Literacy rates and school attendance are high in Jordan thanks to a cultural emphasis on education. Nearly half of those old enough to go to university are enrolled in them. Spending on research as a proportion of GDP is also very high by regional standards. Jordan’s universities have a good reputation in the region and a substantial proportion of their students come from other parts of Middle East, especially at private universities. Challenges in the sector include overcrowding in state universities and issues related to politicised appointments and admissions policies.
Primary & Secondary Education
Education in Jordan consists of (optional) pre-school and kindergarten, compulsory “basic” education (which is 10 years in duration and is provided for free in government schools), an optional secondary level of two additional years and higher education. The Ministry of Education (MoE) is responsible for overseeing the kindergarten, basic and secondary sectors, as well as managing its own schools. Its total spending in 2012 stood at JD758.9m ($1.07bn), of which 77.8% went to basic education and 11.1% to secondary education, while most of the remainder went towards administration and vocational education.
MoE figures put the total number of schools in the 2012/13 academic year at 6355, up from 6172 in 2011/12. Of these, 3582 were state schools, 2600 were private (1542, or 59.3% of all private schools, were kindergartens) and 173 were operated by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides services to Palestinian refugees. Of the total number of schools, 1544 were kindergartens (consisting almost entirely of private institutions), 3303 were basic schools (2303 of which were government schools and 828 of which were private, with the remainder belonging to UNRWA) and 1508 were secondary schools (the vast majority of which – 1243 – were government schools).
The total number of school teachers stood at 110,013 in 2012/13, up from 106,403 the previous year. Of them, 76,761 were employed in state schools, 28,823 in private schools and 4429 in UNRWA schools, according to the MoE. There were 1.73m students enrolled the same year (1.18m in government schools, 424,999 in private schools and 112,838 in UNRWA schools). The student-to-teacher ratio stood at 15.57 in MoE schools and 14.75 in private schools.
In 2003 the government, with the support of the World Bank and other donors, launched the $380m Education Reform for the Knowledge Economy (ERfKE) programme, aimed at ensuring that Jordanian children are provided with the necessary skills to participate in a knowledge-based economy during the course of their pre-tertiary education. The project’s first phase, which included modernising curricula and exams, computer training and building new schools, was completed in 2009. The following year saw the launch of a second phase, ERfKE II, which is due to run until the end of 2015, at a cost of $408m. Key aspects of ERfKE II include increasing access to early childhood education, special education and vocational education, as well as improving the design, construction, equipment and maintenance of schools.
Basic educational outcomes in Jordan are good, in particular when compared to similar economies. Up to 93% of children were enrolled in primary school in 2011, the latest year for which such data is available from the World Bank, and the overwhelming majority – 88% – of secondary school-aged children were enrolled in secondary school, despite its optional status. The adult literacy rate stood at 93% in 2011 and 96% in 2012, according to the World Bank, significantly higher than in neighbouring countries such as Iraq (78% in 2011), Syria (84% in 2011) and Saudi Arabia (87% in 2011).
However, educators say that while the quality of teaching in schools is good, further improvements are needed despite the changes introduced by reform programmes such as ERfKE. “Science teaching in particular is good; however, there is still too much of a focus in schools on memorisation and knowledge of facts over innovation, application and the development of analytical skills,” said Issa Batarseh, president of Princess Sumaya University for Technology (PSUT).
Infrastructure Under Pressure
As with other public services such as health, the arrival of large numbers of refugees in the country since 2011 due to the violence in neighbouring Syria, following a previous influx of Iraqis, is straining the school system. At the start of 2014 the number of Syrian children enrolled in schools in the kingdom stood at over 120,000 and was expected to rise to 200,000 by the beginning of 2015 (equivalent to about 10% of the total number of students in Jordan), costing the government JD400m ($565.04m) per year.
Some schools have adopted a two-shift system to cope, separating students into morning and afternoon groups, although the authorities are trying to minimise this given its negative impact on the quality of education. Currently, more than 45,000 Syrian students are enrolled in the two-shift systems.
Donors are providing some support to help the kingdom bear the additional costs as well. For example, in January 2014 the EU agreed to provide €30m of aid to help cover educational costs for refugee children, following a previous donation of €33m for the same purpose. Donors are also supporting the education sector more generally; for example, in addition to aid from the World Bank and other donors for the ERfKE programme, in December 2013 the US Agency for International Development agreed to provide Jordan with $213m over five years to build new schools and expand and rehabilitate existing facilities. However, the level of support still does not meet the increased demands; UNICEF, for example, only received $17.07m by July 2014 for educational services for Syrian refugees out of $42.46m needed.
There are currently 10 public and 19 private universities. According to figures from the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MoHE), there were a total of 268,150 students enrolled in Jordanian universities during the 2012/13 academic year, including 201,495 students in public universities and 66,655 in the private sector. Just over half of all students were female, 249,432 were undergraduates, 13,988 were studying for a master’s degree, 2349 were PhD students and 2381 were seeking a higher diploma.
The largest university in terms of numbers of undergraduates in the 2012/2013 academic year was the University of Jordan in Amman with 37,980 students, followed by Yarmouk University in Irbid with 35,029 students and Al Balqa Applied University in Salt with 33,360 students. All three institutions are public. Newer universities include the state-backed German Jordanian University in Amman, which was established in 2005 as the result of an agreement between the MoHE and Germany’s Federal Ministry of Education and Research, and which offers Germany’s applied sciences model of education.
Although most universities are general institutions providing a wide range of degrees, a number of other specialised universities also exist, including PSUT, which is primarily focused on information and communications technology (ICT) and electronics, and which is owned by the country’s Royal Scientific Society (RSS) and the state-run Jordan University for Science and Technology (JUST).
The most popular degree subject for undergraduates in 2012/13 was commercial and business administration, with 62,799 students enrolled, followed by engineering with 41,164 students, and mathematics and computer sciences with 20,491 students. “Subjects such as engineering are popular amongst applicants as they are high-paying specialisations and jobs are available, with regional construction drives and projects such as the World Cup in Qatar boosting demand for graduates,” said Mohammad Amin Mahmoud Awwad, president of Philadelphia University.
Jordanian universities are popular with students from elsewhere in the region. “Jordan has a rich academic tradition, which is why we see so many students from the region come to study here,” Abdallah Husein Malkawi, president of JUST, told OBG. In the 2012/13 academic year, 28,273 non-Jordanians were enrolled in undergraduate degrees within the country, according to MoHE data, accounting for around 11% of total undergraduates. The largest source of students was Palestine, at 7465, followed by Iraq with 3165, Syria with 2946 and Saudi Arabia with 2826. JUST had the most foreign students by far, 5167, likely as a result of its comparatively strong international ranking (see analysis), followed by the University of Jordan with 2692.
Regional competition for foreign students is set to increase but is unlikely to undermine Jordan’s attractiveness. “Jordan has been well known for the high quality of its universities for a long time,” said Awwad. “There is now increasing competition in the region, with good universities being established in the Gulf, for example. However, students from other Arab countries will continue to come here, as they like the high quality of academic provision, the climate and the less restrictive atmosphere.”
Jordanian society puts a strong emphasis on the importance of education. Batarseh said that this is in part a result of the country’s history and the inflow of refugees in particular. “Palestinians have been driven by a feeling of justice to seek out education and this focus on learning has become part of Jordanian culture as a whole,” he told OBG.
As a result, levels of university enrolment are high; the gross tertiary enrolment ratio in 2012 stood at 4507 per 100,000 people, slightly higher than Jordan’s much wealthier neighbour, Saudi Arabia, and well above levels in Syria and Iraq, according to data from the UNESCO Institute of Statistics. The gross enrolment ratio – that is, the number of students enrolled in university as a proportion of the university-aged population – stood at 44.5%, a level only slightly below Saudi Arabia’s (at 50.9%) and, again, well above many other countries in the region, including some Gulf states (though the issue is complicated by factors such as migration and students studying abroad).
While positive overall, Jordan’s cultural drive to send as many students as possible to university has put pressure on resources. “A large proportion of high school graduates go on to university in Jordan, the downside of which is very high student population sizes at universities,” said Batarseh.
“There is substantial pressure on infrastructure in government institutions in particular,” said Awwad. “Furthermore, education is expensive and Jordan lacks resources,” he told OBG. “Some of the pressure could be alleviated by an increased focus on community colleges and shorter degrees, and the MoHE is currently thinking along those lines; blended education with reduced class time and use of commoditised materials such as standardised textbooks and recorded lectures is also likely to be part of the answer.”
Regulation & Leadership
The university sector is regulated by the 2009 Higher Education and Scientific Research Law, which replaced a law of the same name from 2005. The MoHE is responsible for the supervision of the tertiary sector and the management of state universities. The Higher Education Council, which is presided over by the minister for higher education and scientific research and whose members are mostly academics specialised in education, sets policy in relation to tertiary education and is also responsible for approving new universities, supervising existing ones, approving courses and recommending candidates to serve as university presidents in the state sector, amongst other duties.
Prominent figures in the field complain that politicised appointments are a significant problem in universities. “All of the problems in universities go back to governance. Politics and personal alliances should not decide the appointment of university presidents,” said Batarseh, adding that this has led to inappropriate candidates being selected in some cases.
He said that as a partial result of poor choices, university presidents also often do not focus on the correct issues to develop their institutions. “University presidents need to focus more on developmental issues such as partnerships with industry, fundraising, developing new degrees and so on. At the moment they behave more like vice-rectors and provosts, concentrating on issues such as the academic content of particular programmes.”
Student admissions are another area of contention. “There is a need to ensure that students admitted to university are let in for the right reasons and have the necessary capabilities,” said Isam Zabalawi, president of the Arab Academy for Banking and Financial Sciences, which is headquartered in Amman and provides professional training and education to professionals in finance and other industries throughout the Arab world. “There are currently admissions based on factors such as regional quotas, family ties to university staff and so on, which does not serve the interests of the sector or the country.”
Private institutions are mostly smaller than their state-run counterparts: only three of 10 government universities had fewer pupils enrolled than the largest private university in 2012/13. The largest private institution by student numbers was Al Zaytoonah University in Amman with 7870, followed by Petra University in Petra with 6440 and the Applied Sciences University in Amman with 6345.
Most private universities in Jordan are run on a profit-making basis. “Many universities say they are nonprofit, but they do actually make returns for their investors – which is fine, as long as they do a good job educating their students,” said Awwad. Others disagree, saying the profit motive tends to get in the way of education. “There is too much of a focus on money in private institutions,” said Batarseh, who heads a private university that is run on a non-profit basis by the RSS. “A handful of profit-making universities are doing a good job, but most are not,” he added.
A key complaint of private institutions is that they face more restrictions than their government-supported public counterparts. “Private universities want to be treated more like government universities. For example, public universities are allowed to enrol more students every year, sometimes in excess of their capacity,” Awwad said. “In general, public universities can do as they please, unlike in the private sector.”
Addressing Employers' Needs
As in many countries, graduates in Jordan do not always come out of university fully equipped with the skills sought by employers; however, educators say that the situation is improving. “There is a skills gap between the academic world and the requirements of the professional world,” said Awwad. “The sector is working with corporations and small and medium-sized enterprises to address this gap and to better prepare our students to be tomorrow’s leaders.”
Initiatives to address the problem include an Industry University Linkage Competition, run by the Queen Rania Centre for Entrepreneurship (QRCE), which is based out of PSUT. The competition helps to connect businesses and soon-to-be-graduates by encouraging firms to present industrial problems they are facing to students to see if they can help to solve them.
Another problem for local firms seeking to recruit graduates is that many leave the country in search of better pay abroad, often to Gulf states in particular. “It is difficult to retain human capital in Jordan with better wages being offered abroad,” explained Sadeq A Hamed, the president of Al Ahliyya Amman University. “However, I have every confidence that if we continue to produce the brightest minds in the region, then we will one day emerge as the knowledge-based economy we so desire to be.”
A key component of the MoHE’s declared vision for higher education in Jordan is entrepreneurship. To promote entrepreneurship amongst students, the QRCE is seeking to help universities establish accredited courses on the topic and has agreements in place with a number of local universities, all but one of them state-run institutions, focusing on boosting levels of technology entrepreneurship in general. The centre is also a partner with an incubator and runs boot camps for would-be student entrepreneurs. “Most ideas we get are focused on either ICT or renewable energy,” said Mohammad Obaidat, the executive director of the QRCE. The latter is of particular importance to Jordan given its limited hydrocarbons resources. Some other universities are also attempting to foster entrepreneurialism, though facilities are limited. “JUST launched a real incubator about a year and a half ago. Other universities also claim to have incubators, but they are mostly just spaces for talks,” said Obaidat.
Obaidat told OBG that many university students already have strong entrepreneurial skills. “Large companies and academics tend to underestimate the capabilities of Jordanian students and graduates,” said Obaidat. “In fact, many students are already running their own businesses while they are still at university.” By contrast, Batarseh argued that more needs to be done to increase entrepreneurial spirit amongst university graduates. “They should think about starting their own businesses when they leave university rather than automatically looking for a job; however, lots of people want to be spoon-fed even after their degree. It is partly a cultural problem,” he explained. “People need to accept the risk of failure in business, which is currently something that Jordanian families view very negatively.” However, he said, the situation is nonetheless improving. “There has been a gradual shift in the local mind-set towards an increased focus on entrepreneurialism, innovation and ICT in particular, in part because the king gives such issues a lot of attention. It is not yet very deeply rooted in Jordanian society and the kingdom will not turn into South Korea overnight, but we are getting there.”
Given the country’s young population, university student numbers are likely to rise further, though enrolment in private institutions will depend in part on regional trends, given the high number of foreign students in their intake. “Jordan has gone from a largely agricultural society to one that really focuses on learning and, increasingly, the quality of education,” Batarseh told OBG. “In the next five to 10 years there will be an increasing emphasis on quality rather than just student numbers.”
Efforts to boost the country’s research and development capacity (see analysis) are also likely to see a growing focus on such activities in addition to teaching. As pressure on existing facilities rises, Jordan may increasingly turn to less traditional forms of education, including blended education and e-learning.
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