This commentary was published in The Gulf Times on 26/05/2011
Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nationals are happy with the quality of education on offer, even if their governments are not happy and are seeking serious reform and improvement from kindergarten right up to post-graduate studies.
The people seem happy to accept the huge improvements that schools have gone through in the past 30 years. But their governments have recognised their duty to ensure that the UAE and other GCC states match the best in the world, and therefore, regardless of their achievements, they know that there is still a lot more to do.
A wide-ranging report published this week by the Abu Dhabi Gallup Centre titled Progress and Tradition in the GCC States indicated that the policy-makers have got well ahead of the people on the quality of education.
The populations in the GCC states record a startling satisfaction with education, despite relatively poor scores for the schools and colleges in international tests, like the TIMSS scores for maths and science tested in 2007, where scores of between 300 to just over 400 matched an international scale average of 500, and scores in Japan of 570 and the US of 508.
This low achievement has triggered widespread institutional refusal to be satisfied with the educational system and curriculum. Many government departments in the UAE at both federal and emirate level have active plans to reform teaching methods and the curriculum, and improve students' expectations.
At the college and university level, principals are talking of instilling a more enquiring cast of mind in the students, encouraging students who will think for themselves, and working to build a local capacity for research and PhDs.
But this high degree of government concern is not matched by the people's worries. Eighty-seven per cent of people in Bahrain record high satisfaction with education, and 84 per cent in the UAE. Even the lowest GCC score, from Saudi Arabia, hit 64 per cent, which is a high level of satisfaction.
One possible reason for the gap between public satisfaction and government concern over education can be explained by the limited experiences of the older generation who might have relatively low expectations.
The gap in experience between today's youth and their elders is shown by how only 47 per cent of UAE nationals in the ‘over 45' age band had secondary or some tertiary education, compared with 85 per cent of the ‘15 to 29' age band, and the Gallup survey showed an 84 per cent enrolment in secondary schools in the UAE.
Looking ahead, the report found that even if women with a higher level of education are more likely to be employed, they are still just as likely to have as many children as women who achieve less education. Men and women regard the ideal number of children as around four, and even highly educated women reported that they have three or more children.
This goes against the trend in some other parts of the world where better education has led to smaller families. This trend has very important demographic implications for the UAE, since it means that the GCC youth bulge is likely to continue and not slow down.
This projection is supported by the fact that GCC birth rates have not dropped. In particular, it means that those planning the UAE's future education requirements need to recognise that the present limits on capacity are not a short-term feature which have to be endured for a few years, and that the UAE will need more schools and colleges.
But this high value placed on the family is part of much wider respect in GCC nationals for many elements of their traditions and social values. GCC nationals hold a strong desire to be consciously proud of national and Gulf identity, which is something their governments have been very anxious about for some time.
It is also important that this desire to nurture their own values and not imitate those of the West, does not stop the GCC nationals still being strongly committed to being part of the global world.
This awareness of Gulf identity is a strong feature of most GCC nationals' thinking, and it cuts across both liberal and conservative GCC states: for example, over 61 per cent of nationals in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE agree that religion is an essential part of their lives, whereas across the Arab League, the median is 52 per cent.
This is not limited to the older generation, as over half the ‘15 to 29' age band in Bahrain, Kuwait and the UAE all strongly agreed that faith was involved in all aspects of their lives. And the numbers are very similar for both men and women.
There may be an aspect of social pressure in this impressively cohesive picture, as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar all answered with scores of over 88 per cent when they agreed that they were respected when they practised their religion in public. But even such pressure could not bring in such widespread unanimity on the need to nurture home values.