News & Reports

Swimming in Muddy Population Data

This is one in a package of two articles that looks at the difficulty of getting reliable data about education in the region, and the implications for policy and development. The other article is “The Youth Bulge: Often Mentioned, Frequently Ignored“.

Different institutions have tried to examine the Arab world’s burgeoning demographic challenge. But calculating the impact of that challenge on higher education in the Arab world is no easy task.

Most Arab governments don’t keep accurate statistics, if they tally student enrolment in higher education at all. Researchers told Al -Fanar Media that even high-school enrolments are difficult to obtain.

“Middle Eastern countries have a very short history compared to Europe or North America in gathering, collecting and providing data,” said Markus Speringer, a statistician at the Wittgenstein Centre for Global Human Capital, in Vienna. “Some of those data sets are provided 10 years after the census.” Indeed, Lebanon has not even conducted a census since 1932, due to political sensitivities about sectarian differences.

Calculations on religion and ethnicity provide a good example of how Arab governments treat demographic data, Speringer said. In nation states where Islam is central, information on non-Muslims and non-Arabs is considered sensitive. The Arab region is filled with immigrants, refugees and religious minorities: Armenians, South Asians, Coptic Christians and the recently publicized Yazidis. Governments almost always tally figures on minorities, but usually don’t release that information.

United Nations data on higher education is often inadequate, too, because of radically different educational systems around the world.

“What a country calls secondary education might be not secondary education,” said Samir K.C., a researcher at the center who follows the Nepalese tradition of using an acronym for his last name. “In the U.N. census you are asked, ‘What is your age, sex and level of education completed?’ but they do not ask questions on whether people are still going to the university or what grade they are in.”

The Wittgenstein Centre is an Austria-based collaboration between the World Population Program at the International Institute for Applied System Analysis, the Vienna Institute of Demography and the WU-Vienna Institute of Economics and Business. After Al-Fanar Media talked to demographers at the RAND Corporation in the United States, the United Nations and other institutions, editors concluded the center offered the best figures on the youth bulge that’s facing universities in the Middle East and North Africa.

The rising number (millions) of students who have completed post-secondary education between 2010 and 2035 across select Arab countries and Iran. (Source: Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital)

Center researchers looked at higher education in every Arab country except Djibouti, Libya, Oman and Yemen. Their goal was to compile data that would shed light on how university attendance correlated with job growth, public health, birth rates and other indicators of quality of life.

“Education, especially female education, is a key driver of economic development,” said Speringer. “It is also a major driver of demographic development.”

The center’s first step of harmonizing data on higher education around the world involved comparing information based on national education categories to Unesco’s six levels of educational attainment, a system that’s been in place since 1997.

Educational attainment signifies the highest grade of education completed. Enrollment, on the other hand, describe students who register for university courses. Researchers noted that enrollment is harder to calculate because of a lack of reliable government information.

The center then condensed three of Unesco’s categories into one—combining postsecondary training that led to more schooling, postsecondary vocational training and university coursework for a degree into one category. The resulting survey shows that attainment in the Middle East and North Africa will increase relentlessly and consistently through 2035 as the region’s population increases in general. Now leaders must determine how to satisfy that demand.

“It is necessary to see what kind of education structure exists [in each country] to consider their development over time,” said Speringer. “Population projections are elaborated in order to take political actions in the future.”
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