Economic Research Forum (ERF)

Low social and political returns to education in the Arab world

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Arab societies urgently need to start looking at how to improve education systems, not just in ways to improve the marketability of individuals but, as importantly, to improve their social and political impact on society. Drawing on evidence from the World Values Survey, this column argues for strengthening a sense of community, beefing up values of civic engagement, inculcating democratic principles, supporting gender equality and promoting social tolerance.

In a nutshell

The social and political returns to education are much lower in Arab countries than in the rest of the world.

Educated Arabs are much less emancipated by their education on political and social values compared with their global peers.

Unless policy-makers start focusing on reforming the type of education that Arab youth receive, it will remain difficult to foster more open societies.

Policy discussion in the Arab world has rarely focused on the social and political returns to education, areas that are of keen interest in more democratic countries. This is unfortunate: the evidence uncovered in my research is that the social and political returns to education are in fact much lower in Arab countries than in the rest of the world.

In other words, educated Arabs are much less emancipated by their education on political and social values compared with their global peers. This means that unless policy-makers and civil society groups start focusing on reforming the type of education that Arab youth receive, it will remain difficult to foster more open societies.

Measuring people’s values

My research makes use of unique data collected by the World Values Survey, a global opinion poll that gathers representative measures of a broad range of political and social values in a comparative context. Data collected between 2011 and 2013 include information for the first time on 12 Arab countries (in addition to 75 non-Arab countries): Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Palestine, Qatar, Tunisia and Yemen.

The data make it possible to examine the effect of education on five important values that can be measured at the individual level: preference for democracy over autocracy; the extent of engagement in civic action; the extent of respect for authority; support for the patriarchal system; and the extent of support for religious conservatism.

My empirical work reveals that when comparing the ‘average’ values in the Arab world with those of the rest of the world, the ‘average Arab’ experiences a deficit relative to the average global individual on each of these five values. The average Arab has a lower preference for democracy (with a gap of 11%), is less active civically (a gap of 8%), respects authority more (by 11%), values the patriarchal system more (by a whopping 30%) and is more religiously conservative (by 18%).

But we can also look more closely at the values of different types of Arabs, based, for example, on age, education and religiosity. Here, the data reveal that not every Arab experiences similar deficits on the five values. The key question has less to do with whether more educated Arabs are more ‘emancipated’ socially than uneducated Arabs, as they should be, but whether the gain in emancipation conferred by education is as large among Arabs as in the rest of the world.

Taking ‘emancipation’ to mean a higher preference for democracy, more civic action and a lower preference for patriarchy, authority and social conservatism, my analysis of the data reveals that while educated Arabs are more emancipated than uneducated Arabs, they are less emancipated than their global peers.

Indeed, educated Arabs experience the largest emancipation gap relative to educated global citizens. Instead of university education allowing Arab youth to catch up with their global counterparts, it actually increases the distance in their values.

What explains the emancipation gap of educated Arabs?

There is convincing research evidence that cultures differ in the extent to which they favour individualism versus collectivism, with Arab culture about mid-way between Anglo-Saxon individualism and Asian collectivism. But it is unlikely that the emancipation gap of educated Arabs compared with their global peers can be attributable to the effects of local culture.

After all, it seems more likely that when local culture fosters conservative values, this would occur among the poor and uneducated who tend to be more influenced by local culture than by ideas from the rest of the world. Conversely, under normal circumstances, the educated are likely to be more influenced by global than by local culture. Thus, to explain their more conservative values compared with similarly educated global individuals, one is led to point a finger at the type of education that Arabs receive.

Another possibility is that it is largely more conservative individuals that get schooled, especially at the university level. This must have happened in the part when education was reserved to the rich. But mass schooling campaigns in the 1960s and 1970s, and the fast expansion of universities across the Arab world more recently, suggest that this type of adverse selection is no longer a possible explanation of the relative conservatism of students in the region.

Since education emancipates in the world on average, but fosters social and political conservatism in the Arab region, it is tempting to think that this happens by design – the result of a deliberate policy of using education in the Arab world as a tool of indoctrination, with the goal of consolidating autocracy. Indoctrination policies in education can be seen as an effort to use schooling to change individual preferences, in particular by fostering the values of political quietism and support for the status quo.

A review of the pedagogical literature on the Arab world reveals many indications of indoctrination at work – rote learning, a lack of interest in analytical capabilities, an exaggerated focus on religious values, the discouragement of self-expressive traits in favour of conformism and a lack of involvement by students in community affairs – all methods geared to inculcate values of obedience and lack of questioning authority.

Arab regimes had the will and the capacity to engage in such deep social engineering. Starting with the mass education movements of the 1960s, meritocratic education systems were increasingly turned into tools of the social re-engineering of society.

In the early days of independence, this engineering was in the service of a top-down version of nationalism, revolution and development. But over time, and as state-led modernisation efforts failed and governance became increasingly more autocratic, education policies and institutions were increasingly moulded towards more conservative ideals, the goals of which became narrower and increasingly less socially emancipative.

The policy implications are clear. Arab societies urgently need to start looking at how to improve education systems, not just in ways to improve the marketability of individuals, but also to improve their social and political impact on society. These include strengthening a sense of community, beefing up values of civic engagement, inculcating democratic principles, supporting gender equality and promoting social tolerance.

Further reading

Al-Issis, Mohamad, and Ishac Diwan (2016) ‘Individual Preferences for Democracy In the Arab World – Explaining the Gap’, ERF Working Paper No. 981.

Diwan, Ishac (2016) ‘Low Social and Political Returns to Education in the Arab World’, ERF Policy Brief No. 17.

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