A comparative political economy of education and diversity in North Africa

Hania Sobhy

The Arab uprisings in 2011 brought about massive hopes and ambitions for improving social conditions across the region. While social welfare payments and wage levels in some sectors of the formal economy increased in several countries, there has been less structural change in how these sectors function and how social policy is conceived and implemented. This can especially be seen in relation to the management of the education sector. The 2016 Arab Human Development Report emphasized how Arab societies perform below the world average on educational attainment, achievement and equitable access. However, very little work comparatively analyses these shortcomings or offers useful policy recommendations for remedying them. The access-focused approach to educational indicators promoted by key international organizations obscures issues around quality, equity and diversity. Indicators relating to quality and equity remain largely underdeveloped and therefore very poorly addressed. Even for issues that receive significant local and global political attention like promoting inclusive citizenship (or ‘combatting Islamist extremism’); changes remain limited and in fact often misguided and counterproductive. Political attention is also often directed to issues of youth unemployment in the region—and their subsequent quest for migration to the Global North—but the millions spent on school-to-work initiatives have yielded modest results. Is there a missing link in understanding the low performance of the Arab region? Is it the freedom deficit highlighted in other research? Is it a gender empowerment deficit? Is the problem one of resources, institutional arrangements, political will or simply the authoritarianism in the region, from which only Tunisia and Lebanon have escaped? Is it even fruitful to think of the region as a one unit?

The countries of the region are often lumped together with only token appreciation of the vast differences in resource availability, social policy, ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity and in fact in the ways in which authoritarianism has been practiced and managed by the different monarchical and presidential regimes. The 22 countries of the region have had widely different levels of spending on education, teacher conditions, language policies and levels of privatization. They have had different historical and colonial legacies, different demographic and resource pressures, different constellations of conservative, Islamist, sectarian and secular influences and have differently processed global educational influences and their institutions. Some have been torn by civil war, bloody colonial experiences, regional wars or large influxes of refugees, while others have not.

This project aims to assess the impact of a range of political and institutional factors on social policy across the region as reflected in its pre-university education sectors.  The selected case studies for this first phase of the project are Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. A second phase of the project would focus on Lebanon, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The initial exploratory analysis maps a wide range of socioeconomic factors and political legacies and outlines how they have shaped educational policy in relation to quality and diversity across the different case studies. It addresses the broad institutional legacies of the state bureaucracy, including corporatism, centralization and corruption. It examines how increasing pressures to privatize educational provision across the region have been balanced with the desire to retain control over education as a tool for distributing patronage, for securing the loyalty of the middle classes and for balancing competing ideological tendencies. Apart from analysing a variety of relevant secondary data, extensive qualitative field research is planned with a wide range of education stakeholders in each of the countries. The project will therefore build a rich image of education from below to compliment the analysis of socioeconomic, political and institutional factors. The issues are by no means unique to the Arab region and insights from the project should be informative for future comparative work, especially on similar contexts in the Global South.

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