If progress in education can be compared to a space shot, the Arab states are now in that critical phase where blastoff has been successful but the delicate task of getting into orbit still lies ahead.
In the past 15 years such Arab countries as Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have initiated a remarkable expansion in education. They have put unprecedented numbers of children into school, added facilities so fast that in certain cases they have increased by 400 per cent, and boosted expenditures to nearly 20 per cent of their total state budgets (the complexities of educational financing make it difficult to reach an exact figure).
And despite the political and economic uncertainties of the region even larger expenditures are forthcoming. Aware that the key to space age societies is education, most of the Arab states are already planning for the schools and teachers they will need to achieve a vital goal they have targeted for the 1970's: universal education.
Governments have borne the brunt of the expansion because private education, although it too has grown in the past 15 years, now takes in only between seven and fifteen per cent of total enrollment in the countries mentioned above, except in Lebanon, where there are more pupils in private schools than in state-run schools.
In general these countries have a 12-year system of general education, up to and including high school, divided into three parts: six years of elementary school, three years of preparatory school and three years of secondary school, after which graduating students can go on to universities or higher institutes of learning, or start their working lives. Kuwait differs; it divides the 12-year period into three sections of four years each—elementary, intermediate and secondary.
Most of these countries have compulsory education through elementary school, but Jordan has extended this to the preparatory cycle and Kuwait to the intermediate cycle. State-run schools are free—although some charge nominal prices for books. Coeducation in elementary school is not unusual but most Arab parents are still too conservative to accept this in the remaining six years of schooling, so boys and girls are usually taught separately between the ages of 12 and 18, when most students graduate.
The education of girls in the Arab world has taken tremendous strides in the past 15 years, despite the reluctance of rural parents to send a girl to school when she could be helping in the fields. In urban areas, the opposite is true; a girl cannot augment the family income unless she has an education which allows her to find a job. This is one reason why the percentage of schoolgirls in the cities is much higher than in the countryside. In Egypt, girls make up about 33 per cent of total enrollment all over the country, and the figure for Kuwait, Lebanon and the schools operated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is nearly 45 per cent. Experts estimate that when the number of boys and girls is nearly equal, then the Arab countries will be approaching universality in elementary education.
Curricula in Arab schools are much the same as in schools in other parts of the world, but most courses, including science and mathematics, are given in Arabic. Languages taught are usually English or French or both. It is generally conceded, however, that even more emphasis needs to be placed on foreign languages, for although, many graduates obtain a practical working knowledge of a language, it is only the most gifted students who emerge from secondary school with true fluency. Education officials say that if they manage to overcome the language barrier, Arab secondary school graduates who go on to universities abroad have no great difficulty in following the courses and generally do well.
A brief box-score will show what several key countries have achieved in education below the university level in recent years. Dollar figures refer to the budgets of the ministries of education, which operate and finance all state-run schools, teacher training schools or institutes and vocational training schools. Other figures, however, encompass private schools and refer to academic education only.
EGYPT: (Pop. 33 million, about 70 per cent of all those above age 15 illiterate). In 1964/65, the Ministry of Education spent $161 million, double the figure nine years previously. In 1966/67, there were about 4,300,000 children at school at all levels, compared to about 2,300,000 in 1955/56. Schools in the same period remained close to 9,300 but teachers increased from 72,500 to 122,000.
SYRIA: (Pop. six million, illiteracy about 40 per cent). Expenditure in 1966/67 was 143.8 million compared to $22.2 million six years previously. In 1967/68 there were 955,000 boys and girls at school compared to 559,700 in 1960/61. The government built 1,788 schools in the same period, bringing the total to 5,680, while elementary teachers alone increased from about 15,000 to 20,700 in the same seven years.
LEBANON: (Pop. about two million, illiteracy estimated between 15 and 30 per cent). This tiny country is the only one in the Arab Middle East where private schools' outnumber those run by the state. Nevertheless government expenditures rose from $6.2 million in 1956 to $33.8 million in 1968—an increase of more than 400 per cent in 12 years. Enrollment rose from 238,500 in 1956/57 to 502,900 in 1967/68, schools increased from about 2,100 to more than 2,700 in the same period, and teachers more than tripled, from 7,900 to 26,500.
SAUDI ARABIA: (Pop. estimated six million, close to 90 per cent illiterate). This country was a late starter in the education race. As late as 1953 when the Ministry of Education was established, there was only one secondary school in the entire kingdom. By 1959/60, the education budget was $28.7 million but only eight years later, in 1967/68, it had reached $106 million. In the same eight years, enrollment rose from 101,200 to 271,000, schools from 640 to 1,350 and teachers from 4,600 to 13,500.
JORDAN: (Pop. estimated two million, about 60 per cent illiterate). Because of the upheavals, territorial losses and population shifts caused by the 1967 war, figures for this country cannot be considered conclusive. Ministry of Education figures show that expenditure rose from $226,000 in 1950 to $16.5 million in 1967. In the same 17-year period, enrollment rose from 75,400 to 252,350 and schools from 394 to 1,384 and teachers from less than 150 to more than 5,300. A vital role in expanding Jordanian education is played by UNRWA, which operates elementary and preparatory schools for children of Palestine refugees.
IRAQ: (Pop. eight million, 70 per cent illiterate). Expenditures in the nine years from 1955 to 1964 rose from $28 million to $103 million. Enrollment between 1955/56 and 1967/68 increased from 410,900 to 1,171,400 and by 1967/68 there were 5,460 schools and 52,640 teachers.
KUWAIT: (Pop. 500,000, illiteracy about 40 per cent). This tiny but now rich nation had no schools at all until 1936, when the first one opened and 600 pupils attended. By 1953/54, expenditure was $7.7 million and 12,800 pupils went to 41 schools staffed by 721 teachers. In 1968/69, the respective figures were $76.6 million, 120,550 pupils, 212 schools and 7,317 teachers. Students in Kuwait want for nothing, having free meals, clothing and transport added to free tuition and books.
Not surprisingly, this kind of educational blastoff has brought problems as well as benefits. Enrollment has advanced at such a fast pace that it has outstripped the available resources of the governments concerned which, some educators contend, must do even more just to keep up with population growth and other pressures that will be exerted on their educational systems. Like a chain reaction, the problems start at elementary school level and make themselves felt all the way up to university, and even outside the educational systems themselves. The first obstacle is lack of space. Construction of elementary schools has not kept up with enrollment, and the result has been the introduction of a system of shifts in which more than one school unit uses the same building. In some schools there are as many as three shifts using the same building almost around the clock.
The problem is not helped by the fact that many school buildings are private homes or villas pressed into service as schools. "These conditions produce an environment unsuitable for proper education," says Dr. Matta Akrawi, Chairman of the Department of Education at the American University of Beirut.
At the present rate of growth in elementary education, enrollment is doubling every ten years but construction or renting of new schools has been increasing by only 30 per cent over the same period. Partly because of lack of space, about one million school-age children in Egypt, 400,000 in Iraq and, according to available estimates about 100,000 in Lebanon, cannot get into school. Since the number of pupils is outstripping available facilities, says one educational planner, "the term compulsory education is meaningless. There is simply no place to squeeze everyone in."
The construction of new schools must be accelerated and planned in such a way as to overturn the present situation: too many schools in urban areas and too few in the countryside. In some countries at present, the number of schools in towns, where 30 per cent of the people live, exceeds all those in rural areas, where 70 per cent of the people live.
Another problem that must be solved if the present rate of growth is to be maintained, let alone increased, is the shortage of qualified teachers. At the elementary level teachers are increasing by only 50 per cent every decade compared to double this rate for student enrollment.
All the countries have set up teacher training institutes to meet the need. Egypt has more than 70 teacher training institutes, Syria 20, Lebanon 7, Jordan 9, Saudi Arabia 7 and Iraq 32. But still this is not enough. Dr. Fahim Qubain, in his book Education and Science in the Arab World, points out that most elementary school teachers in the area have had a maximum total of only 13 years of schooling before they meet their first class, and in many cases it is nine years or less. In Jordan, about two thirds of all teachers have only an ordinary secondary school certificate, although the government tries to remedy this by giving them in-service training. Lebanon's seven teacher training institutes graduate about 500 teachers a year—half the minimum needed.
"The average student/teacher ratio at elementary level in the Arab world is about 30-1 but this may be deceptive," says Dr. Akrawi. "For one thing, it is computed on the basis of all teachers, not the qualified ones only. Since it is an average figure, it means that the ratio in some cases may be as high as 60-1 or 70-1 and this is usually in urban areas of high population density."
Kuwait has managed to avoid this. Its student/teacher ratio is 12-1,one of the most favorable in the world, but to achieve this it has had to import most of its teachers from other parts of the Arab world. Saudi Arabia also follows the same practice, about 40 per cent of all teachers being non-Saudis, although at the elementary level Saudis are now beginning to outnumber foreigners.
One of the difficulties in persuading young Arabs to become teachers, even if enough facilities to train them were available, is the generally low pay scale and lack of opportunities for advancement.
These pressures at the bottom of the educational ladder are making themselves felt at the preparatory and secondary school levels, where facilities and adequate numbers of teachers are also lacking. The result is a very severe pruning system. Of all the pupils who start elementary school, about one third drop out along the way. Of those who finish elementary school, some 60 per cent do not go on to secondary school. With the drop-outs in secondary school itself, the result is that something less than 20 per cent of pupils who started the 12-year cycle emerge with a secondary school certificate.
Even so, many specialists agree, this is still too high in view of the available seats at universities. Dr. Habib Kurani, education professor at AUB, estimates that only about 15 per cent of those who graduate from secondary school enter universities. "The remaining 85 per cent usually find themselves with very little or nothing to do. They have a diploma, but they find that government administrations are full of clerks with diplomas. It is usually difficult for them to find the kind of jobs that they think they are ' atitled to, and this breeds discontent."
One answer to this situation is to channel as many elementary school graduates as possible into non-academic fields where they are more needed. Governments have tried to cope with the problem by establishing vocational training schools that produce the technical specialists all the developing Arab countries need in increasingly large numbers. Most have such institutes, not only for technical training, but also for agriculture, commerce, home arts and other areas. Egypt, in fact, stipulates that only 40 per cent of elementary school graduates can go on to academic secondary schools, the remainder thus being more or less forced to go into vocational training schools if they want to continue their education. Even so, vocational training facilities are not enough to meet the potential number of students available, and this is a cause for worry among many planners. "We are educating a generation of young people who will produce a crisis because they will be out of touch with the economic mainstream of their countries. We need people who are suited to the economic realities of their countries," says Dr. Kurani.
One of the difficulties in getting more students into vocational training schools, even if there were enough of them, is the high regard most Arabs have for an academic diploma. In many parts of the Arab world, particularly rural areas where the general level of education is low, the holder of a secondary school diploma commands considerable respect and admiration, even if such a diploma does not suit him for any available jobs. The hope for the future, Dr. Kurani believes, is that with increasing mechanization of agriculture, the use of solar energy and other technical advances, the appeal of an academic diploma will dwindle and more useful citizens will emerge from the specialized schools.
Another major problem is that the increase in the "quantity" of education has produced a decrease in "quality." Dr. Abdel Aziz el-Kousy, director of the Arab League's Regional Training Center for Educational Planners in Beirut, says this is unavoidable when an area witnesses such a sharp rise in the number of school children in so short a time. The "quantity versus quality" argument finds supporters for both sides, but most Arab education experts agree that even with the drawbacks resulting from the boom in education, it must continue and increase until quality catches up.
It is generally conceded that teaching methods in the majority of schools are out of date. "Elementary teaching is non-functional and divorced from the life and environment of the student. It does not encourage his imaginative process," writes Dr. Qubain. Dr. el-Kousy says progress in quality is held back by "a conservative, introspective method of teaching." Teachers are usually satisfied if a pupil can recite a given lesson by heart, regardless of whether he understands it or not. "To teach is to stimulate learning. Education is one with life. But most teaching nowadays is by rote, like taking an empty glass and filling it with water," comments Dr. Kurani. Most ministries of education, for instance, have departments of audio-visual teaching, but these new techniques have penetrated practically nowhere in the field.
Nevertheless, say the specialists, the answer is not to cut down the number of students so as to increase the space and time available for learning, but to go on expanding while at the same time working to improve teachers and build more and better facilities. "I would rather have as many elementary schoolchildren as possible at school to get some kind of education—even if it is not the best—than to have a whole new generation of illiterates," argues Dr. Akrawi. "It is better perhaps to have the bread without the butter than to have nothing at all. After all, we are still developing nations and our education is going through its growing pains. When England and France, for instance, started their education boom towards the end of the last century, they were in the same situation." Even in the United States, the great citadel of public education, a high school diploma was considered an achievement as late as the 1930's.
Already there are encouraging signs on the horizon. Syrian officials claim they will have all the trained teachers the country needs by next year. Jordan has a 10-year plan to make schooling universal by 1980 and to build centralized preparatory and secondary schools that should ease the classroom shortage. Saudi Arabia plans to wipe out the need for foreign Arab teachers at preparatory and secondary levels within five years (thus not only solving its own problem, but freeing large numbers of teachers to return to schools in Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon). With better teacher training, planning, educational research and administration to cope with the needs of the future, there is no reason why, eventually, education in the Arab states should not move smoothly into orbit.
Elias Antar, a frequent contributor to Aramco World, has covered much of the Middle East for the Associated Press.