Greater student numbers leading to education sector innovation in Jordan

The country boasts impressive levels of educational achievement, including nearly universal literacy and primary school enrolment, as well as high levels of university enrolment by regional standards. However, the sector does face challenges as well. These include what many argue is a mismatch between curricula and the needs of the country’s employers, compounded by a cultural preference for academic over vocational and technical education (VTE). There is also pressure on resources due to the sizeable student population in both schools and universities, a situation significantly exacerbated by the large numbers of refugees that continue to arrive from neighbouring Syria.

Literacy

The kingdom’s literacy rate stood at 98% as of 2012, the latest available data from the World Bank, up from 92% five years earlier and well above the MENA region’s average of 78% in 2010. The low illiteracy rate is a result of nearly universal primary education, as well as a long-standing, government-backed programme to address the issue, based on a network of 479 centres devoted to eliminating illiteracy. A total of 5763 people graduated from the centres in the 2013/14 academic year, almost all of them women. Illiteracy rates have traditionally been higher among the kingdom’s female population, though by 2012 the female literacy rate had caught up with the overall rate.

School System

Jordanian children undertake 10 years of compulsory basic schooling, starting at six years of age, which is followed by an optional two years of secondary school. Pre-school kindergarten attendance, which begins at age four, is also offered but not mandatory. The Ministry of Education (MoE) is responsible for the oversight of pre-university instruction, in addition to operating its own schools. Its 2013 budget was JD866.88m ($1.22bn), representing 11.6% of government spending, highlighting the kingdom’s commitment to advancing its educational system and ensuring a better future for Jordanian generations to come.

There were 6614 schools operating in the kingdom during the 2013/14 academic year, according to MoE data, of which just over half (3495) were primary schools, with the other half split roughly equally between secondary schools (1575) and kindergartens (1544). Of the total, 3694 were operated by the MoE itself, which provides education for free, while 38 were operated by other government bodies, 2708 were private establishments and 174 were under by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA).

A total of 1.85m students were enrolled in the school system during that year, with MoE schools accounting for some 69% of the student body at 1.27m. Another 24% attended private institutions (451,139), while UNRWA schools had 114,925 pupils and 15,751 students were enrolled in other government schools. In terms of educational level, 118,037 students were enrolled in kindergarten, 1.51m in primary school and 215,273 in secondary school. The average number of pupils to a class was 25 during the 2012/13 year, according to data from the Department of Statistics.

Pre-Primary Education

The pre-primary gross enrolment ratio for 2012 was 34.4%, according to World Bank data. In addition to the optional nature of such schooling, the lack of state-run kindergartens also acts to limit enrolment, according to the MoE. All but two of the kindergartens in the country in 2013/14 were run privately – although these include facilities operated by charities. The Ministry of Social Development also runs a network of nurseries in the kingdom.

However, access to pre-school is set to improve, in line with the 2006 National Education Strategy’s call to expand early childhood education. “The government is working on establishing new kindergartens, and providing incentives for private sector firms to establish kindergartens for their employees, especially in poor areas, which is positive as it is well known that children who attend kindergarten have better educational outcomes overall,” said Muhyieddeen Touq, general manager of local education development company Cader.

The National Employment Strategy (NES) 2011-20 also cites evidence that “investing in early childhood education has a higher return than investing in older children or adults”. Donors are actively participating in the programme, with, for example, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) helping to fund the construction of 300 kindergartens under a recent grant to the kingdom.

Basic & Secondary Education

The net enrolment rate for primary-age schoolchildren was 98% in 2013, the latest available data from the Ministry of Education, up from 95% for most of the first decade of the century. “The government has done a very good job in regard to levels of school enrolment, which are among the highest in the Arab region,” said Touq. For secondary enrolment the figure stood at 77.4% in 2013. About 40% of students who sat the secondary school leaving exam (known as the Tawjihi) in summer 2014 received a passing grade, down from 56% a year earlier.

While primary school enrolment levels in particular are high by regional standards, Touq said there remained a great deal of work to be done in other areas of the school system. “The biggest challenge the country is facing is improving the quality of education, and there have been some indications in the last few years that Jordanian students’ levels of attainment are dropping,” he told OBG, citing both local government studies and Jordan’s performance in international comparative rankings such as the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.

“The results have alarmed the government, which is now embarking on reform,” Touq told OBG. He added that while the problem is not unique to Jordan, one of the factors behind it is growing pressure on local school capacity as student numbers rise, without a commensurate rise in teachers – partly as a consequence of the large numbers of Iraqi and Syrian refugees, which has led to many schools running two teaching shifts a day.

Outdated curriculum content and teaching methods are also important issues. The NES, for example, noted that “curriculum and teaching methods still emphasise rote memorisation” and that “critical thinking, teamwork, problem solving and research skills are only integrated into learning in a few elite private schools and pilot programmes”. Touq echoed such criticism. “One of the main problems the educational system is facing is a lack of relevancy to 21st-century skills,” Touq told OBG. “There is a need for more emphasis on critical thinking, creativity, problem solving, language and computer skills. The MoE has started reviewing curricula and textbooks to make them more relevant to today’s students, which is a step in the right direction, but it is not moving fast enough.”

Reform 

As part of efforts to address such problems, in 2010 the authorities launched the $408m second phase of the donor-backed Education Reform for the Knowledge Economy (ERfKE II) programme, which is due to be completed in 2015. The project has five main components: creating an effective school-based development process to equip students for the knowledge economy; improving monitoring and evaluation; boosting teaching and learning quality; promoting early childhood education, special education and vocational education; and developing physical learning environments. Mohammad Amin Awwad, adviser to the president and vice-president for academic affairs at the privately run Philadelphia University, said efforts to improve school education were having a tangible impact. He told OBG, “One can feel that there are changes under way, and hopefully they will make a real difference.”

In addition, a National Committee for Human Resources Development was formed in April 2015 by the government as per King Abdullah II ibn Al Hussein’s directives and is tasked with reforming the educational system to ensure that graduating students acquire the 21st-century skills required. Mutaz Sheikh Salem, president of Philadelphia University, told OBG, “To bridge the skills gap developing in the labour market, there must be more links between academia and business. A constructive dialogue would improve student’s employability.”

According to Professor Mahmoud Al Sheyyab, president of Jordan University of Science and Technology, this is a much-needed shift of emphasis “Jordan’s education system needs a greater number of vocational and technical institutions, as the labour market is saturated with engineers and doctors. There is a mentality embedded in society in which everyone wants to be a doctor or engineer, which is not entirely sustainable.”

Workforce

The education sector employed 189,287 people in 2013, accounting for around 12% of the employed workforce in the kingdom. Women dominate the teaching profession, holding more than two-thirds of all positions in 2013. The sector is the largest employer of women in Jordan, responsible for 41.7% of the female workforce.

Despite the important employment role that the sector plays, the calibre of teachers may require further attention. “How to attract better teachers is a major issue,” said Touq. “Furthermore, a high percentage of new teachers do not have educational training and are not aware of proper teaching methodologies, as the financial resources of the MoE are constrained, and it has not been able to provide the required level of training for all teachers.” However, he added that the government was working to tackle the problem by, for example, stepping up screening of candidates. The MoE is also working with USAID to launch a large-scale teacher training project to provide instruction for candidates, as well as additional training that may be required over the course of teachers’ careers.

Donor Assistance

In addition to support via ERfKE II, international donors are working in other ways to help improve the quality of education in Jordan. For example, in January 2015 USAID signed agreements to provide $365.9m in grants to the kingdom, including $47m for the construction and renovation of government-run schools. This followed a memorandum of understanding signed in September 2014 for the agency to provide the kingdom with $140m to build 300 kindergartens and 50 playgrounds and sports facilities, as well as to modernise 150 schools and expand 120 others. The agency said it has paid for the construction of 27 new schools in the kingdom since 2006 and for the renovation and expansion of numerous others.

The EU’s 2014-20 aid programme to Jordan, worth up to €693m, allocates approximately 30% of funds to employment creation efforts and private sector development. One of the programme’s three key goals in this respect is addressing structural issues in the education system and VTE training. The EU’s Erasmus+ initiative has also launched a range of educational projects in the kingdom.

Universities

The Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MHESR) has responsibility for the tertiary sector. The kingdom is home to 31 universities, of which 10 are public institutions, 19 are private and two are regional universities. The kingdom is also home to 48 community colleges. A total 268,150 students were enrolled in Jordanian universities during the 2012/13 academic year, 249,432 of whom were undergraduates, according to the latest available data from the MHESR. Around 81% of students were enrolled in public universities, which on average are much larger than private schools. For example, the largest state university, the University of Jordan, had 37,980 students in 2012/13, while the largest private institution, Al-Zaytoonah University, had 7870.

The academic criterion for admission to universities is a candidate’s Tawjihi score, though other factors play a role, according to Issa Batarseh, former president of Princess Sumaya University for Technology. While calling for the process to be reformed, he told OBG that this was unlikely to happen soon, and that it would be very difficult.

Private Universities

Private schools face a number of restrictions, including not being allowed to offer courses in some fields, notably medicine. They are permitted to be run on a profit-making basis and most, though not all, are. This has attracted criticism from some quarters. “The problems of private universities have started to become clear in the last three or four years,” Batarseh told OBG, and added that the drive for profit often affects the quality of education delivered. He added that while some private universities provide a good education, there is little quality assurance.

Foreign Students

Around 11% of all undergraduates registered at Jordanian universities in the 2012/13 academic year were from other countries. These students represent a particularly important source of revenue for private institutions, accounting for 21% of the undergraduate segment. The great majority came from neighbouring states, led by Palestine with a total of 7776 undergraduate and graduate students. At the graduate level, Saudi Arabia had the greatest representation with 824 students.

Awwad said a number of factors ensure that the kingdom will remain popular as a destination for foreigner students. He told OBG, “Jordan is attractive for students in the region, as the climate is pleasant and social mores are less restrictive than in Gulf countries, in particular. Furthermore, it currently benefits from good security at a time of turmoil in much of the region.”

Proficiency Exam

As part of government efforts to monitor and improve standards, in January 2015 all university students graduating later in the year were for the first time required to take a national proficiency exam intended to evaluate the quality of education at the institutions at which they were studying. More than half of the kingdom’s universities failed the exam overall, and no institution passed the tests in agriculture, computing and IT, engineering or science.

However, while the results appear disappointing on paper, they do not necessarily depict an accurate picture of the quality of education at such universities. For example, some students told local press that the exams took them by surprise and that they were therefore not properly prepared, while others said they did not take the exams particularly seriously, presumably because the results have no impact on individual students themselves. “There was a lack of student interest in the exams, as well as preparation for them,” said Awwad, although he also pointed to problems in the sector such as overcrowding, especially in public universities.

“The results were very disappointing; however, the exams also did not take local cultural considerations into account,” said Batarseh, citing problems with the translation of exam questions. “Students are not performing as badly as the results suggest. The intention behind the system is good, but there is also a need for better implementation.”

Addressing Overcrowding

Another challenge facing the sector is the large and growing size of the kingdom’s student body. “Some universities are overcrowded, which is putting growing pressure on resources,” Awwad told OBG, pointing to what he said were high student-to-faculty ratios in public universities in particular.

New technologically driven alternative models of education may help to reduce the pressure. In April 2015 the Higher Education Council announced plans to allow Jordanians to take fully online or blended degrees from both domestic universities and accredited foreign institutions. Locally offered online degrees will have to be provided by a group of at least three universities. Awwad said such models represent the future. “In the long term, I believe the kingdom will address the issue of overcrowding through online and blended education,” he told OBG. “There is evidence from across the world that blended education works well as a model.”

Outlook 

“The quality of school education will continue to improve, provided the system can keep up with population growth,” said Awwad. There are plans for improved teacher training and development of accreditation mechanisms, while blended and online education are likely to play a growing role in the tertiary sector in the coming years. The kingdom is also set to see increased emphasis on VTE as part of efforts to tackle unemployment (see analysis), while plans to boost pre-primary education and reform curricula should help to further improve educational outcomes at the school level.

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The Report: Jordan 2015

Health & Education chapter from The Report: Jordan 2015

The Report: Jordan 2015

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