’s universities achieved unprecedented results as more than 1.2 million users attended over 7,600 virtual classes, totaling 107,000 learning hours.
The HCI 2020 update uses data gathered as of March 2020—prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. It serves as a baseline for policymakers to track changes in human capital and inform policies to protect and invest in people through the pandemic and beyond. Previous pandemics and crises taught us that their effects are not only felt by those directly impacted, but often ripple across populations and, in many cases, across generations. COVID-19 is no exception. As a result, the region can—and must—build on its human capital progress amid the turmoil in three key ways.
First, the MENA region needs to continue building its human capital even during the pandemic or conflict. Crisis response measures that emerged out of necessity—such as distance learning and telemedicine—present new opportunities for building back better and differently the “new normal.”
Second, many countries in MENA have shown their sharp focus on protecting human capital by ramping up cash transfers and strengthening social safety nets since the onset of the pandemic. However, stronger efforts are still needed to preserve the human capital of internally displaced persons and refugees and to foster social inclusion for economic mobility.
Third, utilizing human capital is important to the immediate recovery and long-term development of MENA—the region with the highest youth unemployment in the world at more than 25 percent. Utilizing human capital requires job-focused policies as concerns about the future of work grow louder.
The HCI 2020 update shows that many MENA countries have made meaningful human capital progress over the past 10 years. As the pandemic threatens these precious gains, investment in human capital is more important than ever. Governments in MENA have launched promising initiatives that will help to build a better future. When today’s children in MENA become adults, hopefully, they will see how their region of the world turned the unprecedented crisis in 2020 into an opportunity to build stronger human capital.
Jeffrey R. Young elaborates on how an Interest in Online Courses Surges in the MENA region. It started as for elsewhere, as a palliative to the lockdown imposed closure of all schools and education facilities.
12 October 2020
Providers of online higher education have seen a spike in interest in their courses and degree programs from the Middle East and North Africa region since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. And some say the sudden exposure to online learning may lead to a shift in attitudes about the value of digital delivery methods.
Edraak, a Jordan-based provider of free online courses delivered in Arabic, served one million new learners in the past six months, a big jump from the 650,000 new learners it served in all of 2019. The platform now serves four million learners total.
And Coursera, a U.S.-based provider of online courses and programs from well-known universities, said that since mid-March, it saw a 500 percent increase in learners from the Middle East compared to the same period last year.
FutureLearn, a British company offering similar online courses, also reports a 500-percent increase in participation from the region. Officials from edX, a nonprofit founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to offer free and low-cost online courses, says its enrollments from the region have gone up more than 200 percent since the start of the pandemic.
“There has definitely been a shift in the sense of recognizing they cannot ignore online learning anymore” in the region, said Maha Bali, an associate professor of practice at the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo.
Coursera has 3.4 million users in the Middle East out of approximately 70 million learners worldwide.
Shireen Yacoub, the chief executive of Edraak, called the growth in adult learning via online courses “one of the most inspiring observations we’ve had during the curfews and lockdowns.”
Even so, she worries about what she calls the “equity gap” when it comes to who is able to use the organization’s free courses. Most of Edraak’s users get to its platform through their smartphones, she added, and low-income families may have three or four kids all needing to share a phone. Computers and home Internet access are too costly for many, she adds. “We need to advocate for more equity in Internet connectivity,” she said. “Their lives will often depend on it. It’s not a luxury.” (See a related article, “The Shift to Online Education in the Arab World Is Intensifying Inequality.”)
Coursera has 3.4 million users in the Middle East out of approximately 70 million learners worldwide, according to Betty Vandenbosch, the company’s chief content officer. About 400 colleges and organizations in the region have signed up for a free program that lets them offer Coursera online courses to their enrolled students. That means that the colleges—including Al Hussein Technical University in Jordan—are offering at least some online courses based largely on content provided free from Coursera.
And she says that in recent months, Coursera has seen more interest from governments and organizations in the region to form partnerships. Such deals typically mean that governments and organizations pay Coursera a fee to get free access to Coursera’s online degree programs for their employees. That was starting to happen even before the pandemic: Last year the company announced a deal with the Abu Dhabi School of Government to train 60,000 government employees in data science, digital transformation and other high-tech skills.
“The governments in the Middle East are recognizing the challenges they have with their economies,” Vandenbosch said. “Some of those governments are saying, ‘Gosh, we really need to upskill our workforce because oil is not going to be there forever.”
New Attitudes Toward Online Learning
Experts in education technology say that the pandemic may end up being a turning point for online education in the region.
John Schwartz, head of Enterprise Global Business Development at edX, said that colleges in the MENA region have recently adopted the platform’s online courses as well. “Virtually no university had the time and resources to turn all their classroom content into online courses, so edX was able and continues to fill a large void,” he said. “In addition there has been a significantly higher degree of interest from the region’s schools to not only use edX content, but to put their own quality content online, as a partner on the edX.org platform.”
The most popular edX courses by students in the region are an introductory computer-science course by Harvard University and a course from the University of Queensland that prepares students to take the IELTS test of English-language skills.
“The pandemic really changed the dynamics towards online learning in the Middle East.”
Gehan Osman Assistant professor of instructional design and technology at the American University in Cairo
“The pandemic really changed the dynamics towards online learning in the Middle East,” said Gehan Osman, an assistant professor of instructional design and technology at the American University in Cairo’s Graduate School of Education, in an email interview. “Professors who had never considered even blended or web-based instruction before embraced online learning because it was the only alternative. Many of these professors said that they would never go back to completely face-to-face because they discovered many instructional value of going online.”
Curtis J. Bonk is a professor of instructional systems technology at Indiana University at Bloomington and author of The World Is Open: How Web Technology Is Revolutionizing Education, and other books about online learning. He said he is suddenly getting invitations to speak in the region at places that had not done much with online education in the past. One example: He recently spoke at an online forum for teachers at the grade school and university level in the United Arab Emirates run by the Ministry of Education, and more than 600 people attended.
The Biggest Concern: Cheating
However, some reservations about online education remain. The biggest concern: that the format will lead to rampant cheating. “Many insist that exams and major assessment need to be done in person in a proctored environment,” said Osman.
Bali agreed that academic integrity remains a key concern. “We know in Egypt many online standardized tests done in exam centers get leaked/cheated, et cetera,” she said, noting that people worry the same kind of thing could happen in online courses.
And even those providing online courses stress that they are not meant as a wholesale replacement for classroom instruction.
“Even at Edraak we don’t think that online ed and learning is a silver bullet to education in the region,” said Yacoub, that group’s chief executive. “We really believe in the value of in-person teaching.”
For Bali, the question for colleges should be what is the purpose of education, and “how to use the online effectively while preserving the best of what we can do face-to-face.”
New efforts are underway to help train professors in the region to teach online. Among them, the Center for Learning in Practice based at the Carey Institute for Global Good is running a series of free online workshops on how to teach with online technologies, with a focus on inclusive teaching.
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