News & Reports

The Youth Bulge: Often Mentioned, Frequently Ignored

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 “Swimming in Muddy Population Data“.

Cairo University English Professor Randa Abou Bakr often teaches classes of up to 300 students sitting elbow to elbow in a lecture hall.

One-on-one attention is impossible, she says. But, while overcrowding is a problem today, she shudders to think about the future.

Egypt’s population grew by 74 percent between 1980 and 2010 as a baby boom swept the Arab world, according to the United Nations. Birth rates have declined, but they’re still high. Egypt’s population, already the largest in the Arab world at around 80 million, is expected to grow to almost 122 million by 2050, an increase of 52 percent.

The university can’t accommodate the students who’ll be coming out of those future generations, said Abou Bakr.

“The government needs to have a plan to build many more public universities,” she said. “I think we need double the number of public universities that we have now. We don’t hear about plans to do that.”

That situation is replicated across the region: A baby boom that began in the Arab world 30 years ago has created a youth bulge that is posing a major challenge to higher education in the region today. Already strapped for cash and space, university administrators from the Maghreb to the Levant are bracing for spikes in enrollment they’re not sure they can accommodate in the coming years, let alone in the next decade or two.

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)

“This is too much,” said Ali Shams El Din, president of Benha University, an institution of 105,000 students around 30 miles north of Cairo. “There are a lot of problems due to this crowd, the big number of students. There aren’t enough places and not enough staff to teach them.”

The youth bulge has larger consequences, said experts. In a region grappling with the social and political upheavals in the wake of the Arab uprisings, civil wars or refugees fleeing violence and the spread of Islamic militancy, higher education is a tempering influence. Record numbers of college graduates in the Arab world in recent years are already driving economic growth and expanding civil society, though many are also struggling to find jobs in local economies that lack the capacity to absorb them.

Adding to the challenge, it’s hard to know exactly how many students will be seeking university degrees in the coming years. Arab governments don’t always keep good statistics or make them public. Few, if any, institutions appear to be pursuing research to obtain accurate forecasts.

“I haven’t seen any solid data, I certainly haven’t seen plans, strategies or financial resources mobilized for any period of time that say, ‘Here is our expected student load and here are the facilities we will need to meet it,’” said John Waterbury, the former president of the American University of Beirut. “People talk about it a lot, but they don’t want to come to grips with it.”

The best data appears to come from the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital in Austria. The center forecasts that, in Egypt for example, the total number of graduates of higher-education institutions will more than double from 7 million in 2010 to 18.2 million in 2035 in Egypt, for example.

Closer scrutiny of three countries—Egypt, Morocco and Jordan—provides a glimpse into the human dimension of the challenges and opportunities posed by the influx of new students.

In Egypt, educators are coping as best as they can.

“My big concern is the quality of education, the quality of graduates,” said Shams El Din. “The time dedicated to students, the care, the capacity to inform them, teach them, coach them — you can’t do it with the same efficiency when the number is doubled and tripled and so on.”

Taha Farghaly, a junior in the faculty of commerce at Al-Azhar University, in Cairo, describes his experience as a student in space that is already crowded: “Our classrooms look like a public bus,” he said. “Whoever is sitting is not sitting comfortably and there are those who sit on the floor. Others sit next to the professor’s podium so that they can hear him or her. We are around 7,000 students in one big classroom.”

Sara Mohamed, a graduating senior in Alexandria University’s faculty of education, tells of being with 260 students in a basement classroom with space for 80 students. “We are sitting—and standing,” she says, “in a classroom with an old fan blowing dust on us instead of fresh air.”

“We cannot understand a word of what is being said,” she adds. “We cannot even concentrate.”

Moroccan universities face similar overcrowding. The number of total higher-education graduates will triple to more than 3.5 million in 2035 from 1.5 million in 2010, according to the Wittgenstein Centre.

The birth rate in Morocco has dropped in recent years due to government family planning efforts, so education officials expect the student surge to subside eventually. But officials haven’t been investing in facilities for the country’s current higher education needs, so they have still set the stage for overcrowding that could harm a generation or two.

“The overload problem in universities happened because of a lack of classroom construction and a lack of recruitment of teachers,” said Khalid Soulami, a former education official in Al Jadida, a city on the Atlantic Coast.

Jordan, least populous of the three countries, faces an increase in the number of higher-education graduates from around 840,000 in 2010 to almost 3 million in 2035, the Wittgenstein Centre found. But Jordan is more prepared for that 150 percent expansion than Egypt and Morocco.

A relatively stable country that attracts around 29,000 foreign higher-education students annually — almost half as much as a decade ago — Jordan has adopted a so-called “parallel system” that allows students with grades that normally would prohibit admittance to public universities to enroll in classes by paying higher fees.

Critics have argued that the parallel system provides seats to wealthy students but doesn’t solve the overcrowding problem. But others said the funding at least gives universities revenues to cope with growth while replacing government support that has decreased by about 20 percent since the 1990s.

“This system supports the weak budgets of public universities,” said a source at Jordan’s Higher Education Council who asked not to be named. “Public universities enjoy a good level of independence now but they need to find new funding sources.”

Amid concerns about the coming tide of students, private educational institutions are trying to earn a profit by providing the much-needed lecture-hall seats, said Louay Constant, education policy researcher at the RAND Corporation and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School in California.

“To some extent, some of the demand for higher education from students has been accommodated in the private higher education sector,” said Constant. “If there aren’t strict regulations, it is relatively easy for private higher education institutions to be established. That is one way of relieving demand, keeping in mind that not everyone is able to afford these schools.”

It’s unclear if the private sector can cover the growing demand, however. In the Arab world, people generally view higher education as a right, not a good to be purchased. So paying for education is unpopular. The record of private universities operating under spotty government oversight is also mixed. Still, Waterbury thinks private universities are better than overflowing lecture halls in public universities.

“At the end of the day, people with very little resources are willing to pay for their children’s education if that is the only way that they can get it,” said Waterbury.

Students who manage to graduate will face another problem: finding employment. Economists predict employers won’t be able to hire all the young people who will be graduating from overcrowded Arab universities in the next two decades.

“The youth bulge has peaked in the region,” said Peter Glick, an economist and director of the Center for Research and Policy in International Development at the RAND Corporation. “But the ramifications will go on for a long while.”

This story was reported by Aida Alami, Jabeen Bhatti, Janelle Dumalaon, Rasha Faek, Sarah Lynch, Mai Shams El-Din and Luigi Serenelli.

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