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MENA countries started investing in human capital later than other regions; however, once started, they generally spent a relatively high percentage of their GDP on education and rapidly raised the average level of schooling of their populations.  Over the last 40 years, MENA countries  dedicated on average 5 percent of GDP and 20 percent of government expenditures on education, which is more than other developing countries at similar levels of per capita income.  As a result, the region was able to improve equitable access to education at all levels of instruction.  These are impressive achievements, considering that MENA began in the 1960’s with some of the lowest educational indicators in the world.

The countries of the MENA region have however still a long way to go in the context a globalized economy.  An abundant supply of low-wage, unskilled labor is no longer a successful route to rapid growth and national prosperity.  In today’s world, competitiveness depends on firms that employ a well-educated, technically skilled workforce and are capable of adopting new technologies and selling sophisticated goods and services. For a country or a region to be competitive, the education system must be capable of providing two types of services.

First, it must be able to produce the broadest possible human capital base.  If knowledge is increasingly recognized as key to competitiveness, it follows that, the more people have a fundamental level of instruction, the better.

Second, if a country or region’s “knowledge” endowment is to be ever elastic and growing, an individual’s knowledge base must also continuously change and expand.

The notion of lifelong learning has the potential of meeting these objectives, at least from a technical point of view. Lifelong learning involves: (i) a formal education that provides all individuals with opportunities to acquire a fundamental level of instruction, however defined within national contexts; (ii) multiple opportunities for individuals to continually renew their knowledge, skills, and competencies; and (iii) an institutional set-up to quickly and smoothly adapt and respond to the changing educational demands of individuals, firms, local and regional political actors, and the international environment (World Bank, Lifelong learning in the Global Knowledge Economy: Challenges for Developing Countries. A World Bank Report, 2003).

 

Levy and Murnane (in The New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Creating the Next Job Market. Princeton: Princeton University Press and the Russell Sage Foundation, 2004) have identified a range of skill levels, each requiring a more extensive use of cognitive skills and decision-making capacity, which are usually needed in any productive process:

 

  1. Expert thinking: solving problems for which there are no rule-based solutions, e.g., diagnosing the illness of a patient
  2. Complex communication: interacting with humans to acquire information, to explain it, or to persuade others of its implications foraction
  3. Routine cognitive tasks: mental tasks that are well described by logical rules, e.g. maintaining expense reports
  4. Routine manual tasks: physical tasks that can be well described using rules, e.g. counting and packaging pills
  5. Nonroutine manual tasks: physical tasks that cannot be well describedas following a set of “If-Then-Do rules”—instead, they require optical recognition and fine muscle control.

 

According to Autor, Levy, and Murnane (in “The Skill Content of Recent Technological Change: An Empirical Exploration.” Quarterly Journal of Economics: 118 (4):1279–1333, 2003), the need for “expert thinking” and “complex communication” has grown, while the need to conduct more routine tasks has declined in most OECD countries. There are several implications of this trend. First, the configuration of subjects taught in school may need to change: certain academic areas previously reserved for more elite education opportunities must be made available to a wider range of students. Second, the kinds of competencies needed have changed, with a growing emphasis on transversal skills that enable citizens to better adapt to an evolving labor market, society, and polity. With respect to the range of subjects, literacy and numeracy remain the foundation of all education systems: in a knowledge economy, the ability to communicate and analyze requires a solid mastery of these basic skills. However, the fundamental subjects now also include the teaching of science and foreign languages. Indeed, in the past decades, in most MENA countries, while foreign languages are increasingly being taught, the composition of post-compulsory education programs continues to favor humanities and arts over scientific fields of study.

 

Transversal skill are also essential to the youth of the region: problem-solving and communication skills, rather than the ability to perform routine tasks, have become essential for productivity. Pedagogical methods adopted worldwide incorporate inquiry-based learning and adapt teaching to the learning capacity of individual students. Interesting reforms are happening everywhere in the MENA region, like with the private school sector in Dubai where the government showed a commitment towards transparency of the system, quality assurance mechanisms, greater school autonomy, and a commitment to lifelong learning.

 

Source: The World Bank, The Road Not Traveled Education Reform in the Middle East and North Africa, MENA Development report, 2007.

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