Reforming Arab education

In Arab schools, the time allotted to religious instruction is far above the global average of 5%. In Saudi Arabia it is 28%, in Yemen 20%, in Sudan 18% and in Oman 17%. This is one of the factors that skew the curriculum, with the result that maths is virtually the only subject where the proportion of teaching time (around 16%) matches the rest of the world.

Comparisons such as these – between the Arab countries and between the Arab region and other parts of the world – are one of the strengths of the Arab Knowledge Report published last month. They help pinpoint areas of deficiency which, hopefully, can be addressed by policymakers.

I wrote an introductory note about the report here a few days ago and promised to take a more detailed look later at three of its key chapters.

The chapter on education runs to more than 40 pages and I won't try to summarise it all. It covers the whole range, from literacy at the most basic level, through to postgraduate studies at universities.

One thing that stands out, though, is that in education there are problems of both quantity and quality. For example, in maths, where by world standards the quantity seems right, there is obviously something wrong with the quality. In a comparative maths test, Arab students from 10 countries performed noticeably worse than the international average.

The key question, of course, is what to do about it. The report says:

The poor quality of education almost across the board in Arab countries and, indeed, the quantitative deficiencies in many of them, reveal that our dream of using education as the avenue to becoming masters of nature and of our fate – the great dream of the Arab Renaissance – remains thwarted. Some of the obstacles have been inherited from the past, but others are rooted in our failure to properly manage our problems in education ...

Better management, wiser allocation of resources and so on can certainly make a difference, but the report doesn't really acknowledge the limitations of this "must try harder" approach. You can't go very far down that road before running into the problem of political choices. Imagine the furore, for instance, if Saudi Arabia tried to cut its religious education quota down to the world average. Not even the king would dare to do that.

Amid all the facts and figures, useful as they are, what I felt the report fails to convey is any real sense of the character of Arab education – of the culture that encourages people to absorb what they are told without asking questions.

I heard some horrifying stories from students and ex-students while researching my recent book. One, who had studied economics at a university in Egypt, told me:

There was an emphasis on making profuse notes when you attended lectures. You tried to get the professor’s [exact] wording because you would be expected to regurgitate that in the exam and the closer you came to how the professor put it, the higher the grade you were likely to get.

A lot of that, he said, is about "prestige and authoritarianism in the sense that professors expect you to act like a disciple – what they say is gospel". He added: "I would often question the professor’s thinking in lectures and exam papers, and that hurt my grades."

A Moroccan told me that at his secondary school students believed they could get higher marks by writing "bismillah" at the start of an essay and decorating it nicely with coloured pens.

These attitudes, far more than resources or good management, are the central problem in Arab education – and ultimately this is a social and political issue. 

In principle, Arab governments are happy to "improve" education if that brings economic benefits further down the line. For the most part, though, they don't want improvements that will produce thoughtful, informed citizens with original or unorthodox ideas. But in an age where economic progress and so much else hangs on free flows of information and thinking outside the box, they can't have it both ways.