How University Admissions Distorts Some Arab Societies
by Elizabeth Buckner
AMMAN–Duaa graduated from high school with an 84.3 on the tawjihi, the Jordanian exit exam. She hoped to major in accounting – a subject she excelled at in high school.
Like all Jordanians, Duaa applied to university through a centralized system known as the Unified Admissions Commission, which allows students to provide up to 30 different preferences of combinations of universities and majors. Duaa listed accounting at the University of Jordan as her top choice. She knew her tawjihi score was not technically high enough, but she held out hope nonetheless.
Optic sciences at the Jordanian University of Science in Technology was her second choice, because she was interested in science and technical fields. Learning Korean at the University of Jordan was her third choice, persuaded by her brother’s conviction that foreign languages were going to be in demand in the future.
With business, health sciences, and foreign language all considered equally possible futures, Duaa’s admissions preferences seem almost chaotic. But her experience is largely representative of how youth in the Arab world decide on the academic path that may well determine the rest of their lives. Most Arab nations, including Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Syria, and Tunisia have some version of centralized admissions systems that sort students, based almost exclusively on secondary exit examinations, into universities and fields of study.
This admissions process means that most Arab youth, at the age of 18, select a field of study without ever having taken a class in that subject. These high school students also have little understanding of the career options determined by various degrees or majors, and often, little understanding of what certain subjects are.
The shortcomings of this admissions process have long been recognized. But until the process changes to allow youth more flexibility in what and where they study, little hope exists that Arab higher education will be able to meet the needs of its economy – or its youth.
Although Duaa’s tawjihi score was higher than needed for optic sciences, she was assigned to a concentration in Korean – an unsure bet for a Jordanian, where Korean businesses have not made many inroads. She speculates that this is partly because the Korean was a new program that the university was trying to fill. Duaa graduated from university last year and began teaching Arabic to foreigners, many of whom are from Korea, and so she finds some use for her Korean in her current job. But she still believes she could have excelled at accounting, and wishes she could have studied it.
Like Duaa, many other Arab students are steered into majors that they have little interest in or understanding of. Only the top performers have access to a wide range of what are regarded as more desirable careers such as medicine, dentistry, and architecture.
At best, this system places students in majors that are out of line with their aptitudes – at worst, it creates resentments of the system. In interviews I carried out in 2009 and 2010 in Damascus, Syrian youth lamented, “I would have been a good banker, if only they would let me study accounting.” Moroccan families have also complained in an article in Le Matin (in French) of the fact that their children need impossibly high marks to study in the prestigious programs at the grandes écoles.
At the societal level, the sorting system creates a rank-order of academic concentrations, with clear minimum scores set for admission. The rank-order is publicly available knowledge, available online in Jordan, Egypt, and Syria. Ordinary students and families internalize this ranking as a reflection of prestige, and the ranking becomes self-fulfilling, as students are pressured by families and socialized by peers and schools to pursue only the most prestigious fields, even if they enjoy the social sciences or humanities.
This admission system has also created the conditions for parallel public education systems to expand and private universities to flourish, leaving public universities in a precarious position, often further out of touch with economic reality. The parallel education systems that now exist in Syria, Egypt, and Jordan allow students who are not accepted into the competitive, subsidized public programs to pay more to attend the same programs. Universities benefit from the substantially higher tuition these students pay. (Sample fee charts from the University of Jordan are here). Those students who can afford it benefit from greater freedom of choice. But such programs unfairly shut out low-income students unable to pay the fees, and add to already simmering class resentments in many Arab countries.
Many educators do not realize the breadth of this inequity. My own research has found that in Jordan, as many as half of all seats at certain universities are now set aside for students in parallel learning – making competition for the publicly-subsidized seats even more fierce. Internal records show that at the prestigious University of Jordan, 3,407 students were accepted into the parallel program in 2012-2013, while 3,511 were accepted through the unified admissions committee. (Another 1,400 were accepted through exceptional admissions programs or as international students.)
Private universities, of uneven quality at best, also thrive in this context, by allowing students to study more prestigious majors or ones with better career options at their own expense.
At the societal level, centralized admissions means that the best and brightest students are heavily skewed to medical fields, engineering, and some natural sciences. The social sciences and humanities are dumping grounds for students who are not academically motivated, leaving Arab countries without leaders educated in disciplines focused on writing and analysis.
The centralization of admissions process also deprives universities of autonomy, as central admissions committees often force universities to accept many more students than they can actually educate. The same education ministries will simultaneously criticize public universities for large class sizes.
The problems inherent in centralized university admissions have been recognized for many years, and some changes are on the way. Jordan has declared that for the first time, aspiring medical students will apply directly to medical schools in 2013, and that anyone with a mark above 85 will be eligible to apply. Roughly 500 students will be accepted to a first-year class and given a chance to continue.
Additional reforms are needed. At the very least, high school students in Arab nations must be given more career counseling about job choices and the academic requirements for different academic concentrations. Admissions committees could also make better admissions decisions by focusing on students’ performance related to their preferred majors, not a single exam score.
Ultimately, a knowledge economy requires engaged, intelligent, and passionate youth in all sectors of the economy. Arab universities need scholars in the social science and humanities. Arab youth need to be able to make informed decisions about their educational and career paths, and greater freedom to choose concentrations in line with their interests and aptitudes.
Elizabeth Buckner is a Ph.D. candidate in international and comparative education at Stanford University Graduate School of Education. She was a Fulbright Grantee to Morocco in 2006, and has researched higher education in Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco and Syria, as well as working, teaching, and studying in those countries.