When Apple released its first computer, the Apple I, in 1976, it was little more than a simple circuit board which could be programmed to perform extremely basic functions by hobbyist computer programmers. The Macintosh computer, with its basic graphic user interface and rudimentary mouse, was a revelation when it was released in 1984 at a price of $2,495 – close to $5,000 at today’s prices.

Today, touch-screen smartphones which play music, take photographs, and allow users to access the internet at lightning-fast speeds, are common to the point of ubiquity at prices in the low hundreds of dollars, while major corporations now place top executives on separate continents, asking them to collaborate via videochat and integrated cloud computing systems.

The education has been just as affected by the information revolution as any other walk of life. It has made it easier than ever for students to access information on subjects of study, use interactive software to learn, and for teachers and schools to assess student progress and response to teaching methods. However, the pace of technological change has also made the need for schools to be up-to-date on the latest trends in information and communication technology increasingly important, particularly for countries in the developing world, of which the MENA region is still seen as a part.

As the Oxford economist Paul Collier notes, the increasing sophistication of technology and industry in the developed world makes it increasingly hard for developing countries where access to information technology is limited to “catch up” in terms of economic innovation and skilled labour forces. There is a real danger, he argues, that fragile states could be “left behind”, with the gap between rich developed countries and their poor counterparts growing ever larger. 6

Meanwhile, the way students are educated in the developed world has also changed significantly over the past several decades, moving from systems of rote learning to more collaborative, student-led routes. This approach requires a far more exciting and involving approach to education, with students using games and interactive software to learn.

Another major trend in educational methodology is the idea that education is a developing world (in Asia the average is 3.6 per cent of GDP, slightly less than the mean figure of 3.9 per cent for Latin America) and is close to the rate of spending in the developed countries of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) where 4.6 per cent of GDP on average was spend on education as of 2007.2

The region follows global trends in investing most in secondary education as an absolute percentage of total public spending (Key Stages 3-4) followed by primary education (Key Stages (1-2) education, although spending as a measure of expenditure per pupil is the highest for those in tertiary education.

This table above, it should be noted, only covers public spending on education. Private education is widespread in the region, particularly in the Gulf Arab states where large expatriate labour forces have led to the development of a number of international schools which educate the children of wealthy executives from home and abroad, and less well-funded schools for the children of lower-income immigrants, typically from southeast Asia (Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh in particular), which complement state schools for the indigenous population. There is very little research on the levels of expenditure at private institutions. 

The biggest overall public spenders on education in the region as an absolute dollar figure, are Saudi Arabia, which projects total spending on education of SR150bn ($40bn) for 2011, and Iran, which is estimated to have spend a similar figure during 2010, 5 per cent of GDP. This is several times what these countries’ Gulf Arab neighbours – with smaller populations and lower overall oil revenues – plan on spending over the coming year. Qatar – which has an indigenous population of about 800,000 people- has committed to spending QR19.3bn ($5.3bn) over 2011-2012, while Kuwait and Oman have both budgeted for around $5bn expenditure on education for the coming year.

Egypt also spends significantly on education; the country’s 2009 education ministry budget was approximately $9.3bn. However, Iran and Egypt have the highest populations in the region, of around 72 million and 82 million people respectively according to the World Bank, meaning that per-capita spending is significantly lower than in the Gulf Arab states. Data collated by the World Bank and UNICEF in 2003 shows that per-student spending was exponentially higher in the Gulf Arab states than anywhere else in the MENA region.

However, despite the levels of spending on education in the region, unemployment levels for both the general workforce and young people of 15-24 are the highest in the world. As of 2010, around 10.3 per cent of the total available workforce in the MENA region was unemployed, according to the International Labor Organisation (ILO), while unemployment among 15-24 year olds was 23.7 per cent in the Middle East and 23.8 per cent in North Africa in the same year, according to the US consultancy Deloitte.3 The figure for youth unemployment in Saudi Arabia, despite its enviable resource wealth and spending on education, was 25.9 per cent. Equally worrisome is the level of unemployment among university-level graduates, who remain unemployed for three years on average after graduation.

There are a number of reasons for the levels of unemployment witnessed in the region. Higher spending has not necessarily translated to a higher standard of education in the region. In the US Department of Education’s 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, eighth-grade students from, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were among the lowest-ranked for mathematics and the sciences, alongside pupils from countries which spent far less on education, like Ghana, El Salvador and Botswana.

World Bank researchers attribute the gap between the level of spending on, and outcomes from, the region’s education sector to two distinct phases in regional governments’ thinking on the sector. Initially, the major focus for policymakers was expanding education to as wide a proportion of the indigenous population as possible, with mass education and “national identity” a particular priority after states achieved independence from the 1920s-1940s.

“Countries placed a high premium on forging a common heritage and understanding of citizenship, and used a certain reading of history, the instruction in a particular language, and the inclusion of religion in the education curriculum as a way of enhancing national identity,” Bank researchers write. “Mass education was pursued by initiating and accelerating the building of schools, recruiting teachers, and attracting students, along with a special effort at including specific groups such as girls, rural children, students of particular ethnic groups, and the disabled into the education system.”4

The past decade has seen growing attention being paid to increasing the qualitative aspects of education regionally, with a more doctrinaire attitude to education giving way to a more open attitude to global trends. The opening up of education to the private sector should also have increased competition and, as a result, the overall quality of education, although lax regulation of private schools in some countries has made this outcome debatable. Today, the UAE in particular has been increasingly focused on the regulation of the private sector to ensure that levels of education meet international standards.

A further issue has been the creation of education systems which have generate high school and university-level graduates whose skills are significantly mismatched with actual demand. In discussing the drivers behind the Arab Spring of 2011, the International Labor Organisation notes that there are “schools, universities, and vocational education and training institutions are turning out graduates lacking the skills that are needed in competitive labour markets”.5

Again, this is not an issue which has gone unrecognised. The Gulf Arab states in particular have focused on creating educational institutions which encourage students to develop skills suited to international trends in business, from the vocational degrees offered King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia to the MBAs offered at INSEAD in Abu Dhabi by way of Texas A&M in Qatar.

Future trends in education spending are likely to be driven by the events of 2011, with governments across the region focusing more than ever on creating labour forces which are capable of playing a greater role in the global workforce, from the creation of vocational schools to spending more on the teaching of languages.