Jordan: Training up

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On February 27, when outlining his government’s proposed plan of action, Prime Minister Marouf Bakhit told parliament that he was firmly committed to extending financial support to the nation’s universities to overcome any funding shortfalls and to continue to expand their activities. Directing more energy and money towards courses that meet the needs of the economy will help give Jordan’s education system a sharper focus and provide students with the skills required to find employment after graduation.

Jordan’s education system can point to a number of notable achievements, including reducing the adult illiteracy rate below 7%, one of the lowest levels in the Arab world. The country also has one of the highest enrollment and graduation rates at the primary and secondary school grades in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

However, like many countries around the world, Jordan has at times struggled to match the employment needs and aspirations of its university graduates with vacancies and career paths within the national economy. This in turn has seen some of Jordan’s best and brightest seek employment opportunities abroad.

One of the central challenges for Bakhit’s administration and the education system as a whole is to bridge the gaps between academia and the economy. The prime minister said that the entire education system would receive due attention and care from the incoming administration, which was in keeping with the instructions given to the premier by King Abdullah when he designated Bakhit as the head of the new government.

In King Abdullah’s letter appointing Bakhit, issued on February 1, the government was reminded of the importance of educational reform, and the prime minister was tasked with developing curricula, improving the school environment and addressing teachers’ needs. The letter also contained a call for a comprehensive review of the university and higher education management systems to ensure that universities teach creative thinking and foster the values of openness and pluralism.

This message was underscored by King Abdullah in a mid-February visit to the Hashemite University, located in Zarqa, north-east of the capital. During a meeting with senior university officials, the King said it was vital that institutes of higher learning work to equip students with the skills and knowledge required for them to compete in the labour market and contribute to the process of national development.

This increased focus on education is to be given added impetus via the introduction of a new programme. On February 27 Wajih Oweis, Jordan’s minister of higher education and scientific research, said the government was in the process of drafting new legislation that would pave the way for the establishment of polytechnic schools at public universities.

This initiative aims to reduce the burden on overcrowded bachelor’s degree programmes, easing demand on some faculties by half, while providing the local labour market with technical specialisations, Oweis told a conference in Amman.

“The infrastructure is already there. All we need is trainers, and we will have discussions with Canadian, German, Swiss and American experts to attract trainers,” he said.

On March 6, the government tabled a revised budget for 2011, having responded to a request by parliamentary deputies to withdraw the earlier version, which was drafted last October. While there were only minor changes to the total projected spending – with this part of ongoing efforts to rein in the state deficit – there has been a shifting of funding allocations and priorities, with an increased focus on projects that will create employment, especially in less affluent regions.

Jordan has long worked towards reshaping its economy away from a dependency on primary production, industry and services to one based on knowledge, value-added skills and technology. The education system has been charged with helping to meet this target, though so far it is a work in progress. The long-term goal is for Jordan’s economy to have strong financial, computing, research and development and technology sectors, industries that not only generate revenue but also provide employment and meaningful remuneration for trained professionals.

Though this is government policy, there is only so much the state can do in paving the way for a knowledge-based economy, particularly given the demands being made on the budget during a time of fiscal retrenchment. There is, therefore, an increasing need for the private sector to support the initiative. Additional funding and assistance for public universities, along with a sharper, employment-orientated focus for higher education, will help provide the skills base for the future Jordanian economy, but further investments will be needed so that the products of the education system can be best utilised by society.

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