News & Reports

Arab Adult Education Is Not Accessible for Many

The Arab region has made progress in adult education efforts in terms of policy development, increasing women’s participation and improving participation rates overall, a new international report reveals.

But despite those gains, participation in educational programs for adults age 15 and over remains low, according to the fourth “Global Report on Adult Learning and Education,” from UNESCO’s Institute for Lifelong Learning. Of the18 Arab countries represented in the report, half of those with actual figures reported participation rates at or below 5 percent.

On the plus side, the report placed the Arab region second only to sub-Saharan Africa in the proportion of countries reporting improvements in adult learning efforts.

“The achieved progress indicates the awareness of the region’s countries of the importance of adult education and learning, and of providing people with skills and knowledge as a tool to achieve social and economic development,” said Samah Shalaby, a monitoring and evaluation specialist with the UNESCO institute.

That’s an important step toward achieving the goals described in the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, she said.

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Nevertheless, Shalaby believes that more support for adult education is needed, especially in light of the challenges facing adult education in the region, such as poor funding, poor program quality, and low literacy rates.

“Funding for adult learning programs should be considered a long-term investment, not just a short-need burden,” she said, noting that adult education programs can play a major role in unlocking the potential of youth and adults in developing Arab societies. “However, this requires renewing development concepts, implementing policies that suit learners’ needs, and increasing the budget.”

The illiteracy rate in the region was estimated at 21 percent in 2018, according to statistics from the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization—higher than the global average of 13.6 percent.

Men sit for an adult literacy test in Assiut Governorate, in southern Egypt. Low literacy rates are a challenge for adult learning efforts in many Arab countries (Photo: General Authority for Literacy and Adult Education).
Men sit for an adult literacy test in Assiut Governorate, in southern Egypt. Low literacy rates are a challenge for adult learning efforts in many Arab countries (Photo: General Authority for Literacy and Adult Education).

Improving Access for Women

The report highlights efforts in several Arab countries to improve access for women to adult learning programs. Djibouti, Morocco and Saudi Arabia were among countries that gave examples of notable progress in this area. Djibouti has opened new learning centers especially for women, and Morocco is prioritizing women’s literacy programs that focus on developing socio-economic skills.

Saudi Arabia launched Estidama, a Lifelong Learning Initiative, to support and empower both men and women between the ages of 15 and 50 outside the formal education system, providing them with skills training that would help them obtain employment opportunities.

Morocco is also taking steps to improve the country’s literacy rate. Regional councils are funding territorial literacy programs as part of their development plans, and the central government has pledged to support them.

The report also mentions innovative funding efforts in some Arab states, including Egypt, where many adult learning and education activities are supported through the cooperation of nongovernmental organizations, civil society organizations and telecommunications companies.

On the other hand, many social groups lack sufficient opportunities to participate in adult education programs, according to the report. They include adults with disabilities, the elderly, refugees, migrants, minority groups and other disadvantaged people.

“The report is important, but how true are the figures? This is a legitimate and important question.”

Muhammad Saad  
An adult education expert with the Egyptian National Research Center

Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO’s director-general, called on “all governments and the international community to join our efforts and take action to ensure that no one—no matter who they are, where they live or what challenges they face—is left behind where the universal right to education is concerned.”

“By ensuring that donor countries respect their aid obligations to developing countries, we can make adult learning and education a key lever in empowering and enabling adults, as learners, workers, parents, and active citizens,” she added in a prepared statement.

Progress Toward Goals for 2030

The report, prepared by UNESCO’s Institute for Lifelong Learning every three years, monitors how well UNESCO member states carry out their international obligations regarding adult education and is based on survey responses provided by 159 countries.

Muhammad Saad, an expert in adult education affairs at the Egyptian National Research Center, believes the report is valuable for the detailed information it provides about Arab countries’ adult education efforts, but notes that the data may be marred. “The report is important, but how true are the figures? This is a legitimate and important question,” he said.

The report presents six recommendations regarding adult learning as a key contributor toward achieving the education-related sustainable development goals for 2030. Those recommendations are as follows:

  • Improve the data, especially for low-income countries and marginalized or vulnerable groups, such as migrants and refugees.
  • Increase investment by governments, employers, and individuals in adult learning and education.
  • Donor countries should fulfill their obligations to help developing countries and rebalance the funding they allocate to education to support adult and child education.
  • Conduct more research on good practices, especially with regard to vulnerable and excluded groups.
  • Recognize the social, civil and economic benefits of investing in adult learning and education.
  • Adopt an integrated, inter-sectoral and inter-ministerial management approach to enable member states to achieve the greatest possible benefits from adult education, while allocating resources accordingly.


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