The Youth Bulge in the Middle East and North Africa is Breaking Higher Education in the Region: How Should Governments Address the Challenge?

The youth bulge in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is at the root of many social issues both across the region and beyond it. The current conflicts in Syria and elsewhere in the area notwithstanding, much of the ‘normal’ migration to Europe from MENA nations is to obtain jobs given the high unemployment in the region (Gubert and Nordman 2014, 2). This situation arises from fast growing youth populations across the region that have outpaced the area’s economic growth (Gubert and Nordman 2014, 27). MENA governments have sought to address the baby boom in part by increasing access to higher education. They are building more and more universities and frequently doing so without the resources—trained faculty, for example—to support them (Jaramillo 2011, 13, Lamine 2010, 19). While expanding university systems to accommodate more students may seem, on the face of it, an appropriate policy response to a growing youth population, providing more post-secondary schools is stressing resources and lowering educational quality in nations across the region. Moreover, once students graduate, MENA nations’ ill-developed market economies offer them few opportunities (UNICEF MENA Regional Office 2010, 64).

My original animating question for this essay was: “Is building more universities an appropriate policy response to the youth bulge in the MENA states?” What follows is an excerpt from the draft introduction to my dissertation, written some time ago, which addresses the topic of higher education financing in the Middle East. I thought I might tweak it for this week’s Reflections. In re-reading it critically, however, I noticed how caught up I had become in the arguments in the original literature—from the World Bank and similar sources. I was struck in this reading, however, by the paradox implicit in building universities to train youths for jobs that do not exist. Bear with me for the concluding thoughts.

A 2011 World Bank report on higher education in the MENA countries pointed to three primary issues facing governments in that area: increasing access to higher education, financing university studies and preparing young adults for the job market (Jaramillo and Melonio 2011, v). As noted above, underlying these issues is a systemic problem of rapid population growth across the region, particularly among youth. A 2009 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report on security issues confronting Arab states described the problem succinctly:

The most evident and challenging aspect of the region’s demographic profile is its ‘youth bulge.’ Young people are the fastest growing segment of Arab countries’ populations. Some 60 per cent of the population is under 25 years old, making this one of the most youthful regions in the world, with a median age of 22 years compared to a global average of 28 (UNDP 2009, 3).

This phenomenon is not expected to peak across all MENA countries until 2045 (Galal 2008, 55).

This large cohort of youth is currently working its way through the area’s universities. A 2009 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) report estimated the number of students in higher education across Arab states had increased 256 percent between 1998 and 2008, from 2.967 to 7.607 million (Lamine 2010, 11). During a similar period, the number of universities in the MENA region more than doubled from 178 to 398. The UNESCO analysis argued that two principal factors were contributing to this increase in relatively equal measure: rising population and growing social demand for higher education. The variety of higher education institutions has also grown to include more open and virtual and private for-profit and not-for-profit institutions and international branch campuses (Jaramillo 2011, 13, Lamine 2010, 19). In addition to building new universities, MENA governments have added many alternatives such as community and teacher training colleges and technical training programs to the higher education mix (Lamine 2010, 19). While the region’s states have made progress in providing broad access to post-secondary school opportunities, the numbers of students entering universities continues to grow at a phenomenal pace (Jaramillo 2011, v).

The rapidly growing populations in MENA countries have created staggering pressures on higher education. While college and university enrollments doubled for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) states between 1995 and 2009, they tripled for MENA nations during that same period. During the eight-year period from 2000-2008, average enrollments at Middle Eastern and North African universities increased an average 20 to 30 percent. World Bank Senior Education Specialist Adrianna Jaramillo has predicted an additional rise in MENA higher education enrollments of as high as 50 percent by 2023 (World Bank 2013). She has called for colleges and universities to find alternative sources of funding to support this growth, given that “tax increases are highly unlikely” (World Bank 2013). Enrollment pressure resulting from the region’s youth bulge has stressed facilities, caused teacher shortages and stretched financial resources (Jaramillo and Melonio 2011, v).

State supported higher education in MENA nations is challenged by a relative dearth of financial resources, underprepared students entering the system and difficult employment situations for graduates.  As historic numbers of youths make their way into higher education, universities throughout the region are facing the challenge of educating more individuals with diminishing resources. On the surface, higher education spending as a portion of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in many MENA states appears on par with state expenditures for the purpose in the European Union (averaging 1.4 percent of GDP) and OECD (averaging 1.2 percent of GDP). Some nations in the region, such as Algeria (2.6 percent of GDP) and Libya (3 percent of GDP), for example, approach or exceed spending by the U.S. (about 2.7 percent of GDP).

However, when the populations of MENA countries are factored into their spending for higher education, i.e., higher education spending per enrollment as a portion of GDP per capita, the financial stress these nations now confront becomes clear. As the number of students enrolling in universities increases at a greater rate than the growth occurring in the general population, which is the case with the current youth population bulge among the MENA nations, higher education spending per student decreases. Indeed, while average spending per student among the region’s states increased from U.S.$ 1,288 to U.S.$ 2,082 between 1995 and 2009, higher education spending per student as a proportion of GDP per capita decreased by an average 45 percent during the same period (Jaramillo and Melonio 2011, 17).

A 2010 United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report criticized school systems in MENA countries at all levels as of “uneven quality and relevance” and inconsistently preparing students for careers (UNICEF MENA Regional Office 2010, 84). Students in these nations evidence a lack of interest in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, high dropout rates and relatively low average educational attainment compared to other world regions (UNICEF MENA Regional Office 2010, 64). The UNICEF analysis also cited a “lack of feedback loops between the education system and the needs of the labor market,” and advised:

The global marketplace calls for new competencies that the current education system is not fully prepared to teach. And to adjust to the realities of globalization, schools must be prepared to transform their curricula even while they diversify their funding sources (UNICEF MENA Regional Office 2010, 64).

The 2013 World Bank report cited above echoed this assessment, noting that large numbers of MENA graduates in the humanities and social sciences are ill-suited, “to meet the demands of the recent private sector expansion in the manufacturing and service sectors” (Jaramillo and Melonio 2011, 5).

Compounding the severity of the situation confronting higher education in MENA countries is a lack of jobs for university graduates. While unemployment among this group tends to be lower than for those who have not completed higher education, individuals who do complete college are thrust into a very competitive job market. Unemployment among youth in MENA nations is higher than that for any other world region—averaging more than 27 percent in the Middle East and 29 percent in North Africa in 2013. The International Labour Organization (2014) has reported that in many MENA countries unemployment increases with educational attainment:

For instance, over 29 percent of those with tertiary education are unemployed in Tunisia; over 26 percent in the Palestinian Authority; 22 percent in the United Arab Emirates; and over 18 percent in Morocco, 15 percent in Algeria; and around 14 per cent in Egypt (International Labour Office 2014, 64).

Both the UNICEF and World Bank reports cited above concluded that higher education in MENA countries should provide the skills that graduates need to become productive members of the workforce, i.e., that a market-oriented strategy should be central to higher education planning and curricula in the region (Jaramillo and Melonio 2011, 6, UNICEF MENA Regional Office 2010, 64).

What strikes me about the World Bank and UNICEF report conclusions is that neither addresses the fundamental issue of the numbers of universities in the region. Jobs in the MENA states are scarce and the economies of these countries are demonstrably ill prepared to absorb more graduates (Gubert and Nordman 2014, 2, UNICEF MENA Regional Office 2010, 64). Why, then, are area nations continuing to build more schools and graduate more students despite a perceived decline in the quality of those graduates and the lack of jobs available in MENA state economies? The World Bank and UNICEF have criticized MENA governments for not providing job-specific skills (Jaramillo and Melonio 2011, 5, UNICEF MENA Regional Office 2010, 64). But, adding such training will not solve the unemployment problem, it will simply add an additional group of skilled graduates to the ranks of the unemployed. If a lack of capacity is the real issue, then the real problem—the failure of the market economy under the weight of demographic change—should be the focal point.

There is a nuance in the employment situations across MENA. Particularly in the Gulf States, Western expatriate professionals have assumed many jobs in highly skilled sectors such as oil or energy. Foreign nationals such as Pakistanis, Indians and Nepalis typically fill less skilled jobs in these countries. This sort of stratification exists in many MENA states. Migration for jobs not only occurs from the region to Europe but internally from non-oil-producing nations to oil-producers (Kabbani and Kothari 2005, 25). This notwithstanding, there have been far more people entering the workforce in the past few decades than there have been jobs to absorb them (Kabbani and Kothari 2005, 3). The private sector in MENA states is inadequate to absorb the current bloom in youth population. Neither the World Bank nor UNICEF’s proposed solutions address this reality. The intractable issue is not the inability of higher education to prepare students for the job market, but the failure of policymakers and free market proponents to accept the limitations of the market economy in this part of the world.

Reading report after report critiquing the MENA situation in the same way gives one pause. Are we so caught up in the neoliberal imaginary that we see fault in ourselves before we see any in that construct? Does it really make sense to contend that MENA governments are culpable for poor higher education standards or high unemployment in their countries given the demographic challenges they confront? Or to hold higher education at fault for not preparing students adequately for jobs that do not exist? We can blame the victim, as have the World Bank and UNICEF in this case, or we can look beyond the elephant in the room for other solutions.


Galal, Ahmed. 2008. The Road Not Traveled: Education Reform in the Middle East and North Africa. Washington, D.C: World Bank.

Gubert, Flore, and Christophe J. Nordman. 2014. “Migration from MENA to OCED Countries: Trends, Determinants, and Prospects.” In Shaping the Future: A Long-Term Perspective of People and Job Mobility in the Middle East and North Africa. Washington, DC: World Bank.

International Labour Office. 2014. Global Employment Trends 2014: The risk of a jobless recovery. Genève: ILO.

Jaramillo, Adriana. 2011. Internationalization of Higher Education in MENA: Policy Issues Associated with Skills Formation and Mobility. Washington, DC: World Bank.

Jaramillo, Adriana, and Thomas Melonio. 2011. Breaking even or breaking through- reaching financial sustainability while providing high quality standards in Higher Education in the Middle East and North Africa. Washington, D.C.: World Bank.

Kabbani, Nader, and Ekta Kothari. 2005. Youth Employment in the MENA Region: A Situational Assessment. Washington, DC: World Bank.

Lamine, Bechir. 2010. Towards an Arab Higher Education Space: International Challenges and Societal Responsibilities. Beirut: UNESCO Regional Bureau for Education in the Arab States.

UNICEF MENA Regional Office. 2010. The Situation of Adolescents and Youth in the Middle East & North Africa Region: A Desk Review of Data on Current Trends and Emerging Issues Paris: UNICEF.

World Bank. 2013. “Iraq – Reforms Needed in Higher Education to Meet the Needs of Youth in the Middle East and North Africa: An interview with Adriana Jaramillo, World Bank Senior Education Specialist.” World Bank Accessed April 1, 2015.


Don BackDonald Back is a doctoral candidate in Planning, Governance and Globalization in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech.  Don currently serves as director of the Virginia Tech Language and Culture Institute, where he oversees a staff of 75 employees in three locations. His responsibilities include initiating international partnerships, developing corporate contracts and recruiting internationally. Under his leadership, the Institute has developed capacity-building projects in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Haiti, Chile, Senegal, Malaysia, Tanzania and China. A former Peace Corps volunteer in Lesotho, Back has been active in international education for nearly 30 years. He has served on a national level in the NAFSA: Association of International Educators professional association and is former president of the American Association of Intensive English Programs.  Back earned his B.S. in Biological Sciences from Wright State University and his master’s degree in international education from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.


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