Arab science educators like me were jolted, about eighteen months ago, when the results of TIMSS 2007 were announced. TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) is an international, standardized test administered to students of Grades 4 and 8. A number of countries have participated in it since its inception in 1995; it is run every 3 or 4 years.
The results for 2007 showed dismal performances by almost all the Arab states that took part in it. In the Grade 4 tests, Algeria, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Tunisia, and Yemen participated, in addition to Dubai (one of the UAE’s states). In the Grade 8 tests, in addition to these 7 countries, the following took part: Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. All Arab results were below average, sometimes far below. For example, in Grade 4 Science, the six participating full Arab states were all at the very bottom, and while Dubai/UAE had the best results among Arab states, it was still significantly below the international average. In Grade 8, seven of the worst ten countries were Arab ones, with Dubai/UAE again better than its brethren states and only slightly below the international average. In Mathematics, the situation was similarly bad...
These depressing results were a harsh reminder that while Arab states have made huge efforts and progress in general literacy and enrollment at all levels, the quality of education still leaves much to be desired. It was also interesting to note that when the results were broken by gender, practically all Arab/Muslim states (particularly in the Gulf, but also in Jordan and Palestine) girls outperformed boys by leaps and bounds. For example, in Qatar, girls in Grade 8 Science outscored the boys by 70 points (where the average score was 319)…
How far we have come, and yet how far we still have to go?
Figure 1- Percentages of female enrollment at Arab universities
I here wish to highlight the one aspect that is the least noticed and appreciated, the one which breaks stereotypes and preconceptions about the contemporary Arab society: higher education of women and female enrollment in science fields.
Figure 2- Percentages of female enrollment at universities in various world countries
As can already be seen from my remark above on TIMSS results of Arab students broken by gender, girls are fast achieving much higher performance than boys in most Arab countries. Below are histograms (from recent World Bank data) showing the percentages of female general enrollment at Arab universities (Figure 1), compared with universities in other world countries (Figure 2).
Even more interesting is the data shown in Figure 3: percentages of females enrolled in Science fields at Arab universities, compared with other countries. It is immediately striking that girls make up as much as 80 % of science students in some Arab countries! It is also interesting to note that the “traditional” Gulf states (Qatar, UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia) are where girls are going to universities – and to science fields – in droves! This, in my view, shows that the matter is not related to religion or even tradition, but rather affluence. The richer a country is (at least in the Arab world), the more its female population will get to universities and outnumber the boys in Science fields…Another example is the number of graduates in Science subjects in a country like Saudi Arabia: in 1999-2000, 372 graduates were awarded M. Sc. degrees in those fields, 39% of them were women; 52 graduates were granted Ph. D. degrees, 79% of them were women!