Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Economist laments poor education standards in the Arab world

The Economist has used the debacle of Ardi coverage in the Arab world (see an earlier post: Making Sense of Al Jazeera's Strange Coverage of "Ardi") to bring attention to the poor education standards in the region. It stresses the point that ignorance regarding evolution is only part of the larger education problem in the Arab world:

Such choices carry a cost that goes beyond ignorance of Darwin. Arab countries now spend as much or more on education, as a share of GDP, than the world average. They have made great strides in eradicating illiteracy, boosting university enrolment and reducing gaps in education between the sexes.

But the gap in the quality of education between Arabs and other people at a similar level of development is still frightening. It is one reason why Arab countries suffer unusually high rates of youth unemployment. According to a recent study by a team of Egyptian economists, the lack of skills in the workforce largely explains why a decade of fast economic growth has failed to lift more people out of poverty.

And here is a glimpse of the education standards:

The most rigorous comparative study of education systems, a survey called Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) that comes out every four years, revealed in its latest report, in 2007, that out of 48 countries tested, all 12 participating Arab countries fell below the average. More disturbingly, less than 1% of students aged 12-13 in ten Arab countries reached an advanced benchmark in science, compared with 32% in Singapore and 10% in the United States. Only one Arab country, Jordan, scored above the international average, with 5% of its 13-year-olds reaching the advanced category.

Other comparative measures are equally alarming. A listing of the world’s top 500 universities, compiled annually by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, includes three South African and six Israeli universities, but not a single Arab one. The Swiss-based World Economic Forum ranks Egypt a modest 70th out of 133 countries in competitiveness, but in terms of the quality of its primary education system and its mathematics-and-science teaching, it slumps to 124th. Libya, despite an income of $16,000 a head, ranks an even more dismal 128th in the quality of its higher education, lower than dirt-poor Burkina Faso, with an average income of $577.

Yikes! The sad part is that poverty and low education standards don't correlate in the Arab world. But below Burkina Faso? I had to look it up (by the way, this country makes the whole Burkini business all so confusing).

But there is a growth of good private universities:

Well aware that their school systems are doing badly, Arab governments have been scrambling to improve. In an attempt to leapfrog the slow process of curriculum reform and teacher training, many have taken the easy route of encouraging private schools. In Qatar, for instance, the share of students in private education leapt from 30% to more than 60% between 1999 and 2006, according to the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). Syria has licensed some 20 private universities since 2001; 14 are up and running. Yet their total enrolment is dwarfed by the 200,000 at state-run Damascus University alone. Oil-rich monarchies in the Gulf have spent lavishly to lure Western academies to their shores, but these branch universities are struggling to find qualified students to fill their splendidly equipped classrooms.

Not to be outdone, Saudi Arabia has launched King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), a city-sized institution with an endowment of $20 billion. Intended as an oasis of academic excellence, it enjoys an independent board and is the kingdom’s only co-educational institution. This augurs well for the Saudi elite, but one fancy new university will do little to lift the overall standard of Saudi education.
Yup - cannot agree more. Read the full article here.

Related posts:
KAUST and King Abdullah
Co-ed University for Saudi Elites?


Muhammad Akbar Hussain said...

The level of education in a certain country may be poor, but relating a news article from a certain news channel to prove this claim is utterly absurd, and using such an analysis to forward a discussion is outright silly too.

Would you relate the hoax-style news on US media back in 1996 about "discovery of life" on Mars based on "findings" in the Allan Hills 84001 meteorite, to prove the "sub-standard" education in the US?

On August 07, 1996, CNN reported the discovery of life on Mars based on the findings in the meteorite in the following words:

"Before the news conference, a source close to the agency told CNN, "I think it's arguably the BIGGEST discovery in the history of science." "

Adding further to it, the news claimed:

"Researchers examining the rock from space say it contains organic compounds that are UNMISTAKABLE EVIDENCE that LIFE ONCE EXISTED on the red planet.

"I want everybody to know that we are not talking about 'little green men,' " Goldin said. "These ARE extremely small, SINGLE-CELL STRUCTURES that somewhat resemble bacteria on Earth. There is no evidence or suggestion that any higher life form ever existed on Mars."

So you see, a trace presence of organic compounds and some rock particles found arranged in a row can lead to the "unmistakably" the greatest discovery in history that life once existed on Mars.

If just the physical arrangement of microscopic particles can lead to the "discovery" of life on Mars, what is the problem with believing that the billions of years old South African metallic spheres are actually artefacts from that ancient age?

You find what you look for. Aljazeera was singled out for a hoax which is a norm in the rest of the world's media, and then this is used by a "credible" journal to analyse the quality of education in a country. I am wondering where exactly are we heading to?

Salman Hameed said...

"The level of education in a certain country may be poor, but relating a news article from a certain news channel to prove this claim is utterly absurd, and using such an analysis to forward a discussion is outright silly too."

Hmm...the article actually uses surveys to make its point and uses the Ardi story to start up the article. In fact, the part I posted from The Economist does not mention Ardi at all.

Regarding, ALH 84001: It was rightly reported and was/is not a hoax. It has nothing to do with education. The paper on ALH 840001 was in Science and claimed possible evidence for life and had very good reasons to make that claim. However, over the next 10 years, the scientific consensus has moved in the direction of chemical origins of some of the ALH features rather than biological. But this actually a good example of how science works and media reporting about this was quite good. I was in grad school at the time when this announcement was made and we all (faculty and students) watched the NASA press conference in the department and had a lively discussion right after. In fact, Bill Clinton also made an announcement about this (it was later cleverly co-opted into the movie "Contact") but also reiterated that other scientists will be verifying the claims in the coming years. this is not at all analogous to Al Jazeera's coverage of Ardi and nor was it a hoax. Sorry.

Muhammad Akbar Hussain said...

Then congratulations to us all...we've got company :-)
(as per the CNN news report which I mentioned with reference and actual text)

James Sweet said...

I think it's clear that The Economist was using the Ardi fiasco as a lead-in to discussing a wider problem. Certainly I don't think anybody is asserting that "Al-Jazeera had a dumb article about Ardi" implies "education is poor in the Arab world"!

It is a common technique in journalism to use a lead-in which embodies a colorful and related specific story, and to proceed to the broader thesis from there. I read just such an article today... Do you think the New Yorker is implying that Kyle Turley's experience is sufficient evidence to prove that sports-related brain injury is a problem? Of course not! It was just a colorful story that perhaps illustrated one aspect of what the article goes on to discuss in detail.

As you say, "You find what you look for"... I think it's fairly clear what you are looking for.

Muhammad Akbar Hussain said...

"You find what you look for" is a general statement...we all look for what we wish to, you, him, her, them, just everybody.
Aljazeera is crap, so is every other news source. Stories are moulded to influence the target audience by nearly evey news channel. At least I have supported my argument with an example of a CNN story.

James Sweet said...

I hope my earlier comment did not sound like a defense of CNN :)

I get most of my news from BBC International, which of course has some biases, and often royally screws up science stories... but it seems to have the most global perspective and least spin of anything else I've found so far.

I just think it's weird to lambast the article from The Economist for using a soft lead. I honestly don't see how you could read that article and think they were implying that the Al Jazeera/Ardi incident was evidence of poor education in the Arab world...