Spending on education is an increasingly important element of state budgets in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region as governments face up to the combination of youth unemployment and shortages of skilled personnel.

Across the region, policymakers are well aware that if they do not equip a fast-growing population of younger citizens for life in an evolving modern economy, competitiveness will suffer and, in poorer countries, social tensions will deepen.

This is reflected in the priority that education now commands in state budgets. It accounts for an average of 18.6 per cent of government spending in the region, compared with a global average of 14.2 per cent. Qatar’s spending on education is equal to 4.1 per cent of GDP.

Education spending trend

The trend is not new, but it has been confirmed by the latest round of national budgets for 2013. Governments that are cash-rich have bolstered their education expenditure, while in poorer states wrestling with austerity, the authorities have still sought to protect allocations to schools, universities and vocational training, and to sharpen the effectiveness with which the money is spent.

Countries affected by the Arab Uprisings are acutely aware that getting education policy right can be key to rebuilding stability. But this is still not guaranteed. Despite having one of the highest rates of literacy and school enrolment in the Arab world, Tunisia has still faced widespread unrest. Limited access to education and a bad fit with the labour needs of the economy, fuel the risk of instability.

In Morocco, where a relatively consensual political reform process has ushered in the kingdom’s first Islamist-led government, both Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane and King Mohamed VI recognise the need to strengthen the education sector.

In a tough economic climate, the education sector has had to accept a 0.13 per cent cut in its allocation, which has been trimmed to MD42.4bn ($4.9bn) for 2013. But although the sector’s budget is squeezed, the government is launching measures to make the education system more effective.

Education Minister Mohamed el-Ouafa has set out an action plan for the year, which includes completing 533 construction projects and building 21 new schools. A scheme to provide 1 million children with schoolbags is being expanded to cover 3.9 million by the start of the 2013-14 academic year. The ministry’s new strategic development plan for 2013-16 focuses less on buildings and equipment and more on the functioning and governance of schools, and the quality of teaching.

The plan’s five key themes are the curriculum, the quality of teaching, schools as institutions, their governance and personnel. Steps are being taken to reinforce the effectiveness and accountability of the 16 regional education and training authorities established under a decentralisation programme launched by the previous government.

The school system and the education ministry will get an extra 8,000 staff posts overall, and it is likely that many will be to staff the new schools or those that are being upgraded.

In contrast to the primary schooling system, the Department for Higher Education and Scientific Research has been awarded a big spending increase for 2013; its budget is up by 9.7 per cent to MD9.66bn. While funds for personnel have been increased by just 2.7 per cent, to MD5.86bn, the allocation on materials and other items has been boosted by a hefty 33 per cent to MD2.8bn. Capital expenditure is frozen at MD1bn a year, and total higher education staffing is to rise by only 500 people in 2013. But these figures may simply reflect the time lags between the decision to launch new projects, the point when design and planning is completed and building work can start, and the subsequent months or years required for actually building new universities.

The 2013 budget also calls for the creation of six new universities and the construction of 24 new lecture halls, to provide an extra 15,900 places for students. The budget also provides for rehabilitation and extension work at existing universities, and there is a renewed drive to expand the number of programmes designed to educate students.

Inherent education challenges

Morocco’s focus on raising standards over spending is reflective of a challenge that faces many Mena countries: spending has been high, but the results disappointing. Gulf countries depend heavily on foreign workers to fill many technical and managerial roles, while North African universities produce many graduates who cannot find jobs relevant to the education they have received.

Government investment has typically been quite strong, says Natasha Ridge, an education specialist and the executive director of the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr al-Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research in Ras al-Khaimah, UAE.

“But it has not always yielded the desired results,” she says. “It seems that there needs to be more smart investment by governments in education, in particular in terms of assuring quality, in order to see good returns on government spending.”

Ridge says she has not yet seen much evidence of extra expenditure on curriculum changes and tertiary programmes to better equip students for the jobs on offer in the economy. “It still seems to be at the talk level rather than action level. I think policymakers and officials are aware of the pressing needs of youth in the region. They are also aware that existing educational institutions are not producing young people with the required skills for the job market.

“However, there needs to be a complete mindset change about work, and vocational work in particular, in order to get young people to take these courses and for society in general to respect jobs such as plumber, mechanic, builder, hairdresser and shop assistant.”

Like Morocco, Jordan has identified the need to invest more in higher education. The government has budgeted for a 28 per cent increase in spending on colleges and universities, taking the total outlay to JD91m ($128m) this year.

The biggest component of this is the Jordan Public Universities Support Project, which will fund the upgrade of buildings and hiring of new teaching staff. The latter is a key priority, as a reported 18 per cent of professors at public universities have quit their posts over the past five years, many hoping to secure higher salaries elsewhere.

Jordan has 10 state universities, as well as 23 private institutions. According to the London-based Alexandria Trust, which analyses the higher education sector in the Arab world, 20 per cent of Jordanian men with bachelor degrees and 65 per cent of women graduates are unemployed.

Riyadh education spending

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, has raised its budget allocation to the education sector by 21 per cent this year to SR204bn ($54bn) from SR168bn in 2012.

It is the latest in a series of substantial increases in the education budget, with spending rising from SR108bn in 2008 to SR122bn in 2009, SR137bn in 2010 and SR150bn in 2011.

The sustained long-term rise in education spending has delivered clear results. In 1970, the education sector was allocated 9.8 per cent of the budget and only 15 per cent of Saudis were literate. Now, education receives a quarter of the total budget, and literacy has climbed significantly to 96.5 per cent in 2009.

In relation to the size of its economy, Saudi Arabia is spending double the average for Europe and North America, where education spending is equal to 4-5 per cent of GDP. In the kingdom, the figure is 10 per cent.

The established major universities are receiving hefty allocations: SR9.4bn for Riyadh’s King Saud University; SR5.7bn for King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah; SR3.8bn for Imam Mohammed bin Saud Islamic University in Riyadh; and SR1.3bn for the Dhahran-based King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals. More than SR7bn has been set aside to fund scholarships for Saudi students at institutions abroad. The government is also pouring cash into domestic schools infrastructure. Under the spending plans for 2013, it will invest in building 539 new schools, 1,900 other school projects and the refurbishment of a further 2,000 institutes. Furthermore, the government plans to build 15 new colleges, facilities and campuses at newly-opened universities. 

Some SR4.25bn has been budgeted for the development of three new college hospitals. But the largest allocation, SR13.4bn, goes to Saudi Electronic University. Formally constituted in 2009, the distance e-learning institution employs an American curriculum and teaches in English. Its courses mainly encompass computing, information technology, business and finance and public health. Bahrain is also focusing on information technology and communications infrastructure as it seeks to enhance the effectiveness of its education system, where e-learning is a key component of the national Schools Improvement Project (SIP).

In the UAE, too, the government is developing smart classes, for which every student will be provided with a tablet computer and access to high-speed internet.

Education is one of the top priorities in the 2013 federal budget, but this reveals only part of the picture as the sector falls largely under the responsibility of individual emirates. Some 26 per cent of Dubai’s budget for 2013 is allocated to health, education, housing and social development.

Kuwait education pressures

Kuwait has also traditionally invested heavily in education. It is a regional leader in education for women, and is also noted for spending on vocational, tertiary and special needs programmes. However, the government’s promise of a 25 per cent pay increase for public servants last year inevitably puts pressure on other spending priorities within the overall budget.

In Oman, 10 per cent ($3.38bn) of all planned expenditure, is earmarked for education and training in its 2013 budget. This increased effort aims to address the serious shortage of locals qualified to take up private sector jobs, and the fact that many leave after only a short stay in their positions.

A poor command of English hampers many Omanis’ effectiveness as employees in the private sector. It is also a serious problem for Sultan Qaboos University, where many students fail to complete courses on schedule or find themselves forced to take extra language classes in order to cope with the demands of higher education.

Moreover, in December, a senior adviser to the Research Council of Oman warned of the need for the sultanate to make greater use of technology in higher education and to develop more research activity.

Across the region, budget allocations for education are going up. Governments are acting on the need to educate their restive young populations to grow skills at home and ensure young Arabs are adequately prepared to enter the workforce.

Spending alone, however, is not enough. Budgets and policy must be focused on training youth for the right jobs. Different states have differing approaches, but time will tell which are the most effective.

Key fact

Education accounts for an average 18.6 per cent of state spending in the region

Source: MEED