Jordan today, in spite of the scarcity of its natural resources, is at the forefront of the region’s states in several areas, primary among them are education, economic growth rates, and the qualifications of the Jordanian youth who have always proved their excellence nationally and abroad.
— King Abdullah II
Citing concern over high youth unemployment rates and the need to grow its private sector and create jobs for its growing and youthful population, Jordan has recently partnered with private sector actors and international development organizations such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and The World Bank to reform its education system. Since 2003, The World Bank has contributed more than $120 million to Jordan’s education sector through its “Education Reform for Knowledge Economy” program, which focuses on improving governance and decision-making within the education system and transforming teaching and learning methods through a new curriculum that draws heavily upon the use of new technologies such as e-learning. While the long-term effects of these public-private partnerships in Jordanian education remain to be seen, Jordanian student and educator perspectives challenge some of the theoretical underpinnings of such initiatives. Using findings from a recent study of secondary schooling for boys in Jordan, for which this writer was principal investigator, this essay suggests that the educational reforms driven by Jordan’s international partnerships targeting secondary school populations neglect important factors that constrain job-seeking in Jordan, and thus may not produce the anticipated economic benefits.
Globalization, Education, and Economic Growth
Contemporary educational policymaking is increasingly defined in terms of economic growth and global competition. How knowledge is organized, disseminated, synthesized, and applied is of increasing import to education policymakers and donor agencies funding development initiatives. According to the World Bank, the present era is one where “knowledge has become the most important factor for economic growth” and nations must be able to contribute and synthesize knowledge to participate effectively in the global economy. The concept of the “knowledge economy” is intricately bound up with the notion of human capital. “Human capital” refers to the concept that a nation’s economic growth is directly correlated with the knowledge, abilities, skills, and health of its workforce. Correspondingly, investments in education are expected to generate a better-equipped and more innovative workforce, which in turn is expected to help attract investment that would fuel economic growth.
Discourses of Education Reform in Jordan
The Jordanian government, which has a strongly centralized educational system and approach to policymaking, has based its educational reform agenda upon this understanding of education and economic growth. Likewise, the ruling family of Jordan has called for an educational system that creates economic opportunities and encourages creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration among students as well as the increased use of information communication technologies (ICT) in learning and teaching. These reforms are intended to more closely match student skills and knowledge with labor market needs.
In government secondary schools, these changes have materialized with the introduction of a new academic concentration in ICT, greater integration of technology in instruction, as well as online learning activities supported by the Ministry of Education. For these and other reform efforts, Jordan has received recognition and support from its international partners. Jordan joined the World Trade Organization in 2000, and has since signed free trade agreements with the United States and the European Union. Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has noted that Jordan is an important strategic ally and friend of the United States, owing to its shared vision of reform in the Middle East.
This educational policy landscape has also attracted private sector partners who are piloting e-learning initiatives in Jordan as well. One such program is the Jordan Educational Initiative (JEI), which is being run in 100 “Discovery Schools” throughout Jordan spearheaded by Cisco Systems, Microsoft, Oracle, and other private sector partners. Jordan was selected for this initiative in part because of the state’s commitment to partner with the private sector and the stability of the top-down governance structure afforded by the monarchy. Taken together, these developments reflect Jordan’s strategy to develop an educational system that will drive economic growth and equip students with the skills necessary to participate in the knowledge economy. In reviewing the statements of King Abdullah II, Jordan’s government policy documents, and the press releases of Jordan’s international educational partners, there is a clear convergence in public-private orientations towards market-oriented educational reform, but little to suggest that these assumptions have been critically evaluated or reflect the perspectives and aspirations of Jordanian students and educators.
Constraints of Knowledge Economy-based Policies
Scholars of comparative and international education have raised important criticisms of educational policies geared towards aligning education with market demands. As noted by Spring, “one criticism of focusing schools on preparing students for the needs of the knowledge economy is that there is not enough jobs in the knowledge economy to absorb school graduates into skilled jobs and that the anticipated demand for knowledge workers has not occurred.” While Jordan enjoys comparatively high rates of educational attainment in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, high unemployment levels remain an area of domestic concern in Jordan, with unemployment in Jordan officially estimated at 12.9% and unofficially at 30%. Youth (aged 15–29) constituted 71.7% of the unemployed in Jordan in 2009. Behind this age group, the population under 15 years old in Jordan constitutes 37% of the total population, meaning that 70,000–80,000 persons are entering the workforce annually. As Queen Rania has stated, “In order to prevent unemployment rates from rising in Jordan, we have to create 80,000 jobs annually, or, in other words, a job every seven minutes.” Unemployment in Jordan is also heavily gendered. In 2009, the unemployment rate for female university graduates was 50.8%, as opposed to 17.5% for their male counterparts.
Male Secondary Student Perspectives
Male secondary students are cognizant of the increasingly competitive nature of job seeking in Jordan, and recognize that simply “being educated” does not guarantee employment or a high standard of living. This corresponds to the phenomenon known as “brain waste,” where “well-educated school graduates are unable to find a job commensurate with their skills.” While students acknowledge that being educated is important and confers social status, they identify wasta, a form of social capital and/or relationship that provides benefits that one would not otherwise be able to access, as a key determinant of one’s future prospects or employment benefits. As one student said:
Nothing gets done here without wasta. Even working hard gets you nothing when you are head to head with someone with wasta. The stupidest people on earth get by and get better opportunities because they have someone, or their fathers know someone. Some people might be opposed to it, but it is how the system works — people get ahead or stay where they are based on wasta.
This statement not only illustrates an important factor that delimits job opportunities in Jordan, it also challenges the uncritical view that investments in education will necessarily produce greater equity and opportunity for graduates. These challenges of high youth unemployment and practices of wasta are also accompanied by hiring preferences that favor foreign workers. These constraining factors are productive of important job seeking strategies on the part of Jordanian male secondary students. Namely, many of the students in this study stated that they planned on seeking employment abroad, particularly in the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf region. As one student said, “I will attend university here, but I do not know what comes next. Even though I wish to remain in Jordan, I don’t think I can if there are no jobs for me, because life here is expensive. Everyone knows the salaries in the Gulf are much higher.”
Given that Jordan faces the challenges of having high rates of unemployment and rising costs of living along with a well-educated and youthful population, will investments in education and the state’s private-public partnerships produce sustainable economic growth and additional high-skilled employment? While the long-term implications of this policy approach remain to be seen, student perspectives highlight a different socioeconomic challenge emerging. A central tenet of human capital theory and by extension, the knowledge economy, posits that investments in education will generate the skilled workforce necessary to attract investment and economic growth. If growing numbers of secondary students, upon competing their university education, decide to leave Jordan owing to rising costs of living, increasing competition for jobs and the prevalence of the need for social connections to access opportunity, can investments in market-oriented education policies be deemed “successful?” Similarly, if the expanding supply of highly skilled graduates, Jordan’s “human capital,” is increasingly migrating overseas for employment in high-skilled sectors, it raises the issue that the receiving countries are potentially benefiting more than Jordan from Jordan’s own investments in education. While there is debate over the economic impact of highly skilled emigration on sending countries, it is likely that the benefits of education reform for the knowledge economy in Jordan will not materialize linearly or as anticipated by policymakers.
. The World Bank, Constructing Knowledge Societies: New Challenges for Tertiary Education (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2002).
. G. Becker, Human Capital (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964).
. R. Shirazi, “Building a Knowledge Economy: The Case of Jordan,” World Studies in Education (submitted).
. R. Shirazi, “Building a Knowledge Economy: The Case of Jordan.”
. J. Spring, Globalization of Education (New York: Routledge, 2009), pp. 50–51.
. CIA World Factbook. Unemployment Rate, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2129….
. Arabian Business Report, “Jordan Needs New Job Every Seven Minutes,” April 30, 2008, http://www.arabianbusiness.com/517944-jordan-needs-new-job-every-seven-…
. Spring, Globalization of Education, p. 51.
. Millennium Challenge Account-Jordan, Constraint Analysis Report, http://www.mca-jordan.gov.jo/index.php?page_type=pages&page_id=246.