Economic Research Forum (ERF)

Inequality in higher education: Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia

Attainment of higher education is strikingly unequal in Egypt and Tunisia, and a little less so in Jordan. This column reports research showing that in all three countries, family background is the primary driver of inequality. Particularly in Egypt and Tunisia, public spending on higher education is regressive, with the result that what purports to be a meritocratic and equitable system in reality perpetuates inequality.

In a nutshell

Egypt and Tunisia, which guarantee free public higher education, have the highest inequality of opportunity.

By focusing more of their investments on pre-university education, these countries would ensure that disadvantaged young people have fairer chances to progress, including the potential attainment of higher education.

By reducing inequality early on, countries can reduce inequality in higher education as well.

Countries in the MENA region have made enormous investments in higher education, with most countries providing it for free (Assaad, 2010). Yet while most are moving towards compulsory and universal primary and even secondary education, the opportunity to go to university is available to only a fraction of young people.

Our research indicates that Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia disproportionately provide higher education to those from more advantaged backgrounds (Krafft and Alawode, 2016). Ultimately, these countries are subsidising inequality – not only in access to university, but also in the opportunities for work, income and marriage that are determined by attaining a higher education.

Equal opportunities would only occur if individuals’ attainment of higher education were determined solely by their efforts, not by their backgrounds. Yet background is a substantial driver of inequality in all three countries, with particularly high levels of inequality in Egypt and Tunisia.

Parents’ education in particular is linked to inequality, such that the three countries are subsidising and reinforcing the intergenerational transmission of socio-economic status. Although test scores are supposed to provide access to higher education based on merit, they are themselves affected by background. Furthermore, background affects attainment of higher education even after accounting for test scores, creating a double barrier to higher education for disadvantaged young people.

Free higher education, which is offered in Egypt and Tunisia, is thus a regressive policy that primarily benefits the rich. Jordan, which does not guarantee free higher education, is still subsidising the best off by devoting substantial public funds to higher education. Instead of offering free higher education, Egypt and Tunisia should charge tuition to those who can afford it and offer need-based scholarships, as is done (and ought to be expanded) in Jordan.

Targeted scholarships would help to ensure that students from less advantaged backgrounds receive the aid needed to complete their degree and that all members of society benefit from the higher education system, not only the wealthy. Charging tuition would also provide additional financial resources to the system, allowing for greater investments in earlier stages of education, helping to equalise opportunities to progress through school and potentially go to university.

It is striking that the two countries that guarantee free public higher education – Egypt and Tunisia – have the highest inequality of opportunity. One of the reasons that Jordan may have less inequality of opportunity is that it devotes relatively more public resources to basic education, providing a more equitable path through the system.

While Egypt devotes 32% of its education spending to higher education and Tunisia 27%, the share of education spending allocated for higher education is only 20% in Jordan. The lower share allows relatively more resources to flow to pre-university levels. This funding structure increases the chances that free public education prior to university is adequate to provide later access to university.

Because free public basic education is inadequate to ensure success in contexts such as Egypt, families invest substantially in tutoring (Assaad and Krafft, 2015). The ability to invest in tutoring is one mechanism that contributes to primarily better-off students progressing through the education system and benefiting from free higher education.

To reduce inequality in education and the regressive nature of education investments, all three countries should allocate more of their education budgets towards pre-university education.

But this recommendation runs directly counter to the current policy direction in the region. For example, Egypt’s new constitution mandates that 4% of GDP should be spent on education and 2% on higher education, which means that half of education spending will go to higher education.

This planned resource shift is likely to exacerbate inequality. If, instead, countries were to focus their investments on earlier levels of school, they would ensure that students have fairer chances to progress, including the potential attainment of higher education.

Equalising access to kindergarten and other early educational experiences can also play a critical role in reducing disparities in school-readiness between children from wealthy families and those from poorer families (Krafft, 2015). By reducing inequality early on, countries can reduce inequality in higher education as well.

Further reading

Assaad, Ragui (2010) ‘Equality for All? Egypt’s Free Public Higher Education Policy Breeds Inequality of Opportunity’, ERF Policy Perspective No. 2.

Assaad, Ragui, and Caroline Krafft (2015) ‘Is Free Basic Education in Egypt a Reality or a Myth?’, International Journal of Educational Development 45: 16-30.

Krafft, Caroline (2015) ‘Increasing Educational Attainment in Egypt: The Impact of Early Childhood Care and Education’, Economics of Education Review 46: 127-143.

Krafft, Caroline, and Halimat Alawode (2016) ‘Subsidizing Inequality: Policy and Higher Education in the Middle East and North Africa’, ERF Policy Perspective No. 20.

Most read

Fair competition is needed to empower women economically in the Arab world

The participation rates of women in the labour market in Arab countries are the lowest in the world. This column argues that remedying the under-representation of women in the labour force is a social and economic imperative for the region. There are three dimensions for action to realise the potential of Arab women: amending laws and regulations; instilling fair competition in markets; and promoting the digital economy.

Arab countries are caught in an inequality trap

Conventional wisdom, based mainly on surveyed household income distribution statistics, suggests that inequality is generally low in Arab countries. At the same time, little attention has been devoted to social inequalities, whether in terms of outcomes or opportunities. This column introduces a forthcoming report, which offers a different narrative: based on the largest research project on the subject to date and covering 12 Arab countries, the authors argue that the region is caught in an inequality trap.

Recession without impact: why Lebanese elites delay reform

The survival of Lebanon’s political elites is highly dependent on the wellbeing of the economy. Why then do they delay necessary reform to avoid crisis? This column examines the role of politically connected firms in delaying much-needed economic stabilisation policies.

Competition laws: a key role for economic growth in MENA

Competition policy lacks the attention it deserves in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), a region characterised by monopolies and lack of market contestability. As this column explains, there are many questions about the extent of anti-competitive barriers facing new market entrants in the region. What’s more, MENA’s weak overall performance on competition is likely to be hindering economic growth and the path towards structural transformation.

The Egyptian economy is still not creating good jobs

Growth in Egypt has recovered substantially since the downturn following the global financial crisis and the political instability following the 2011 revolution – but what has happened to jobs? This column reports the results on employment conditions from just released data in the 2018 wave of the Egypt Labor Market Panel Survey.

How Egyptian households cope with shocks: new evidence

Managing risks and reducing vulnerability to economic, social, environmental and health shocks enhances the wellbeing of households and encourages investment in human capital. This column explores the nature of shocks experienced by Egyptian households as well as the coping mechanisms that they use. It also examines the relationship between such risks and job formality and health status.

The future of Egypt’s population: opportunities and challenges

Egypt’s potential labour supply depends on the growth and changing composition of its working-age population. This column reports the latest data on labour supply and fertility rates, concluding that the country has a window of opportunity with reduced demographic pressures to try to address longstanding structural challenges for the labour market.

Egypt’s labour market: facts and prospects

An ERF policy conference on the Egyptian labour market in late October 2019 focused on gender and economic vulnerability. This column summarises the key takeaways from the event.

An appeal for Sudan’s future

Sudan today is on a knife-edge: it can evolve toward peace and democracy – or spiral into instability and violence. As this Project Syndicate column argues, vital and timely international assistance can make the difference between success and failure for the new government.

Domestic demand and competition: a new development paradigm for MENA

A lack of competition in domestic and regional markets is holding back development in the Middle East and North Africa. This column argues that the region and the international community must ensure that barriers to market entry and exit are eliminated, and that independent regulatory bodies at the national and regional levels help to promote domestic demand as the main engine for sustainable and inclusive growth.