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Arab Public-Opinion Survey Finds Widespread Dissatisfaction With Education

Across the Arab region, a majority of people are dissatisfied with their country’s education systems and nearly half believe their country’s education systems are corrupt—for instance, requiring students to pay bribes to win admission to educational institutions.

These findings about public perceptions of education were just released by the Arab Barometer, one of the largest public-opinion research initiatives in the Arab region. Analysts stress that, as is usually the case, perceptions do not always line up perfectly with reality—education may be better or worse than the public believes.

But in general, experts say the results show that Arab public opinion is in line with the criticisms of experts who say that Arab education–a key public service—is frequently characterized by poor quality and an outdated approach that has done little to promote democracy or economic development.

“Most people are frustrated that education does not meet their needs or make them competitive in a globalizing world,” said Michael Robbins, director of the nonpartisan, nonprofit initiative, which is run out of Princeton University.

The Arab Barometer is a research network that has conducted surveys of public opinion across the Arab region since 2006. (See two previous articles on earlier findings from the Arab Barometer: “Arab Citizens Are Disenchanted with Politics” and “Survey Finds Modest Gains in Support for Arab Women’s Rights.”)

The network’s fifth and largest wave of surveys questioned more than 25,000 people in 12 Arab countries between September 2018 and June 2019.

The surveys’ questions dealt, among other things, with governance and political affairs, personal and national economic circumstances, religion, and international relations. Results and analyses have been released gradually over the past several months.

Low Satisfaction Rates

The just-released findings show that across the region, only 42 percent of people say they are satisfied with the education systems in their country. But there are significant differences among countries. Sixty-five percent of respondents in Palestine said they were either very satisfied or satisfied, along with 62 percent in Jordan.

The lowest satisfaction rates were in Morocco and Tunisia (both 29 percent), and Iraq (26 percent).

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Across the region, individuals who were older, less educated, and female reported higher levels of satisfaction with public education systems, compared to individuals who were younger, more educated, and male.

Part of the problem, said Adnan El-Amine, a retired professor of the sociology of education at the Lebanese University, is that public education is typically managed in a political fashion. “Teachers are recruited or promoted according to their loyalty to authority, not on professional criteria.”

The hierarchical nature of employment in schools and universities in turn influences teaching, which many critics have decried as overly based on rote learning, to the absence of questioning and discovery. Those who were surveyed by the Arab Barometer seem to want a more modern approach.

“Most people are frustrated that education does not meet their needs or make them competitive in a globalizing world.”

Michael Robbins  
Director of the Arab Barometer research initiative

The issue was fleshed out in the fourth wave of the Arab Barometer, conducted in 2016-2017, which contained more in-depth questions on education. In one, about three-quarters of respondents agreed with the statement, “A good education system is one that encourages students to think for themselves even when it goes against what the teacher is saying.”

Explaining Contradictions

Social scientists have sought to explain some of the other findings. For example, why, in the most recent results, should Palestinians be more satisfied with their education system than residents of any other country surveyed?

2014 United Nations Development Programme report found that the Palestinian “education system is in disrepair and failing, due largely to effects of the Israeli occupation: insufficient school infrastructure, lack of adequately trained teachers, and a lack of access to schooling in marginalized areas.” Still, Palestinian attitudes toward their education system have not wavered.

“It’s not surprising,” said Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy & Survey Research and a co-founder of the Arab Barometer. “Since they became refugees, education has become their capital, the only way they could get out of refugee camps and get work in the Gulf states and elsewhere.”

“Education has traditionally been a source of pride,” he added. Indeed, the Palestinian population is one of the most literate in the world, with a literacy rate of more than 97 percent, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.

Other results require some digging to better understand. Take, for example, the issue of corruption, which is a widespread problem in the region. Public dissatisfaction with corruption in government has been one of the drivers of protests in Iraq and Lebanon recently. Bahrain, Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen are all in the bottom half of the Corruption Perceptions Index issued by Transparency International, an anti-corruption nongovernmental organization.

The most recent round of the Arab Barometer found that 42 percent of respondents across the Arab region answered “yes” to the question, “Do you need to pay bribes (‘rashwa’) to receive better education services?”

The highest proportion of people agreed to this statement in Lebanon (63 percent), Egypt (60 percent) and Iraq (52 percent). The fewest agreed in Libya (28 percent), Jordan (25 percent) and Kuwait (13 percent).

Robbins, the Arab Barometer head, said the region’s endemic corruption appears to be lower in education than in other public institutions. “But there is a sense that the rich and corrupt can get their way due to their ability to cheat the system.”

He added, “This is not limited to the Middle East; just look at the recent college admissions scandal in the U.S.”

Yet the fact that corruption in education is most widely perceived as a problem in Lebanon compared to other countries surveyed may mask a different reality. Observers say Lebanon suffers from high levels of corruption in general, but this does not appear to be the case in admission to schools and universities, a point made by El-Amine, the retired Lebanese University professor, who is otherwise critical of his country’s education system.

According to Shikaki, of the Palestinian Center, “if you applied to university or school and didn’t get accepted, you immediately feel other people who got in paid bribes.” Another factor that makes people see corruption even where it may not be present, he says, is the need for explanations for their country’s failings.

“People have a hard time understanding why their country is not doing better,” he said. Perceived massive corruption in higher education provides an explanation, whether or not it is true.


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