English skills a key for mobility and employment in the Middle East and North Africa

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has the world’s most youthful population… and the highest youth unemployment rates. A growing body of research is pointing to the link between economic advancement and English language proficiency, and, for the MENA region in particular, improved English language skills are seen to be vital to improving employment prospects for youth.

This January, the League of Arab States and the British Council held a symposium in Cairo that centred on education as a key to economic development in the region and to alleviating the problem of youth unemployment. One of the symposium’s main themes was improving English education and English language skills, backed by British Council research showing that MENA workers with English earn up to three times as much as non-English speakers.

Why English?

A January 2015 World Bank report stresses that while great improvements in education have been made across the region in access, funding, literacy rates, and gender equality, many problems remain. These include an overall lack of educational quality and a mismatch between what students are learning and the skills that employers want.

A survey of employers in the region found that employers consider only one-third of new graduates ready for the workplace; the same study found that only one-third of students considered themselves ready to enter the labour market. In addition, school-age populations are on the rise, putting an increased strain on already-taxed public education systems.

A 2012 study undertaken in eight MENA countries by Euromonitor International (and commissioned by the British Council) pointed out that many employment-related problems could be ameliorated by better language education. The study found that salaries were generally higher in the region for English-language speakers.

Employees with better English skills enjoyed salaries from 5% (Tunisia) to as high as 200% (Iraq) more than their counterparts with no English. In addition, it found a correlation between poor fluency (and political instability) and unemployment.

The Euromonitor study noted that private-sector development in many key industries such as IT and software development, telecommunications, and banking/finance would be greatly accelerated by a boost in the number of qualified English speakers.

A long way to go

The Education First (EF) English Proficiency Index (EPI) is a global survey that measures English levels in markets around the world. Its research findings note that, “The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is by far the world’s weakest region in English proficiency.” In both TOEFL and IELTS test results for several past years, Arabic speakers have placed in the bottom tier of world rankings.

Egyptian students hoping to study in Turkey – a country that promotes itself strongly as a less-expensive and close-to-home destination for Arabs, with classes held mainly in English – are often stymied by their lack of academic English skills. Saudi Arabian students hoping to study in the US or UK using government scholarships are usually granted up to 18 months for language study prior to academic work, but they often need even more time still to bring their English skills to the level required for advanced study abroad.

And, similar to conditions in many parts of the world, well-qualified instructors are scarce across the region. According to a British Council survey of over 1,000 teachers in the region, the best-qualified instructors often end up being moved into higher levels of public education, where students and schools are both more interested in high marks over actual fluency.

MENA youth are fully aware of the importance of English in terms of employment mobility, but educational opportunities are still often limited to those able to receive private education, given the over-stretched resources of most public educational systems in the region.

Will travel for English

As many challenges as there currently are to greater levels of English fluency in the region, a 5-7% increase in the number of English speakers is predicted over the next few years, and special programmes to nurture this increased language skill are becoming more prevalent in the region.

Probably the most visible example of this – at least in English-speaking countries hosting large numbers of language learners – is the King Abdullah Scholarship Programme (KASP) offered by the Saudi Arabian government. In 2013, Saudi Arabia was the top country of origin for students in intensive English programmes in the US according to IIE Open Door statistics with about 38,000 English students – more than twice the number of China, the next-largest source market. Most of these students intend to continue on to university programmes. Saudi Arabia was the fourth-leading source of students in full-time tertiary academic programmes in the US, according to the 2014 IIE Open Doors report, with more than a 20% increase in numbers from the previous report cycle.

Kuwait is another country exporting its language learners, with Open Doors listing the oil-rich nation as one of the fastest-growing student populations in the US. Kuwait has moved up to be the 7th most-represented country in intensive English programmes in the US.

In-country initiatives

In other MENA countries less able to send their students abroad for further opportunity, in-country programming is key, and EL Gazette reports the British Council is a key sponsor or provider of services in many of these countries. For example:

  • In Algeria, the first phase of a nationwide teacher training and curricular reform programme for English education, under an agreement with the Algerian Ministry of Education, began in November 2014. In addition to face-to-face and online education intended to reach every English teacher in Algeria, this Strategic English Education Development for Schools (SEEDS) programme includes a complete overhaul of the English curriculum and testing system.
  • Oman’s English teachers have been able to take Continuing Professional Development courses online using the British Council’s TKT Essentials training. The first instalment of highly interactive programme included discussion forums set up for smaller groups of teachers; it was deemed such a success that it spurred a second training programme in 2013/14.
  • Two Moroccan universities have adopted the British Council’s Aptis Test, which enables them to both place students appropriately and to measure progress after students complete certain modules of the LearnEnglish Pathways programme. The early success of this pilot has led to similar e-learning methods being implemented at six other universities across the country.
  • For the 1.2 million Syrian refugees and about half that number in Jordan, the need for educational opportunity is particularly acute. In Lebanon, the British Council and the European Union are co-funding a project to help Syrian refugees both with their English and their ability to integrate better into the more pluralistic Lebanese society, entitled Accessing education: language integration for Syrian refugee children. In Jordan, the British Council is working to enhance capacity in all areas of English-language education, including in refugee camps.

Changing lives

Given the current turmoil across the MENA region, and given a large and growing youth population facing more competition for employment, the value of English language skills is clearly highlighted and the success of these and other similar programmes is vital. Nic Humphries, the British Council’s director of English in the MENA region, says, “Research shows there’s no doubt that English really can change lives for people in the Middle East and North Africa.

There is no time to waste, both in terms of English language training and improved education in general for young people in the region. The World Bank reports that:

“The region’s youth population (up to 24 years old) will surge by about 10 million between 2015 and 2030. This sudden growth in the youth population will create increased demand for educational services at all levels and will place immense pressure on existing educational institutions. Clearly, the persistent, dual challenges of quality and relevance must be addressed before the anticipated surge. If they can, this rising tide of young people could become an engine of growth for the region.”



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