Jordan works to improve education for both its citizens and Syrian refugees

The education sector has been one of the cornerstones of Jordan’s development and the country has spent many years pursuing reforms to prepare the foundations of a knowledge economy. With a diverse mixture of state and private providers offering teaching from kindergarten through to higher education, the kingdom also has a number of initiatives to promote research and entrepreneurship.

However, Jordan’s education system has been put under a great deal of pressure as a result of the Syrian refugee crisis, with many schools adopting emergency measures, such as teaching in double shifts, to accommodate an influx of new pupils.


Two separate government ministries oversee Jordan’s schools and universities, with the Ministry of Education (MoE) responsible for kindergartens, schools and vocational training centres, and the tertiary sector administered by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MHESR). Education is compulsory for children aged six to 16 – this is referred to as basic education in the Jordanian system.


According to the most recent data published by the Department of Statistics (DoS) in its “Yearbook 2014”, there were 3502 basic schools in Jordan, 2398 of which were run by the MoE, with other government departments responsible for three other basic schools. The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) runs 173 basic schools, and by the end of the 2013/14 academic year there were 928 private basic schools in Jordan.

The private sector runs all but two of the country’s 1545 kindergartens. All kindergartens, including the two run by the MoE, are co-ed. According to the DoS, the two years of secondary education offered post-16 years of age are classified as either comprehensive, vocational or academic. At the end of the 2013/14 academic year there were 1358 academic secondary schools, 23 vocational secondary schools and 186 comprehensives. The private sector runs 233 academic secondary schools, two vocational secondary schools and two academic secondary schools.

UNRWA runs one secondary school, which is a boys-only vocational institution. The 20 MoE vocational schools are also only open to boys. Girls wishing to pursue a vocational education have the option of attending the country’s only co-ed private vocational school. There are also a number of international schools in the private sector offering alternative curriculums. Students wishing to enter a university in Jordan must pass the Tawjihi secondary school exam.

Massa Dalgamoni, managing director of Thaqafaty, an educational investment group that works with primary schools, says staff retention is an issue: “Educational institutions are constantly losing staff they’ve invested in training up to rival institutions, which leaves them wondering how they can retain faculty”.

According to the DoS, at the end of the 2013/14 academic year there were 1.85m children in Jordanian schools, with 1.27m (68.6%) at MoE schools, 451,139 (24.4%) in private schools, 114,925 (6.2%) in UNRWA schools and 15,751 (0.85%) in state schools run by other ministries. The language of instruction is Arabic at all state schools, although pupils at academic high schools are required to study a foreign language.

According to the DoS’s 2015 population census, Jordan has the lowest illiteracy rate (9.1%) in the Arab world and 95% of Jordanian children between the ages of six and 15 are enrolled in basic education. The census, which was completed in December 2015, showed that seven out of 10 Syrian children in that age range attended school.


The DoS census also showed that in December 2015 three out of 10 Jordanian men and four out of 10 Jordanian women aged 19-23 were enrolled in universities. Of the Syrian population in the same age group residing in Jordan, 13.3% were attending university courses. The MHESR collates data for the 28 centres of higher education in Jordan, including both private institutions and state-funded universities. According to the DoS, at the end of the 2013/14 academic year, 277,088 undergraduate students were enrolled, with females making up 52.4% of the student body. State universities were teaching 205,575 undergraduates, while 71,513 were enrolled at private universities. In addition, there were 17,866 postgraduate students studying at 10 state-funded universities, 75% of whom were working towards master’s degrees, with 10% studying for diplomas in higher education and 15% reading for a doctorate.

According to the DoS, in the 2013/14 academic year the most popular field for undergraduate degrees was business and commerce, with 65,777 students enrolled, 40.5% of them in private universities. Indeed, specifically in the private segment business degrees were also the most popular courses, with 37.3% of fee-paying undergraduates enrolled in commerce programmes. The most popular subjects at state universities were commerce, with 39,137 students, followed by engineering (39,043), humanities and religion (25,229), and education (17,558). Medicine, dentistry and veterinary sciences are only offered at state universities, and had 7831, 2344 and 397 undergraduates enrolled, respectively.

According to Omar Al Jarrah, president of Jordan University of Science and Technology, financing is one of the main challenges in tertiary education. “The government is not sponsoring universities to the same degree as it did in the past,” he told OBG. “Although the number of students has increased considerably since 1998, the amount given to the universities has not increased accordingly. As a result, spending per student has been reduced and the quality of education inevitably impacted,” Al Jarrah said.

Underspending on universities means many of the country’s best academics look for tenure elsewhere. “Salaries for faculty members are low in Jordan and the most qualified professors prefer to teach abroad where the pay is higher,” Munir Dababneh, president of the American University of Madaba, told OBG.

Employment Prospects

According to the DoS, at the end of the 2013/14 academic year 52,371 people graduated from undergraduate programmes in Jordan, 28,874 of them women and 23,497 men. Although some were moving on to further study, others were entering the job market for the first time and facing a challenging graduate employment market.

In the first quarter of 2016 the national unemployment rate in Jordan reached 14.6%, according to the DoS, which amounted to an increase of 1.6 percentage points over the same period in 2015 and the highest quarterly unemployment rate recorded since 2005, when the annual unemployment rate was 14.8%. The rate for males in the first quarter of 2016 was 12.7%, while for women it was 23.7%.

The rates and the discrepancy between men and women were higher when the figures for graduates were recorded. The unemployment rate for male graduates in the first quarter of 2016 was 22.2%, while for female graduates it was much higher at 76.7%. However, a high proportion of the women who are employed in Jordan are in positions of authority, with 62.4% described as professionals, and 10.8% being technicians and associate professionals.

In addition, the DoS noted that 41.2% of employed women were working in education and 14.9% were in the health or social work sectors. In comparison, 61.4% of employed males had less than secondary educational qualifications, and only 19.7% of the male workforce had bachelor’s degrees or a higher qualification, compared to 63.2% of women. The DoS data also showed that 87.5% of the Jordanian workforce were paid employees – 85.8% of working men and 96.7% of women in the workplace.

Enterprise Opportunities 

There are a number of programmes and organisations working to foster young entrepreneurs in Jordan, and to encourage more young graduates to become job creators rather than employees. The Queen Rania Centre for Entrepreneurship (QRCE) was founded in 2004 as a non-profit organisation tasked with developing technology businesses by creating an ecosystem in which universities, entrepreneurs and professionals from different sectors can connect and synergise, developing ideas through cooperation. The QRCE is part of Princess Sumaya University for Technology (PSUT) and acts as the national centre of excellence for entrepreneurship by focusing on networking, recognition and awareness, capacity building, and funding.

Abdelraheem Abual Basal, executive director of the QRCE, is a Jordanian academic with many years of experience in the sector in the US, and he believes technology start-up centres all over the world face similar challenges as they try to replicate the US model. Abual Basal told OBG, “The concept is that in university institutions there can be a new focus on entrepreneurship and that in developing countries there are some stages you can leapfrog, but other stages that you have to go through. Here, there are some parts of the puzzle that are missing, and so we are trying to promote entrepreneurship and innovation in schools and universities to change the way people think.”

Centres For Cooperation

The Queen Rania National Entrepreneurship Competition is an annual contest for technology entrepreneurs. In 2016 42 teams entered the competition and six won prizes after their business plans were judged by experts from MIT, Cambridge University, King Fahad University for Petroleum and Minerals, Compubase and PSUT. A new venture laboratory is also being developed on the PSUT campus which will serve as a focal point for new activities. Abual Basal told OBG, “The important thing is to bring people together – academic researchers, students and industry – to understand market needs. Sometimes you may have someone with a good science background at a university, but with very little understanding of market needs. We are hoping to connect people to bridge this gap.”

In June 2015 the engineering department at Yarmouk University (YU), which has around 40,000 students studying in undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, announced that it is working in partnership with telecoms provider Orange Jordan to run the operator’s technology incubators at YU’s Innovation Lab. Under the agreement Orange Jordan is providing financial support in the development of equipment, licences, patents and platforms, while also providing training for YU engineering students hoping to develop multi-platform applications.

The university hopes the lab will help to cultivate an entrepreneurial and creative environment while giving students the necessary skills to work in the ICT field. For its part, Orange Jordan hopes that by providing training it will help bridge the gap between universities and the business world while also fostering more academic research in technology.

In addition, in mid-2014 King Hussein Business Park began an initiative to launch the Zain Innovation Campus, which will be a platform that focuses on the Corporate Entrepreneurship Responsibility Programme. Covering 630 sq metres, the campus will provide an environment for start-ups to develop, and will include facilities for teleconferencing with the Silicon Valley-based 500 Startups, which is the largest business incubator in the world.

Research Culture

Another challenge facing Jordan’s universities is the growth and development of its research culture. According to the DoS, at the end of the 2013/14 academic year there were 2346 PhD students enrolled at Jordan’s three state universities – Jordan University, YU and Mutah University. Out of the total number of PhD students, 838 were studying education, 812 humanities and religion, and 191 social and behavioural sciences. There were also 88 studying natural sciences, 55 taking maths and computer science, and 53 engaged in research on agriculture. None of the universities had doctoral students studying engineering and there were no candidates for PhDs in medicine in the 2013/14 academic year. Out of Jordan’s 8823 university teachers, 7033 held PhDs at the end of the 2013/14 academic year, according to the DoS. Abdallah Al Zoubi, vice-president of PSUT, told OBG, “Researchers tend to work as individuals, which can put universities in an awkward position.”

Al Zoubi believes more could be done to increase the importance of ongoing research projects so that individuals and research teams are recognised and rewarded by Jordanian universities. Assistant professors are expected to work towards a PhD in order to receive a promotion to associate professorships, but beyond that career stage research activity tends to be the individual academic’s responsibility. “I think we carry a great responsibility on our shoulders to be more focused on research in science and technology, because this is vital if we are to find solutions to many of the problems we face today,” Al Zoubi told OBG. He also explained that Jordanian universities are working to develop partnerships and research collaborations with other universities around the world, either in the West or, more recently, in countries like China and India, where research output is growing rapidly.


Schools in Jordan are also focusing on improvements in technology as part of the country’s broader economic development strategy. UNESCO has worked with the MoE, and most recently has supported the government’s Second Education Reform for the Knowledge Economy project. UNESCO is providing technical assistance to roll out, manage and develop the country’s Education Management Information System (EMIS), which is being funded by the EU. Among other benefits, EMIS allows schools to track and record the number of Syrian refugee children being taught in Jordanian schools. Using a train-the-trainers approach, 12 master trainers produced a core team, who in turn trained 568 field trainers who will teach 13,600 educators in using EMIS. It is hoped that the data gathered using EMIS will enable Jordan to develop more effective strategies for education.

The EU and UNESCO are also partnering with the Queen Rania Teacher Academy in providing professional development for the country’s teachers, with a focus on psycho-social issues in the classroom, such as dealing with large groups of children, promoting inclusion among pupils and detecting early signs of behavioural issues. The programme has been delivered using a technologically supported blended approach to teaching training, which allows participants to combine face-to-face sessions with guided online learning materials. Furthermore, in 2017 the country will host the World Science Forum, organised by UNESCO. The conference will be a global forum for more than 400 scientists, policymakers, non-governmental organisations and education institutions, among others.

Integrated Network

In May 2016 a national project was launched to link 3000 of Jordan’s state schools and the MoE on an integrated IT network. The Umniah project is the result of an agreement between the MoE and the Special Communications Commission. The network will be operated on a multiprotocol label-switching basis, directing data between network nodes using short-path labels, rather than long network addresses at speeds of between 15 and 50 MB per second, compared to the existing 2-MB system. It will be used to support greater use of technology in teaching and will also facilitate communications between schools, students, their families and the MoE. The five-year project will benefit 1.5m students and 80,000 teachers in state schools.

Online Learning

Government departments have also been working with commercial entities and open source software providers to enhance online learning in schools and universities. The Queen Rania Foundation (QRF) has also developed a non-profit, pan-Arab massive open online course for schools and universities that is known as Edraak, which is working with the MoE to develop online materials based on Jordan’s school curriculum, as well as broadcasting free video lectures in Arabic by the country’s leading academics.

In addition to this initiative, the Jordan Universities Network (JUN et) launched the Jordan Open Course-ware Platform for public universities in partnership with Microsoft Jordan and in collaboration with Microsoft Research India. The platform is hosted by JUN et on its Microsoft Azure cloud, and aims to help students access learning tools and materials more easily.

Brain Drain

Another challenge facing the Jordanian economy is the retention of some of its most highly qualified citizens through employment within the kingdom. In an April 2016 editorial, The Jordan Times reported that the Central Bank of Jordan estimates that the country receives $1.85bn a year in remittances from citizens living overseas. Their absence can make it difficult for some professions to recruit highly qualified staff. In the health care sector some specialist doctors can earn three times their Jordanian salary by moving to GCC countries to practice, according to Abdel Razzaq Shafei, director of the Ministry of Health’s Health Economy Directorate. He told OBG, “As a result, we suffer from some shortages in areas such as neurosurgery and cardiovascular surgery. We cannot compete with rich Gulf countries.”

The tourism industry is another area experiencing a shortage of local, trained staff. Rida Hashem, general manager of the Jordan Hotel Association, told OBG, “We are suffering from a shortage of trained staff, because they leave to work outside of Jordan where they can earn more money. We train them, but then they receive job offers abroad or in other sectors.”

Another major issue contributing to brain drain may in fact be the desire of young Jordanians to attain university degrees and then get a position commensurate with their training. The local economy struggles to find positions for the sheer number of Jordanian university graduates. Speaking at a seminar on employability and the local market in Amman in March 2016, Omar Razzaz, chairman of the Jordan Strategy Forum, said that while around 66% of workers in the country had a high school degree or less, guest workers occupied some 500,000 job opportunities between 2003 and 2008, as Jordanians are often focused on obtaining a university degree and working in the field they studied in. Speaking at the same seminar, Jumana Ghneimat, editor-in-chief of Arabic-language daily Al Ghad, said the education system does not offer enough vocational programmes at universities, which can pair the desire for a university degree with the market’s need for practical, technical skills.

A number of initiatives have been established to address Jordan’s brain drain. is an international network launched in 2014 to counteract the brain drain by maintaining ties between the country’s professional diaspora and its homeland. Jordanian Scientists and Technologists Abroad has a similar mandate, and encourages Jordanians abroad to work for Jordan, whether physically or virtually. Jordan was also involved in the MedGeneration project, which ran from December 2013 to June 2016 under the principle of “mobilising diasporas” for economic development. Among its main legacies was the Action Plan 2015-20, which outlined a set of policy recommendations designed with the mutual benefit of both diaspora and home nation in mind.

Vocational Education 

Related to concerns over the country’s brain drain is the fact that many Jordanians would rather avoid blue-collar jobs or lack the vocational skills required for certain positions. “We have forgotten to develop vocational training. In addition, universities that used to be for vocational training have now changed and instead focus on academic studies,” Refat A Alfaouri, president of YU, told OBG. “On the other hand, everybody wants a job with good pay. We need to change the mindset and stop focusing so heavily on academic studies.”

In July 2016 the MoE announced that it had started to implement a plan to transfer 10th-grade students whose scores average 50-59.9% to applied secondary education institutions, which is expected to help the ministry reach its goal of increasing the percentage of students in vocational courses from 12% to 20%. The eventual goal is to reach 30-40% in the next 10 years.

In the same month the Vocational Training Corporation (VTC), an entity established by the government in 1976 to address vocational education, signed a cooperation agreement with the MoE to accept 2000 students at its facilities throughout the kingdom for the 2016/17 academic year, with plans to increase this to 6000 by the 2018/19 year.

However, in light of the need for increased employment opportunities, the VTC agreed to increase their target to 4000 for the 2016/17 year. Graduates will be awarded accredited certificates from the MoE, allowing them to attend technical colleges.

The kingdom is taking the issue of practical training seriously and has even secured support from international agencies such as the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and UNESCO. In October 2014 the Jordanian government and USAID launched the Jordan Workforce Development (WFD) project, which is aimed at creating a demand-driven pool of employees and increased interest in private sector opportunities, particularly for those living below the poverty line. The project will focus on six governorates, namely Amman/East, Zarqa, Irbid, Tafilah, Ma’an and Aqaba. The WFD project also has four main targets: enhance technical vocational education and training (TVET) in targeted areas and sectors, provide a clear path to employment through more effective labour market information systems and networks, engage women, youth and those living at or below the poverty line in a wider range of jobs and improve workplace safety and TVET certification. Meanwhile, UNESCO’s TVET programme is aimed at increasing its popularity and improving the segment by providing support for the UNESCO-UNEVOC International Centre for TVET, contributing to the Entrepreneurship Education project, which has provided useful data for the government to design TVET initiatives, and the creation of the UNESCO chair in TVET at Al-Balqa Applied University.

Refugee Population

However, the biggest challenge facing the education sector in Jordan is not so much the loss of its own trained and qualified staff, but the dramatic influx of refugees who have settled in the country. “The Syrian refugee crisis has heavily impacted the primary and secondary school systems. Currently, schools are overcrowded and time on task has decreased,” Muhyieddeen Touq, general manager of Change Agent for Arab Development and Education, a professional development company, told OBG. “What is making the matter worse is that there is no access to new educational technologies and there is a lack of family support because parents do not get involved in their children’s education.”

The DoS 2015 census found that of the 9.5m people living in Jordan, 2.9m were refugees, representing 30.5% of the total, and that of the refugee population the largest group were Syrians, numbering 1.26m and representing 13.3% of the population. The country is also home to 636,270 Egyptians, 634,182 Palestinians, 130,911 Iraqis, 31,163 Yemenis, 22,700 Libyans and 197,385 people of other nationalities. Nearly half of non-Jordanians live in the capital city, Amman. The most pressing concern in 2016 is the need to educate children who have arrived from Syria as refugees.

In March 2016 at the Global Education and Skills Forum, Mohammad Thneibat, Jordan’s deputy prime minister and minister of education, said there were 145,000 Syrian children enrolled in public schools. If this number is added to the 1.7m children attending basic and secondary schools in the 2013/14 academic year, the population of those schools would rise by 8.4% and Syrian refugee children would account for 7.7% of the total number in those schools. The government also acknowledges that 30% of Syrian refugee children residing in Jordan are not attending school, so further provisions will likely have to be made in the short term. In November 2015 at a meeting with international donors, Thneibat suggested educating Syrian children in 2016 would cost his department $27m, adding that this does not include the cost of building 5000 new classrooms to keep up with the rising number of pupils. The minister called for an urgent increase in assistance from the international community to help Jordan cope.

The demographic profile of the Syrian refugees being granted leave to stay in Jordan further exacerbates the problem, as 50% are children, 40% are women and only 10% are men. Jordan screens men seeking asylum closely to ensure Daesh fighters do not cross the border posing as refugees.

The UNHCR estimates that 20% of the Syrian refugees in Jordan are living in camps, while the remaining 80% are staying in host communities. Integrating the Syrian children into Jordanian schools presents a number of challenges, because many of those arriving have had their education interrupted for months or even years, and Jordan is addressing this issue in an attempt to prevent a lost generation for Syria.

Double Shifts

One of the approaches Jordan’s schools have used to meet demand for education for Syrian refugee children is to operate double shifts. The scheme was run at 98 schools initially, and then the number of schools was doubled in 2016. Typically, Jordanian children are taught by Jordanian state-employed teachers in the morning shift, while in the afternoon shift Syrian children attend school where they are taught by newly qualified teachers employed on temporary contracts. Although the system has enabled hundreds of thousands of Syrian children to attend school, there are reports that Jordanian families are concerned their own children’s education may be compromised by the double-shift system.

International Response

UNICEF and other relief organisations and charities are assisting in educating children living in refugee camps on the Syrian border. In addition, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) agreed to build 47 more additional classrooms to accommodate both Jordanian and Syrian pupils at public schools. The NRC is also helping with the teaching of Arabic, English and mathematics in schools.

The EU is financing a three-year programme called Sustaining Quality Education and Promoting Skills Development Opportunities for Young Syrian Refugees in Jordan, which aims to help the continuous development of the workforce by conducting a census to better understand the needs of young Syrians. As part of the package, UNESCO is running an informal education project to help 450 Syrian children adjust to education after gaps in their schooling.


Jordan faces significant challenges in ensuring an education for its substantial population of young refugees without compromising the futures of its own young people. Its ability to manage the crisis will depend on the scale of international aid. At the same time, the country is pursuing improvements to the experience and outcomes of its young people, from kindergarten through to graduate-level research.

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