[The following interview was conducted by Otmane Amagour with Hicham Alaoui, Research Associate at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, on his recently released volume The Political Economy of Education in The Arab World (Lynne Reinner, 2021), which he coedited with Robert Springborg. To read the introduction and table of contents, click here.]
Otmane Amagour (OA): There have been many studies on the crisis that the education sector is undergoing in Arab countries. How does your study move beyond existing research and what are the novel contributions it offers?
Hicham Alaoui (HA): While many studies have been undertaken on Arab education, and they all agree that a fundamental crisis exists, the solutions are focused on highly technical reforms, such as improving infrastructure and pedagogy. For instance, common reform proposals include upgrading school facilities, introducing new technologies, enhancing teacher training, and updating textbooks and curriculum. These are important, but they also neglect the biggest problem of all, which is the political context of education.
Arab educational systems are embedded in larger political structures. We call these structures “limited access orders,” more commonly known as authoritarianism. Limited access orders operate by controlling the distribution of knowledge, which is the most precious resource, across vast segments of society. They see humanistic education, which delivers the skills needed for critical thinking and self-emancipation, as existential threats. An active, engaged, and empowered citizenry is one that will question authority and demand answers to the pressing problems of their economy and state. The entire focus of the book therefore explores how educational systems have been so suppressed, and what possibilities exist for meaningful reform. This is partly why the volume contains explicitly comparative chapters that examine successful educational reforms outside the Middle East, such as in Latin America and East Asia.
OA: You wrote that the education crisis contributed to the advent of the Arab Uprisings. How did that process unfold? Do you think reforming the education system in the Arab world can address the social crises that animated Arab Uprisings in 2011?
HA: The educational crisis of the Arab world was not the singular cause of the Arab Uprisings, but it contributed to them. Because educational systems are interconnected to limited access orders that inflict high levels of inequality, citizens in the region were left marginalized. They exited schools that had become ‘credential factories,’ and were unprepared for a job market that was already too small to employ them. Their states had atrophied in the provision of goods and services and had no answers for the masses of youths who craved opportunities. In this way, defective education contributed to the broader feelings of exclusion, injustice, and helplessness that precipitated the Arab Uprisings.
Because education is intertwined with the state and the economy, successful educational reforms will never be the panacea in resolving the broader social crisis of the Arab world. However, it must be part of any solution, and that solution must start now.
OA: How has the role of the education systems in Arab countries evolved post-colonialism and how has that trajectory shaped the challenges confronting education sectors in the Arab world today?
HA: For generations, educational systems were considered the prerogative of authoritarian states that sought to cultivate civil servants and acquiescent citizens. Schools were also used as instruments to impose civic cultures, which embodied ruling ideologies or else identities that were predicated upon national narratives controlled by the state. Education therefore allowed the elites who controlled their limited access orders to standardize their societies without providing the tools and skills that would inspire citizens to confront them.
Such systems faltered once the Middle East entered the era of globalization. The rapid pace of educational expansion in many Arab countries during the post-colonial decades sacrificed quality for access. While more citizens gained basic literacy over time, they were exposed to stagnant models of learning that did not adapt to broader structural changes, such as de-territorialization. The modern global economy partly operates on the principle of meritocracy, and the idea that one’s outcome in life should match one’s performance and effort. Yet in the Arab educational systems, effort or performance in schools seldom dictated life outcomes, given the preponderance of political favoritism. The goal of education was to serve the state, rather than prepare citizens to compete in an open market.
OA: One of the impediments to education reform you identify is “Islamists’ domination” of the education bureaucracy. Could you elaborate on this idea?
HA: The relationship between religion and education in most Arab countries has always been a sensitive subject. Since the post-colonial era, educational systems treated religion as a sacred object. The teaching of religion was carefully coopted by the state in order to ensure that the religious sphere itself remained under political control. This contestation over who wielded religious authority is similar to how many Arab governments have treated Islamist movements, whose efforts to influence education were either rebuffed or else created uncomfortable bargains. The fungible point is that if reform is to transform these educational systems, the area of religion will be a particularly difficult one to resolve.
OA: You said that the Arab world has not yet fully entered into what is known as the “knowledge economy.” What are the obstacles that is preventing this from taking place?
First, any technical educational reforms must be paired with an essential rethinking of the political context. Even the best reformist interventions can be sabotaged from above. For instance, the spread of computer-based teaching (that is, educational technology, or EdTech) can upgrade student abilities, but it also gives governments more tools to control the learning process as well. Some states, like those in the Gulf, have sought to import Western or Asian models of education, but these are exceptional cases. They desire the outputs of those models without paying the true costs. Those costs include accepting a citizenry that is empowered with critical thinking and possessing the knowledge and skills to challenge authority figures.
Second, there are no instant solutions. Fully incorporating into the knowledge economy requires a long-term process of gradual improvement and ramping up. Even in advanced economies like that of the United States, there are severe domestic inequalities in the distribution of knowledge. For instance, in California, Silicon Valley is not far from some of the state’s poorest neighborhoods and agricultural communities. I believe the experience of India can be instructive, for it is now engaging in this slow process of adaptation. India took two generations to transform itself from a peasant economy with widespread illiteracy to a middle-income economy with pockets of high-tech excellence. It is now one of the fastest growing economies outside the West.
Education and economics work in symbiosis. Any improvement of educational inputs requires that the economy also provide opportunities that can take advantage of the added value in human resources. This takes time.
OA: Is the independence of education institutions from the state a prerequisite for educational reform?
HA: Educational institutions do not need to be completely disconnected from the state, but evidence suggests that they need autonomy to make local decisions. Indeed, freedom from outside interference has been a longstanding concern among students and teachers. During the Arab Uprisings, many protesting student movements at Arab universities understood the stakes of their struggle. Those stakes included the right to elect their university officials and organize without political interference, such as by arranging academic conferences, participating in international exchange programs, and publishing freely in global outlets.
Two key pieces of evidence underscore the importance of school autonomy. First, the World Bank has invested billions of dollars in educational reform in the Arab world, but few of these measures have improved learning outcomes or post-graduate economic success. World Bank experts now conclude that one major cause has been that while donors pour money into state-controlled systems, those who control these systems commandeer the funds and do not allocate them to areas of need. This leaves educators without any sense of ownership over their work.
Second, successful educational reforms in other regions often hinged upon giving schools and universities more space to make local decisions, without constant pressures from state bureaucracies. This has been the case of Latin America and East Asia, which in the early post-colonial years featured levels of education that were just as poor as the Arab world. Over time, their systems improved partly because educators were able to relieve some of their political pressures and implement innovative solutions to problems of learning and retention.
OA: Despite the reports of poor quality of education in Arab countries, public schools are still producing high-quality scholars and academics who are rapidly integrating into the Western knowledge society. How can one make sense of that paradox?
HA: This paradox can be explained with two self-reinforcing factors. First, many of the products of Arab education that seem to integrate so well with knowledge-based economies in the West come from relatively privileged groups. This embodies the deep inequality of many of these educational systems. Elites who already possess wealth or connections can afford private schooling, tutoring, and other opportunities that most others do not have. As a result, the inequality inherent in limited access orders reproduces itself.
Second, many Arab immigrants of non-elite backgrounds do indeed flourish in the West. However, such individuals serve as resounding proof of our book’s thesis. The crisis of Arab education comes not from culture or society, but from the broader political constraints that shackle the life trajectories of citizens. When Arab citizens leave those constraints behind and prosper in knowledge-based economies, that is clear evidence that the spirit of entrepreneurship and the seeds of success exist with all of the youths in our region.
OA: You made an earlier comment suggesting that shifting the role of education from an incubator for the civil service to a lever for economic and social growth threatens the political order because it weakens the education sector’s traditional role of promoting political loyalty and national identity. Does this mean there is an absence of political will for real reform of the education system?
HA: The largest Arab states are caught in a bind. On the one hand, they recognize the dire need to improve their failing educational systems, due to their stagnant economies, the need to integrate with the global marketplace, and their abysmal performance on international testing benchmarks. They also recognize that their societies nurture a deep desire to improve their education and obtain better opportunities. However, drastically reconfiguring their educational systems would create the very type of citizens that threaten their hegemonic position and destabilize entrenched structures of inequality. They need to reform, and indeed may wish to reform, but political considerations prevent them from fully committing to this pathway.
The smallest Gulf countries have a different problem. They have implemented foreign models of education in order to fuel economies that are heavily subsidized by energy rents. Yet in doing so, they are not benefiting from the gains of true educational reform, for the type of learning and research embodied in their imported educational systems remain constrained by politics as well. Educational solutions must therefore be organic. They cannot be imported from abroad.
OA: The book suggests that the success of education is linked to political and economic reform in the Arab world. Is that a case for “privatizing education”?
The book does not defend privatization, for this is not the solution. In many countries like Egypt, privatization was a response to the budgetary burdens of maintaining inefficient public schools. It was also a way to accommodate neoliberal economic pressures. However, privatization exacerbates the inequality ingrained within limited access orders. Those who can take advantage of the best private schools tend to come from privileged backgrounds. This results in a bifurcated system, whereby the vast majority of society remains trapped in failing schools while an elite minority can exit from that system and thrive.
The failure of privatization within education exhibits a strong parallel to how many Arab countries undertook privatization in their economies. Privatization of state-owned firms and public assets was often pervaded by corruption, cronyism, and clientelism. Politically-connected elites enriched themselves, even as most citizens saw no real improvement in their living standards. Moreover, much as many privatized firms remain beholden to political influence given their clientelistic capture, privatized schools in the Arab world are seldom truly free from the state as well.
OA: Moving on to the specific chapters of the book, the chapter authored by Ishac Diwan argues that there is a need for more advanced teaching curricula to enhance democracy and freedom, whereas the book more generally suggests that reforming education demands the reform and democratization of the political system. How do you reconcile these two ideas?
HA: There is no contradiction between these two types of reform. As Professor Diwan concedes, many countries can undertake both, because these types of transformations have a different timeframe and involve different actors. It is less politically costly to update old curricula and to improve the quality of teaching. This is the sort of change that can start at a small scale in local communities, before expanding at a national level. This is a bottom-up approach. By contrast, democratic reforms to the political system are going to take much more time. This is the systemic change that many people are struggling to achieve now. It involves political mobilization, creative thinking, and new bargains with leaders. We should remember that limited access orders do not disintegrate overnight. But we can still find ways to build inroads of change so long as they exist.
OA: In Diwan’s chapter, there is a recognition that high level of education is not necessarily linked to high levels of democratization. He referred to studies on non-democratic countries arguing that education has little or no influence on political participation. The book posits alternative models from East Asia and Latin America that could potentially be emulated. Have the Asian models, especially the Chinese model, proved that high quality education and democratic values do not necessarily go hand in hand?
HA: Importing the Chinese model may be tantalizing, but it comes at the risk of ignoring the context that makes that model work in the first place. As Professor Diwan analyzes, it is true that the Chinese government has been able to separate effective education from democratic values. However, their education system is also interconnected with other forces within state and society, such as the ruling party, labor markets, and social status.
The key distinguishing feature of the East Asian model is that of meritocracy. High levels of performance within education are rewarded with commensurate achievements in terms of entering politics, attaining higher status, and acquiring economic opportunities. The difference with Arab education is that most Arab educational systems exist within a context of political favoritism and clientelism, such that high levels of performance are not rewarded with commensurate success in the state or the economy. Another important point is that some of the educational infrastructure that the East Asian models are built upon were left behind by Japanese colonialism, which is not a legacy that anyone wishes to reproduce.
In moving forward, the struggle for many Arab countries is how to restructure their educational systems around the philosophy of legitimation through performance. This is the idea that makes many other models around the world successful, but the path to that ideal must be an indigenous one.
OA: In his chapter, Roel Meijer notes the contradictions in curricula related to the teaching of history in Morocco. Narratives present the European experience as a model to be emulated, while also arguing that the goal of “reform” was behind the establishment of the French protectorate in Morocco in 1912. Does this not distort students’ historical awareness?
HA: As Professor Meijer argues, it is true that Moroccan textbooks teach the idea that French colonialism in the Maghrib was partly driven by the impulse to modernize and reform Arab societies that it viewed as backwards. However, it is difficult to impute motives among those who write these textbooks today, which are not always clear. Furthermore, different colonial experiences engendered different educational responses within the classroom. In Egypt, for instance, textbooks today treat the period of British rule with absolute hostility and interpret that part of Egyptian history as one of dark occupation. Finally, we should recall that the exclusionary nature of French colonialism in North Africa created, by definition, a limited access order. This privileged the views of French elites about the purpose of reform and the meaning of political modernity for our societies. Those elite views are still clearly with us now. In other words, there is no contradiction so much as different temporalities.
OA: Florian Kohstall argues in his chapter that the university system in Morocco is dominated by the French model, which has contributed to the crisis of the educational system in the country. Does this imply the need to adopt the Anglo-Saxon approach to university education or perhaps the need to produce new models altogether?
HA: We cannot reinvent the wheel. As Professor Kohstall argues, the system of qualifications at Moroccan universities was indeed designed to be generalized with the French system. However, this does not mean that Morocco is simply reproducing an external model. Universities are an ancient concept and are not an exclusively European enterprise. As Kohstall’s chapter notes, the problem with Moroccan universities is not their structure of qualifications or institutional design, but rather their autonomy from the rest of the state. Like most other Arab universities, Moroccan institutions of higher learning cannot become islands of excellence unless they have greater control over their intellectual capital and educational resources. Indeed, this is a real struggle unfolding in many national universities in the Arab world.
OA: Kohstal’s chapter notes that the momentum for reform in Egyptian universities died down after the military coup in 2013. Is reforming Egyptian universities only possible through a democratic transition? And in your opinion, how can such a democratic transition be brought about in Egypt? Is it through “political reconciliation” or does the current situation demand a new uprising?
HA: Let me first tackle the latter inquiry about Egyptian democratization. As a political scientist, I can say that regime transitions are complex processes. They hinge upon many factors, such as economic pressures, political pluralism, social mobilization, and regional geopolitics. It is difficult to predict with certainty how systemic change might occur to Egyptian politics, but it will likely involve greater popular participation.
As for the other question, let me reframe Professor Kohstall’s analysis in this way. The possibility of reforming Egyptian universities is low indeed, for the following reason. Educational reforms at the university level are far more difficult than at the primary or secondary level, because universities in Egypt were historically bastions of social and political contestation. It is where many intellectual movements, student groups, leftist parties, and other forms of free thinking originated. In this context, it is easy to understand why the Egyptian state since 2013 has tightened its control over national universities. As Professor Kohstall argues, the state wishes to depoliticize their campuses. One of its strategies is to separate the concept of training from the ideal of education, such that Egyptian students approach their post-secondary learning as a technical matter rather than a humanistic phase of their lives. However, as we learned from the Arab Uprisings, it is impossible to box in dissent forever, particularly since Egyptian universities carry a rich legacy of intellectual ferment and popular discourse. One cannot have effective post-secondary training, even on technical matters, without adequate space for critical inquiry and academic freedoms. Otherwise, the state fails in both: it can neither control dissent nor train its students.
OA: In his chapter on educational policy in Egypt, Robert Springborg believes that the current crisis serves the interests of the military economic establishment. Does this mean that the military establishment in Egypt will remain resistant to any reform that conflicts with its economic rentier system, including reform of educational institutions?
HA: Professor Springborg’s argument is that the Egyptian state has sought to restructure not just the universities, but the entire educational system to serve its politics interests in the current era of Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. One of the most interesting trends has been the creation of new schools designed to produce a novel political class of loyalist elites. These schools, as Professor Springborg argues, are modelled after the Hitler Youth programs of Nazi-era Germany. The goal is to create a new cadre of bureaucrats and political servants who will carry out the mandates of the state.
The result is a three-layered reorganization of Egyptian education. Most of society is served by the failing public system. Those with resources can attend private institutions. And finally, the uppermost elites are being funneled into this new subsector of schooling run by the regime. Given this context, any far-reaching reform would certainly threaten the political logic of rentierism and clientelism that forms the backbone of this limited access order. We should remember, as Professor Springborg reminds us, that this top-down reorganization in Egypt is inspired by the model of Germany under the Third Reich. That model succeeded for a period of time not because of its elites, but because the ordinary public schooling of the country was able to create a vibrant and productive middle-class. Moreover, the model collapsed upon itself through war.
OA: The book included two chapters on education in the Gulf. The first showed that the cost of having American university campuses in the Gulf is greater than the knowledge-based returns they generate. The second highlighted the failure of the Saudi scholarship system. Despite these shortcomings, is it not the case that these educational projects are making Gulf youth intellectually freer and more receptive to political reform?
It is too soon to say whether having Western university branches in the Gulf, or financing foreign scholarship programs like in Saudi Arabia, can transform the social and political systems of these countries. However, let me make the following observations, in channeling the arguments of these two chapters by Professor Davidson and Mr. Hamaizia.
First, let us engage these scholarship programs. Certainly, many Gulf students study abroad at Western institutions, and acquire new cultural experiences and political values. However, this is not a case of young people studying at Western universities and coming home as revolutionaries, as in the example of Ho Chi Minh and his transformative time at the University of Sorbonne in Paris. When Gulf students return home, most are reabsorbed into the existing systems of socialization and political norms of their countries. However, this does not mean they are apolitical, which is a reality that younger leaders have recognized and sought to harness against an older generation. I also see the knowledge and ideas they learned abroad beginning to slowly recirculate within their societies, particularly on social media. But altogether, this is a dynamic process, and will likely take another generation to play out.
The opposite effect is true with the opening of Western university branches in the Gulf. This strategy seems to serve three purposes. One is to mitigate the impact of local students studying abroad and returning home with disruptive ideas. The second strategy is encouraging Western elites and governments to buy into the economic development schemes of these countries. The final strategy is to retain the financial flows that emanate from these countries, and to reinvest them domestically.
OA: How does this book build on your previous work?
HA: This project comes out of my broader intellectual commitment to, and scholarly work on, democratic transformations in the Middle East and North Africa. I have studied the dynamics of political transition and institutional continuity in our region for twenty-five years. After the Arab Uprisings, I began to critically dissect the long-term trajectories of political development that characterize these countries. I realized that while political change is easily detected at the level of institutions and regimes, the building blocks of progress will always rest within society. I want to dedicate my attention upon these human forces which are not directly political but have tremendous political implications.
OA: What are your next research projects?
There are several other areas that have captured my interest and similarly reflect this theme of focusing on the social building blocks of change. One is the nature of local governance, including social policy, in the Middle East and North Africa. Another is critically interrogating the effects of security assistance and conflict across our region. Climate change also represents another very urgent topic.
These all represent fields of inquiry that have either been understudied, or else have not been properly studied from the perspective of politics and political economy. I am well underway in engaging these areas by producing expertise through scholarly collaboration, fostering deep and reflective deliberations among researchers, and by encouraging cross-regional analysis so as to gain greater perspective on our own region.