Private schooling in MENA: Is this the solution for the 30% illiteracy rate?

According to a number of reports from reputable international bodies such as The World Bank – the quality of education in the Arab world is falling behind other regions and needs urgent reform. Arab states are called on to make serious improvements to their education system to overcome a reality where ~30% of the ~300 million people in the Arab World are illiterate.

Some governments have been investing time, energy, and money into educational reforms. Educational reforms in Jordan and Kuwait were noted as leading examples, while Djibouti, Yemen and Morocco left a lot to be desired in terms of quality and efficiency. Notwithstanding the efforts, it seems that public reforms are not working fast enough for parents in the Arab world making room for the private sector. But as with any private sector, quality and price might make the best service inaccessible to all consumers. In the case of education as a public good, this raises questions about the appropriate role of privatizing education in the MENA region given its role in regional development. Below are 4 recent examples of the realities of this situation in Jordan, KSA, Qatar, and Dubai:

In Jordan: According to the Jordan Times (April 3, 2011), parents are no longer confident in public schools. The National Campaign for Defending Students’ Rights (Thabahtoona) protested the “growing” influence of private school owners. They are not satisfied with the public system, can’t afford the private system, and …. for some parents who manage to pay … still find the quality of education in private schools is becoming “poor”. According to Private School Owners Association President it was the government’s regulatory policies that turned providers into investors.

In KSA: According to the Saudi Gazette (April 2, 2011), Indian parents can’t afford the new fee structure of the Indian private schools in Riyadh and Jeddah pointing out that the majority of Indian expatriates working in the Kingdom earn a low basic monthly salary. As one parent stated: It is high time that the Indian ambassador should intervene to safeguard the interests of parents and their children!

In Qatar: The Peninsula reported (March 13, 2011) that 55 private schools in Doha received permission to hike their fees by up to 10%. The Supreme Education Council issued warnings to private schools against hiking fees without approval, following complaints about some schools that reportedly announced new fee structures for the next academic year.

In Dubai: Gulf News (March 1, 2011) reported that The Dubai Executive Council ruled that there would be no fee increases in Dubai private schools. But reports from parents indicated that there were circulars from certain schools that already announced a fee hike of 10%.

All theoretical arguments aside, the reality of the situation seems to be taking its toll on the parents who are starting to demand more. More value for money. More regulations that impose quality standards. More access. More educational opportunities that will offer life opportunities for their kids. All this for less personal economic investment that is beyond their means.

Is this unreasonable?

Education – especially in MENA – is a necessary public good for development. If most parents are not happy with the public systems and can’t afford the high-end private systems, then what is the solution?

How do we integrate privatization without commercializing education to keep it a public good?

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