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16th Aug 2013

Jordan works on aligning education with its economy

As Jordanian society braces itself to absorb a massive youth surge in its population, Jordanian government institutions, businesses, and individuals are realising that their education system must make huge leaps to prepare graduates for the real needs of the economy. Youth unemployment is high, and part of the problem is an education system still tethered to antiquated notions of what programmes are prestigious and desirable (e.g., medical, engineering, and dentistry). This ICEF Monitor article looks at what the country is doing to reform education so it can better meet the demands of its economy.

Youth unemployment a serious concern

Youth unemployment is the iron ball that drags down Middle Eastern economies, and the situation in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is no exception to this rule. The World Bank's 2013 World Development Report found that almost 25% of young males and nearly half of young females in the Kingdom were out of work in 2010. This state of affairs may shift from bad to worse as a colossal youth bulge enters – or tries to enter – the labour market. In 2012, the CIA estimated that the proportion of the population aged 25 years and younger accounted for over half of the country's population. Jordan's fertility rate shows no sign of decline: at an estimated 26.52 births per 1000 inhabitants, Jordanians place 51st in the world.

Missed connections between education and industry

According to some experts, the Jordanian education system needs to innovate to better match its educational curricula to the needs of its economy. Jordan's former labour minister Atef Obeidat told the members of a job creation forum in September that only half of Jordan's 50,000 annual graduates find work. And Shereen Mazen, programme manager at the local NGO Labour Watch, said a few months ago to The Jordan Times:

“There is a lack of coordination between the needs of the market and majors taught at universities."

At a conference hosted by the UNDP in December 2012, participants appeared to echo Mazen's opinions, agreeing that a gap exists between the education that students receive and the skills that the industry requires. An article on Babelmed, an Arab website, asserts that students themselves are choosing to study in areas that are not in demand in the Jordanian market, areas that are already well supplied:

"A majority of 200,000 students admitted to Jordanian universities annually choose academic specialisations, which have highly saturated markets, such as medicine and engineering. This of course, is tied to the general culture that associates respect these positions while it 'looks down' on vocational jobs."

Transforming the education system

Jordan's King Abdullah II has, since 2003, been reaching out to global partners in an effort to reform the system from the ground up. Noteworthy in this respect has been the World Bank-supervised ERfKE programme, a multimillion dollar sector-wide strategy for changing the methods used to teach Jordan's children. In existence since 2003, ERfKE has introduced new curricula and examinations, created more early childhood education facilities, trained teachers in new methods, and introduced computer literacy and education strategies. Its accomplishments to date also include:

  • Since 1999, the Ministry of Education has built almost 400 new kindergartens around the country, and 100 existing ones have been revitalised.
  • A new kindergarten curriculum has been introduced, along with an effort to expand early childhood education in low-income areas.
  • 160 new schools have been built and 800 classrooms added to existing schools.
  • Existing schools have been provided with 650 new computer labs and 350 science labs.
  • New curricula emphasising research, critical thinking and group work were introduced in all Jordan's schools, along with two new assessment exams that will monitor progress and provide a framework for future improvements.
  • More than 60,000 teachers have been trained in using the new curricula, and many have received supplementary training: more than 44,000 have achieved a basic computer skills certification; 24,000 have studied ICT-in-education methods, and hundreds have been trained in early childhood education.
  • The Economic Opportunities for Jordanian Youth (INJAZ) programme has been expanded, and engages corporate volunteers to deliver a wide range of economic and interpersonal communication skill courses to students in public schools.

Another programme, EduWave, has introduced e-learning into the classroom, allowing teachers to "employ lively examples, models, and scientific experiments to enrich conventional textbook material." Under EduWave, "the computerisation of all public schools began in 1999 and concluded in 2005; all schools were computerised and linked electronically." In addition, there have been several initiatives of late at addressing the urgent need to move more Jordanian students from traditional fields such as medical and dentistry to vocational ones:

  • The Ministry of Labour, the Jordan Armed Forces, and private-sector enterprises launched a programme to provide young Jordanians with on-the-job training in the construction industry - a booming industry that traditionally hires mostly foreign workers due in part to Jordanians' reluctance to work in this sector.
  • Various bilateral contracts are being been signed to help train young Jordanians in job-rich trades such as construction and tourism. For example Jordan's Vocational Training Corp (VTC) signed a 2.89 million-dollar agreement in 2012 with the Korean International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) to implement training programmes in the two Jordanian governorates of Zarqa and Maan to enhance vocational trainers' skills.
  • The INJAZ programme builds skills in areas such as communication, entrepreneurship, and problem-solving, and includes programmes in career guidance and work readiness. It also supports vocational skills-building through partnerships with other business and government entities. For example, this July it signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Ayla Oasis Development Company to sponsor the “Travel and Tourism Business” programme in five public schools in Aqaba.

University of the future?

Another noteworthy effort to create closer ties between Jordan's education and economy has been the creation of the German-Jordanian University (GJU). The university is a collaboration between the Jordanian Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. It is modelled on the German universities of applied sciences, characterised by their focus on putting knowledge into practice and on promoting knowledge transfer. The president of the university, Labib Khadra, believes strongly in the university's curriculum alignment with the needs of the Jordanian labour market, noting, "We choose our subjects on basis of surveys about the job market ... You could notice that our current academic programmes do not have counterparts in other universities; for example, the specialisation of Chemical-Pharmaceutical Engineering, which responds to the pharmaceutical industry in Jordan." Mr Khadra has criticised redundancies in the Jordanian higher education system in other interviews, saying to the Oxford Business Group last year:

"Jordan has 28 universities, 18 of which are private and 10 of which are public. These schools need to complement one another, and not act as competitors. Currently, institutions are duplicating each other in academic offerings, which makes it more difficult for the university system to make a holistic contribution to the national economy. This also produces an excess of students in certain industries, which increases the difficulty for graduates to find gainful employment."

Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research Wajih Owais described the university as a “quality leap” in Jordan's higher education system. The GJU is not a branch campus of a German institution, but a member of Jordan's public university system. According to The Jordan Times, the university currently has "more than 2,645 students, of whom 15% are non-Jordanian."

Clashes on campus

As much as there are positive developments in the higher education sector, there are also depressing indications that the violence of the overall region has not left Jordan entirely untouched. Armed clashes between university students have occurred this year on various campuses (mostly public ones) and have killed five so far. They are blamed mostly on inter-tribal hostilities; some see them as isolated incidents involving relatively few students while others see them as a major trend that could make students want to leave the country for higher education abroad.

Online education looks promising

Within Jordan, the potential role of online education is attracting notice and investment. Internet penetration has been rising rapidly in Jordan in recent years, and there have been notable tech start-up success stories, including that of Maktoob, which The Oxford Business Group describes like this:

Jordan is the birthplace of the biggest Arabic language media portal, Yahoo! Maktoob, which was born out of Yahoo’s purchase of the Amman-based Maktoob portal in 2009. Yahoo! said that in June 2011, Maktoob had 50 million unique users and a 40% share of the online display advertising market in the Middle East and North Africa, making it the market leader. The company claims that the site is the second-most-visited online Arabic news portal after Al Jazeera and that its OMG! Arabic celebrity news site, launched in 2010, is the most popular Arabic entertainment website.

In late 2011, the Jordan Times covered tech company Umniah's launch of a domestic online learning platform named “ULearn,” which offers courses through web and mobile-based platforms. Umniah CEO Ihab Hinnawi explained why his company decided to create ULearn by saying:

"In light of fast growth figures in the number of Internet and mobile users in Jordan, I expect demand [for] e-learning and e-training courses to rise sharply in the next few years."

The rise of online education appears to have the support of the Jordanian government, which has taken measures to accelerate its spread by attracting international providers. In 2010, the Jordanian Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research adopted guidelines for recognising “non-traditional” higher education institutions outside of the country, including electronic learning. This confluence of high demand for online education and welcoming legislation for foreign providers has attracted the attention of international observers. In a recent interview with ICEF Monitor, Dr Derar Bal’awi, regional director with the Saudi International Group for Educational Consultancy, urged educational institutions to grasp the opportunity to enter Jordan's e-learning market.

English language and the knowledge economy

While the knowledge and skills required by the Jordanian economy naturally include the technical and commercial sciences, a recent British Council report argues that the most important discipline for economic growth and professional success in the country is in fact the English language. The report refers to research by Euromonitor International, which found that investors from the West (as well as major eastern economies in China and India) tended to base their investment decisions on the pervasiveness of English speakers within a country's population; in other words, foreign direct investment (FDI) depends on English language skills. The British Council noted that the Jordanian government appears to be acting in a manner consistent with its economic aims, by heavily promoting English education in the public school system. On the level of Jordanian business, the report found that English took an equally important role, for reasons similar to those that apply to the entire economy. The sectors of the Jordanian economy that are growing fastest tend to be those that operate on the global market, such as ICT and tourism. These sectors are creating and will continue to create the largest number of jobs; therefore their needs determine the requirements of the labour market.

As a result, the report found that professional success in Jordan has become fixed to an individual's English-language abilities.

For example, salary differences ranged from 20% to 50% more for English speakers, and English speakers were likely to advance more quickly than other staff. English was also found to be a required first language with almost a third of hiring companies, while 69% required English as a second language. In fact, many hiring companies claimed that finding employment for non-English speakers in contemporary Jordan was close to impossible.

This demand for English-language speakers has created a related demand for English-language instruction.

Both the public and private sector are turning to language schools to provide instruction for employees; 13 of the 23 companies interviewed by the British Council arranged English-language instruction for staff. Among Jordanian families, secondary schools that teach English-language curricula such as the IGCSE, the SAT, and the International Baccalaureate have gained increasing popularity.

What about study abroad?

There are currently only 10,992 Jordanian students studying abroad at the tertiary level, according to the UNESCO interactive map showing where university-level students are studying abroad. The Ukraine is the top destination for Jordanian students studying abroad, with 2,236; the US is next, with 1,977; and the UK is in third, with 1,355. With uncomfortable unemployment rates and an ongoing gap between skills needed and possessed – reforms to address this gap will need time to take full effect – the prospect of study abroad may become increasingly inviting to young Jordanians. The Jordan Times, for example, reports intense interest in the private American Community School in Amman among Jordanian parents who anticipate their children studying abroad for university. They quote Larry McIlvain, the superintendent of the school, as saying:

"Many of our students go to university in the US, Canada and the United Kingdom, or to British, Canadian or American universities that have been set up in the Gulf. What we constantly get back from our community is that the kids leave here with great 21st-century skills of problem solving, collaboration and working together in teams; skills they need to survive in the workforce."

Opportunities seem abundant

Jordan's mobility numbers are modest but – with its economy so in need of vocational skills training, a similarly huge requirement for English-language training, intense interest from King Abdullah II in reforming the education system, and a burgeoning student demographic – this is a market (like so many others in the region) that is likely to see more international education linkages and greater interest in study abroad in the future.

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