There has been an uprising in Arab higher education

New figures suggest steep rises in university participation rate in several Middle-Eastern countries, say Justin D. Martin and Fouad Hassan

August 16, 2019
Protestors in Cairo's Tahrir square in 2011
Source: iStock
Protestors in Cairo's Tahrir square in 2011

When people think of recent major changes in Arab countries, they often call to mind the Arab uprisings of late 2010 and beyond.

While those uprisings led to changes in countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain and Syria – some good, but many bad – an often unmentioned positive change in Arab countries is that many more nationals in several Arab states hold college degrees today than did just a few years ago.

In 2018, Northwestern University in Qatar’s Media Use in the Middle East study found sharp increases in university graduates in several Arab countries since 2014.

Among 4,171 and 5,799 Arab nationals surveyed in 2014 and 2018 respectively, the share of Emiratis who reported holding a college degree rose from 24 per cent to 59 per cent. The same statistic jumped from 30 to 47 per cent among Qataris, from 5 to 20 per cent among Tunisians and from 19 to 26 per cent among Saudis. In comparison, 34 per cent of native-born US citizens hold a bachelor’s degree (49 per cent of Arab Americans do).

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While survey respondents who haven’t completed college sometimes report the opposite, any self-presentation bias should have existed in 2014 as well as 2018 data. And nationally representative data from Northwestern University in Qatar’s study, collected via in-person and phone interviews by The Harris Poll, are among the best publicly available data from Arab countries on any topic. (Disclosure: we are among the researchers who work on the study.)

Not all the data are positive: just one in six Egyptians was a college graduate in 2014, a figure little changed in 2018. In Jordan – not surveyed in 2014 – just 20 percent of nationals in 2018 said they had completed college. The percentage of Lebanese degree holders may have decreased since 2014 (from 24 per cent  to 21 per cent by 2018). Also, the Media Use study does not survey Yemen, Syria or Libya, where wars have stifled education.

In the countries surveyed here, one contributor to the rising percentages of Arabs who hold a college degree may be demographic change. Fertility rates in Arab states have fallen faster in the last four decades than they have in almost any region in history over a similar time period, according to a recent paper by Yale University’s Marcia Inhorn, meaning that the typical Arab family has fewer children who will potentially attend college, even as the overall populations in Arab countries have grown.

In Saudi Arabia, the total fertility rate was 7.3 children per woman in the late 1970s, Inhorn reported; today, that figure is about 2.5. In Qatar in the late 1970s the rate was 6.1, and is now about 1.9.

Attitudes about family size have changed, among Arab men in particular, many of whom now, like Arab women, “want fewer children in order to provide adequate financial support [and] a good education”, Inhorn writes.

Seven Arab countries were among 15 nations worldwide with the sharpest fertility rate decreases between 1988 and 2017, Inhorn reports, and three of those countries have the greatest increases in university graduates in our data: Tunisia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

While Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar are some of the world’s richest countries, wealth alone does not explain the increases in university completion. A sizeable minority of Saudis live in comparative poverty, and even in Qatar, the world’s richest country, many citizens do not receive college for free, but must work for a Qatari organisation for several years after graduating. Meanwhile, Tunisia is a middle-income country.

Another reason for gains may be online degree programmes. The 2017 Media Use study asked respondents if they had taken an online course as part of a degree or certificate programme in the prior year. One in seven Saudis said yes and the three countries with the next highest rates were, again, Qatar, Tunisia and the UAE.

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A colleague of ours at Northwestern in Qatar, Ilhem Allagui, is a Canadian of Tunisian descent, who also taught at a UAE university for eight years. She questioned some of the data we are writing about, but not because figures are too high. She finds the 20 per cent figure from Tunisia in 2018 too low because, although the number of students enrolled at Tunisian universities fell between 2012 and 2018 for largely economic reasons, higher education remains all-important to many Tunisians.

“Education has always been one of the priorities in terms of the social, cultural mindset,” Allagui says of Tunisia. “People would sell their belongings to have their kids go to college.” And World Bank data suggest that the proportion of Tunisians holding college degrees in 2018 may be a few percentage points higher than our data indicate.

Arabs have valued formal higher education for more than a millennium. The world’s first university opened in Morocco in 859, nearly 230 years before Europe’s first university. The Renaissance didn’t start in Europe; Arabs had to first translate antecedent Indian and Greek classics so Europeans could comprehend them.

Arab countries, then, aren’t advancing from uneducated to educated, but rather educated to more educated. Yet the pace of progress does seem like something of an uprising.

Justin D. Martin is associate professor of journalism at Northwestern University in Qatar and a principal investigator of Media Use in the Middle East. Fouad Hassan is research study coordinator at the same university and also works on the study.

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