The Relationship Between English and Employability in the Middle East and North Africa

Erling, Elizabeth (2015). The Relationship Between English and Employability in the Middle East and North Africa. British Council, Manchester.


This report explores what is known about the relationship between English language learning and employability in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

Section 1 summarises the economic situation in MENA and describes some of the approaches to reform that have been proposed to generate economic growth, which include labour market reform (a focus on demand), and investment in education and changes in education systems (a focus on supply). It concludes with a collated list of recommendations for reforming MENA economies.

Section 2 provides an overview of education systems in MENA and educational policy attempts to respond to economic and social needs in the region. Included in these reforms are proposals to enhance both access to and quality of education; making education more responsive to the needs of the private sector; and expanding and improving English language teaching. This section also presents an overview of the data that exists on the relationship between economic development and education that is relevant to the region. It demonstrates that overall investments in education, though significant in many countries across the region (and particularly in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), have not resulted in the expected outcomes (i.e. significant improvements in the provision of education).

Section 3 looks at the role and status of English in society and in education systems across MENA, and considers the role of the language in promoting employability. The section first reviews the evidence that relates English language learning to economic gain for nations and individuals, paying heed also to the results that have been found elsewhere. It suggests that there is a relationship between English language skills and economic gain, but the benefits at a national level are limited by the wider system and factors such as macro-economic stability, good governance and transparency. Similarly, a person’s social environment and individual circumstances limit the returns of English at an individual level. So without targeting the long-embedded inequalities in terms of gender, ethnicity and the urban-rural divide, education in general – and English language education in particular – is not likely to provide disadvantaged individuals with the resources that they need to catch up. There is little quantitative evidence from the MENA region that would allow us to make claims such as “an individual who speaks English earns X% more than an individual that doesn’t” – and this might be the type of evidence that parents and policy makers would most like to see. But even when such claims are made, they are restricted to certain employment sectors and geographic regions and cannot be generalised to whole populations or regions.

Evidence also shows that while English language skills are related to economic opportunities, the same can be said of any language skills. Multilingualism is very valuable for societies, and it is certainly not the case, as was once thought by some, that multilingualism acts as a barrier to economic development. This provides good justification for ensuring that local and national languages maintain a strong role in societies, and that children are offered opportunities to develop a strong foundation of literacy and communication skills in local languages, which will then, in turn, ensure a strong basis for second language learning.

Section 3 ends with a review of the emerging research into English language teaching programmes and programmes in higher education that are using English as medium of instruction (EMI). These studies highlight the serious challenges involved in implementing effective English language teaching initiatives in the region. They also uncover clear needs to develop teachers’ competences in student-centred, communicative teaching approaches, as well as abilities to deliver sector-specific, authentic ESP programmes. Research into EMI raises severe concerns about the efficacy of such programmes in MENA and the opportunities for students to access learning through English. Moreover, the research uncovers concerns among some MENA populations (overall but particularly in the GCC) of dominance of global culture over local values, as well as efforts to maintain local values, cultures, religion and languages.

This research therefore implies that offering quality English language teaching is a challenge in the region. Offering education through English as the only medium seems likely to act as a further hindrance to learning. Despite the significant investment of governments and individuals, even in some of the most generously funded education systems in the world, these challenges persist. This suggests that there are wider issues at stake, and that there is a need for significant transformation in education systems and traditions. Access to high quality English language teaching should be equitable, and should offer individuals opportunities to enhance their capabilities in ways that allow them to capitalise on economic and social opportunities and to take ownership of English as a medium for the expression of local values. At the moment there is little evidence that this is happening.
The report concludes by summarising the implications of this review and by proposing recommendations for policy makers and implementers that would help support the transformation of education systems in MENA so that education and language learning can better contribute to human development. These recommendations relate to both wider education systems in general, as the context in which language learning and skills development sits, and English language teaching in particular. The recommendations include:

Approaches concerning language use and language learning
• Applying a bilingual/multilingual approach to education at all levels and in all countries to support improvements in quality
• Building more bridges to allow students to move between their local languages and varieties, the national language and international languages
• Ensuring strong foundations in local language(s) literacies as well as English literacy, with bridges connecting the two
• Ensuring that appropriate language learning pedagogies are used with young learners so that they gain confidence and useful communication skills
• Promoting high quality English language teaching through appropriate teacher education or professional development initiatives and shifts in assessment policies

Curriculum reforms
• Implementing in policy and practice learner-centred pedagogies that move away from rote learning and memorisation
• Integrating critical thinking, problem solving and autonomy skills into the subject curriculum
• Updating the curriculum to be relevant to the real needs of society

Teacher education
• Strengthening systems for initial teacher education and opportunities for the professional development of practising teachers over time and at scale
• Harnessing ICTs for the provision of teacher education
• Providing support for teachers to enact multilingual strategies in the classroom to support students in learning to communicate in local, national and international languages

Educational system reforms
• Implementing national quality assurance standards
• Reforming assessment systems so that they ensure that certain knowledge and competencies are learned instead of working as gatekeepers
• Maintaining focus on improving quality of basic education so that it is relevant to people’s lives and potential for employment
• Embedding more flexibility into education systems
• Focusing on equity issues (particularly those related to location, gender and language background)
• Ensuring that education is delivered in a medium that students can access

Technical education
• Ensuring that skills development initiatives are relevant and accessible to those who need them most (reducing barriers to vocational education)
• Embedding literacy and numeracy development and language learning within Technical Vocational Educational Training (TVET)
• Improving the image of TVET (through enhancing employability)

Further research, monitoring and evaluation
• Filling the data gap with regards to learning outcomes in the region in general and in terms of English levels among teachers and students
• Developing independent education research institutions
• Promoting monitoring and evaluation, for sharing good practice across the region, and for scaling up successful initiatives
• Providing more quantitative data about levels of English in society and needs for English (and other languages) in the labour market, including the informal sector
• Providing more qualitative data – through case studies – about what people can actually do with English language skills once obtained, what challenges can be solved and opportunities sought with additional competences in English

This report suggests that such education initiatives (including those in ELT) are embedded within wider programmes for development that take into account the larger structural issues in order to enhance people’s opportunities and capabilities.

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