The rapid development of Jordan’s education system is one of the Middle East’s success stories. Basic education is near-universal, following steady growth over the past decade, and much of the country’s youth are now enrolled in a rapidly expanding university system. In 2011 Jordan was ranked fourth in the region on the Education Index of the UNDP – bettered only by Bahrain, Libya and the UAE – and worldwide it placed 81st out of 187 countries. Challenges remain though, including overcrowding, declining enrolment in vocational training, and weak linkages between curricula and the world of work. Although Jordan is host to several foreign universities and is attracting an increasing number of international students, some argue that the government should give freer rein to private sector institutions in order to sustain this trend.

EARLY CHILDHOOD: The kingdom was one of the first countries in the region to develop an early child development strategy, which was drafted for the period 2004-13 in cooperation with UNICEF. The plan looks to expand kindergarten (KG) services, which are typically provided to children aged four (KG1) and five (KG2). “Average enrolment across the country at KG1 and KG2 is now 36-37%,” Alia Al Arabiat, early childhood director at the Ministry of Education (MoE), told OBG. This compares to a rate of 33% recorded in 2004.

The MoE has been working to establish KGs, develop curricula, train teachers and assure quality. “As of 2011, we began training quality assurance staff. In addition, we are now working on an accreditation system to cover both the public and private sectors. When this is finished in around four months, it will be entrusted to a dedicated unit in the MoE,” said Al Arabiat.

Limited financial resources constrain the rate at which KG coverage can be increased, especially at KG1. “In view of these restrictions, we are currently exploring the possibility of involving the private sector in the provision of new facilities,” Al Arabiat told OBG, adding that they may also resort to using double shifts, whereby two KGs take turns to use the same building.

SCHOOLS: Enrolment and participation rates for basic education – which is available at state expense between the ages of six and 15 – has expanded at an annual rate of 1.3% between 2000 and 2010, according to the World Bank. In the 2010/11 school year both enrolment and participation stood at around 98%, with the rate for girls slightly higher than for boys. Still, with a population growth rate of 2.3%, Jordan will continue to need new schools in the years ahead.

SECTOR CHALLENGES: While the increased enrolment marks an impressive achievement, there is now a risk that quantity will outstrip quality. Overcrowding remains a problem in urban schools, particularly in the public sector. This is being exacerbated by the influx of refugees from neighbouring countries, especially Syria. “Syrian and Iraqi refugees are educated under the MoE,” Samaer Al Amir, a member of the formal education department at the MoE, told OBG. “On some days in early 2012, we’ve had thousands of Syrians join our public school system.”

According to Al Amir, class sizes can range between 40 and 50 students at some large public schools in Amman. Private schools, which cater to around 31% of Amman’s population, have 25-30 students per class. “There is definitely a gap in the quality of education on offer in public and private schools,” Al Amir said.

TEACHING WAGE: Public sector salaries for teachers have also remained an issue, with complaints over wages leading to a three-week strike in early 2012. A compromise solution was reached between unions and the government, but some expect further strikes to occur in the future. According to Muhyieddeen Touq, general manager of Change Agent for Arab Development and Education Reform (CADER), Jordan’s largest professional training institute, low wages have had an effect on the perception of teaching. “The teaching profession has lost prestige partly due to the low salaries educators receive in the public sector. However, many are optimistic that the recently established teacher’s union will improve working conditions.”

A PUSH FOR STANDARDS: Access to schools in rural areas is extensive, as the government establishes a public school for any community with more than 10 children. However, some see this as an inefficient use of public resources, with rural schools reported to be underutilised. “Teachers are often posted to rural schools as their first job, which means these schools have less experienced staff,” said Al Amir.

Measured against international standards, it is clear that there remains significant room for improvement in the school system. The OECD uses the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to analyse the skills of 15-year olds in reading, mathematics and science. In all three areas, Jordan outperforms Qatar, but falls short of Dubai and still lags significantly behind the OECD average. Yet the past decade has also seen quantifiable improvements; for example, the 2007 “Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study” shows strong improvements in Jordan’s regional and international standing.

REFORMING SCHOOLS: With continued support from the World Bank, the government is initiating a programme entitled Education Reform for the Knowledge Economy (ERfKE). The first phase, which was launched in 2003, focuses on implementing outcomes-based curricula for all subjects, enhancing the assessment framework and introducing new e-learning facilities.

Phase two of ERfKE runs from 2009 until 2015, and places particular emphasis on engaging all stakeholders – teachers, principals, administrators, parents and communities – in optimising learning outcomes.

In pursuing these goals, the private sector has been invited to step in. The Jordan Education Initiative (JEI) – launched in 2003 under the auspices of the World Economic Forum – aims to encourage public-private partnerships to improve the state education system. In particular, it looks to enhance the use of information and communications technology (ICT) in schools by involving both the local ICT industry and international firms. A 2010 report by the UK-based consultancy McKinsey found that it had benefitted 80,000 students, retrained teachers in 102 public schools, involved 30 partners from the public and private sectors, and transferred $3.7m to local companies.

One of the JEI’s ongoing projects is the Towards a New School Attitudes (TNSA) Programme, which was launched in 2007. With support from Microsoft’s Partners in Learning initiative and CADER, the TNSA programme is aimed at fostering leadership among school teachers, principals and officials at the ministry.

PRIVATE SECTOR SUPPORT: New partnerships between the JEI and the private sector continue to emerge. In late 2011 the JEI signed an agreement with the Talal Abu-Ghazaleh Organisation (TAG-Org), an international professional services company, to develop e-education in Jordanian schools, initially through the provision of 100 affordable laptop computers to the JEI. This is part of a non-profit initiative being executed by TAG-Org, which aims to distribute 50,000 computers throughout the region in 2011 and 2012.

The Madrasati Initiative, which began in 2008, has also been shaking up the Jordanian school system with support from the private sector. It seeks both to renovate physical infrastructure and update school curricula. As of late 2011, the programme has supported the renovation of around 400 schools. The project’s fourth phase was launched in Mafraq in May 2011 – benefitting around 25,000 students and 2000 teachers in the area – while 2012 should see the scheme extended to some 100 schools in Irbid.

Jordan’s private schools have also seen investment from foreign educational funds. In 2011, for example, the International Finance Corporation contributed $13m to the non-profit EdFund to aid its acquisition of the privately owned Al Alamiyah schools in Amman.

UNIVERSITIES: At the age of 16, students can opt to continue their education either by undergoing vocational training or by entering the university system. The vast majority of school leavers now opt for university. “Every year, Jordan has around 90,000 students leaving secondary school, of which 90% choose to go on to university. This compares to 70% in the US,” Mohammed Odat, general manager at the New York Institute of Technology’s (NYIT) Amman campus, said.

However, a 12% annual growth rate in university enrolment is stretching the limited public finances allocated to the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE). While Jordan spends about 4.5% of GDP and 15% of public expenditure on education, only 14.7% of this budget goes to the tertiary segment. This equates to around just 0.65% of GDP, compared to an international average of 1.6% for middle-income countries, according to a 2011 World Bank report.

“Government expenditures need to be increased, as some of our public universities have chronic deficits,” Bashir Al Zu’bi, president of the University of Jordan (JU), told OBG. The issue is not just the size of the demand but also its concentration. “In more remote areas, universities can have high capital expenditures but not enough students,” said Al Zu’bi.

Around 30% of the budget for JU is derived from the parallel programme, which allows students who have not achieved minimum grades to access the same degree courses at a higher cost. However, many other universities have a much smaller parallel intake. “The government could incentivise students to attend these universities through scholarships and the creation of new degree courses which are tailored to the labour market,” suggested Al Zu’bi.

As things stand, a minimum of 3% of all higher education institutions’ budgets is allocated to scholarships, according to the MoHE.

ACCREDITATION: Another challenge currently facing Jordanian universities is that of quality assurance. Al Zu’bi comments that, “our tertiary system has grown in breadth more quickly than it has in depth”, a view shared by many in the sector. “Many of our universities simply duplicate one another, offering the same outdated courses and learning methodologies,” said Labib Khadra, president of the German Jordanian University (GJU). Part of the problem lies in student assessment. Examinations emphasise memorisation without testing critical thinking, while multiple-choice questions are being used in order to cope with large numbers of students, according to a national conference held by the MoHE in collaboration with the US’s Columbia University in 2010.

Following the introduction of a Higher Education Accreditation Law in 2009, a newly created Higher Education and Accreditation Commission has begun to implement quality-assurance standards. This is a positive step forward, but most of the work is yet to be done, according to some. “The kingdom’s quality assurance system is too number-focused. That is, officials are counting students, teachers and desks to determine accreditation, but neglecting quality, pedagogy, and other equally important but less tangible factors,” Issa Batarseh, president of the Princess Sumaya University for Technology, told OBG.

In spite of these difficulties, Jordan’s top public universities are among the best in the region, and have been improving in international rankings. In 2011 JU broke into the world’s top 700 on the QS World University Rankings, while on Webometrics – which ranks universities according to their presence on the internet – JU is ranked 13th in the region, albeit 1310th worldwide. Another university to have broken into the QS top 700 is the Jordan University for Science and Technology (JUST), located in Irbid.

RESEARCH: Also on the government agenda is the need to boost research and development (R&D) at Jordanian universities. Efforts have already been made, notably with the creation of the Scientific Research Support Fund (SRF) in 2005. According to the MoHE, the country now spends 0.54% of GDP on scientific and technological research and hopes to boost this to 1.5% by 2017. “Despite the contributions from the SRF, subsidies for research remain largely insufficient,” said Al Zu’bi. “A further problem is that assistant and associate professors often find that a demanding 12 credit-hour tuition load every week hampers their ability to conduct research,” he added.

PARTNERSHIPS FOR RESEARCH: However, in an effort to boost R&D capacity in the areas most vital to Jordan, the country’s leading universities have shown themselves increasingly keen to partner with foreign institutions. JU and JUST were among the founding partners of the Desertec University Network, along with another six European and 16 Middle Eastern universities. Desertec University Network was created in 2009 to research and implement renewable energy projects – particularly solar power – in the European and Middle Eastern region. In a similar vein, a Nanotechnology Centre was founded at JUST in September 2010, with a view to attracting local and international researchers, particularly in the fields of energy, water treatment and health care.

Abdallah I Husein Malkawi, the president of JUST, said, “It is crucial for Jordanian universities to build stronger ties with foreign academic institutions. Doing so will give our students access to new cultures, and our instructors access to international best practices in pedagogy and curriculum development.”

There can be little doubt that Jordan remains a regional centre for new R&D initiatives. Of particular note was the launch in January 2012 of the largest Arab online database, Marefa, by the Jordan-based Knowledge World Company for Digital Content. The database is expected to include around 70,000 scientific studies and other publications by the end of 2012. A primary aim of the project is to increase the amount of Arabic-language online content, of which there is considered to be a severe shortage.

PRIVATISATION: Private universities are helping to cushion the demand for tertiary education. According to the MoHE, they cater to 27.8% of all enrolled students. The demand for admission to private universities increased by 2.4% annually between 2007 and 2010, albeit more slowly than the 4.4% rate registered for their public counterparts. Tuition fees in private institutions are higher than in public facilities, but are still better priced than many of their counterparts in the region. In addition, private universities tend to suffer less from the problem of overcrowding.

“Private universities also have more autonomy than public ones in structuring and altering their degree programmes,” Marwan Kamal, president of Philadelphia University Jordan, told OBG, although he added that they would like to obtain full independence. Adnan Badran, president of Petra University, echoed this view, telling OBG that, “The biggest problem for private universities is that the regulations remain overly rigid and often pose conflicts of interest.”

INTERNATIONALISATION: According to Abdelnaser Abul Basal, president of the World Islamic Sciences and Education University, “Jordan is playing an increasingly important role in the international education market, and has acquired a reputation for attracting learners from both advanced and developing countries.”

The number of foreign students in Jordan has increased rapidly. According to the MoHE, a total of 24,699 non-Jordanians were enrolled in public and private universities during the 2006/07 academic year; this grew to 29,379 in 2009/10. Foreign students now account for 11% of the total student body, says the MoHE. Coming mainly from the Arab world, most foreign learners study at private universities, where around 22% of the student body is international, said Badran. However, at some state universities, such as JUST and the GJU, around 20-25% of enrolment comes from outside of Jordan. “GJU’s ultimate goal is to have 50% of our student body coming from abroad,” said Khadra.

“There are several reasons for the growth,” said Kamal at Philadelphia. “Jordan offers high-quality education at low cost, while the climate is pleasant and the country is politically stable.” The NYIT’s Odat cited further advantages which Jordan has over other competitors in the region, such as Qatar and Dubai. “We have a broader and more attractive range of tourist activities to entertain foreigners, while our regulation for student visas is more favourable, and student accommodation is both cheaper and more flexible.”

Along with foreign students, Jordan has also seen the arrival of foreign educational institutions. In addition to the likes of NYIT and GJU, the Swiss La Roche College – a technical school – has set up operations, while the government is in talks with George Washington University over founding a new medical college. “We may also soon sign an agreement with a technical university in Estonia,” said Al Zu’bi.

Still, Odat believes that Jordan is at risk of losing its competitive edge in the region. Referring to the influence of the authorities over the operation of foreign universities in Jordan, he told OBG, “The Jordanisation of foreign institutions is reducing the benefits which they could bring to our educational system.” By way of example, he cited the obligatory application of Jordanian admission standards by foreign and private sector institutions. “The introduction of private universities into Jordan during the 1990s played a key role in building our international standing. But in order to ensure that the positive trend continues, the government needs to give free rein to foreign institutions and fully embrace the internationalisation of our university system,” Odat told OBG. This would encourage further investment from foreign private sector investors, especially if financial incentives such as free land and tax exemptions were on offer.

Such a policy shift would also go a long way to boost the quality of tertiary education in Jordan, Odat said. “Many policymakers understand that quality control is crucial, but they still see funding, overcrowding and labour-market relevancy as the primary issues to be tackled. However, all of these problems could be solved by encouraging investment from foreign universities through a more relaxed regulatory environment.”

VOCATIONAL: The demand for universities is such that many believe more school leavers should be going onto vocational training, which has experienced a severe decline in recent years. According to the State of Jordan’s “Population Report 2010”, the number of students in vocational training dropped from 40,166 in the year 2000 to 29,536 in 2009. Reduced demand has also seen the number of vocational education centres fall from 27 to 24 in the same period.

The MoHE hopes to reduce the number of tawjihi (the secondary education certificate) graduates entering the university system from 90% to 60-70%, with the rest to be channelled into polytechnic colleges. However, policy and legislative hurdles still need to be addressed in order to boost enrolment. The government is looking to modify the temporary Higher Education Law, which was enacted in 2009, to permit the establishment of polytechnic schools at public universities. In addition, there is a plan to reclassify community colleges into “academic” and “technical” tiers to provide more vocational options.

In addition, foreign partners are helping the government to address the issue. For example, a €35m programme funded by the EU was launched in 2011 to create a system of accreditation. Such programmes are designed to complement the work of a state initiative known as the Employer-Driven Skills Development Project, which focuses on reforming the Vocational Training Corporation.

FINDING EMPLOYMENT: The push to revitalise vocational training comes in tandem with an emphasis on connecting higher education programmes to the world of work. A 2011 World Bank report concluded that there should be more private sector representation in the governance of universities, which need to keep abreast of the latest trends in labour markets and develop their programmes accordingly. While a few leading institutions report that the majority of their graduates find work relatively quickly, graduate unemployment is an issue of serious concern: the rate of university-leavers without work dropped from 17.7% in 2005 to 12% in 2008, but the figure jumped to 16.2% in 2009.

Several institutions have begun to take action. One example is the Talal Abu Ghazaleh Graduate School of Business Administration, founded by GJU in partnership with TAG-Org. The School offers an MBA which has been accredited by the Foundation for International Business Administration Accreditation. GJU itself aims to provide market-tailored courses in specialised scientific subjects for which there is a high demand. “Our renewable energy programme began with a single student in 2005, but we now have 133 students and are having to turn down applicants,” said Nizar Abu Jaber, dean of research at GJU.

Independent non-profit institutions, such as the Business Development Centre (BDC), are also bolstering the linkage between education and employment. One of the BDC’s flagship schemes – the US Agency for International Development-backed Maharat(skills) programme – targets university students and recent graduates, aiming to improve their soft skills and provide them with direct experience of the workplace.

The numbers reveal the Maharat programme’s success. Dealing with around 160 graduates when it began in 2006, the scheme now benefits approximately 2000 young people every year. “We source experienced professionals who have worked in areas such as public relations, human resources, and sales and marketing. Our ‘train the trainers’ programmes then enable their skills to be passed on to our target groups,” Rashad Bibars, senior director of business development at the BDC, told OBG. Through partnerships with Chambers of Industry and Trade throughout the country, Maharat participants can also take advantage of a six-month internship in the private sector.

BDC trainers also now teach formal three-credit courses on employability skills at several Jordanian universities – an initiative which is unique to the region. Having already sent 20 students to spend four months at the Thunderbird School for Global Management in the US and engaging them in other global initiatives, the centre is “always looking to link to international programmes,” Bibars told OBG. Maharat’s Youth Entrepreneurship programme also expands students’ potential to initiate or improve small businesses and engage in entrepreneurial activities. It offers participating students an opportunity to familiarise themselves with the behavioural competencies of successful entrepreneurs.

Nevertheless, much work remains to be done to bridge the gap between higher education and employment outcomes. “If we are to make education market-driven, we need to comprehensively assess value chains in the Jordanian economy, so that we can precisely determine where skills gaps are,” Bibars told OBG, adding that the BDC’s knowledge of the job market could be reused in upcoming projects.

At a time of strained public expenses such initiatives may be pressed to obtain sufficient support from the government. On the plus side, non-profit organisations such as the BDC and the Queen Rania Centre for Entrepreneurship (QRCE) have a strong track record in attracting foreign and private-sector funding.

OUTLOOK: Policymakers and academic institutions are aware of the need to enhance linkages between education and the labour market, but such issues cannot be solved quickly. New initiatives to counter the decline in vocational training have some potential, although the main challenge could be in navigating changing cultural attitudes. “The problem is not so much the quality of vocational training as the negative stigma surrounding it: more and more young people want the status that comes with a bachelor’s degree,” said Abu Jaber at GJU.

At a time of limited government finances, Jordan’s educational system may be in for a rocky ride in the coming years, as the growth of the country’s young population and the continuing influx of refugees weigh down the school system and as more of the kingdom’s youth aspire to gain university qualifications. Further, some maintain that giving freer rein to the private sector and to foreign institutions would help the kingdom maintain its competitive edge as a leading centre for education in the region. On the other hand, a growing number of foreign students, who pay significantly higher tuition fees than locals, may help to reinforce university budgets, and the sector looks set to benefit from supportive donors who are helping to enhance the quality of basic and higher education providers.