MANAMA, BAHRAIN—Salman Mousa, who is 28 years old, did not regret for one day not joining the university. After receiving his high school diploma, he went straight to the job market.
“I wanted to make enough money and rely on myself as soon as possible,” Mousa said. He believes he was lucky to find a job in a coffee shop with a salary of $800 a month.
“I bought a car and got married,” he said, “while many of my relatives who graduated from college have not found good jobs even now.”
Mousa is not the only Bahraini male student who does not believe in the importance of enrolling at a university. Sixty-three percent of the students who enter the University of Bahrain, the largest public university in the kingdom, are female, according to the university’s statistics. Similarly women are 57 percent of Saudi Arabia’s university graduates, 67 percent of Kuwait’s graduates, and 54 percent of Qatar’s graduates, according to a Booz and Company report. (See a related article: Women in the Gulf: Better Educated But Less Employed.)
Of course, there are multiple reasons. “It’s the community’s culture,” said Walid Zebari, a professor at Arabian Gulf University who is studying the phenomenon of young people who drop out of education in Bahrain. “Many of the male students prefer to start work early to feel independent,” he says. Most men marry before they reach the age of thirty, he added. That means they want to have a job to support their families.
The problem reaches back into the early years and also often has roots in poverty. “The dropout problem goes back to schools,” said Nora Abuflasa, head of the education department at the Ministry of Education. “Teens stop their education to help their parents due to their poor financial situation,” she said. But she says most Bahrainis get a basic education and the country has a low illiteracy rate—less than 2.46 percent of the population.
Entering university is not an easy task in Bahrain, some students said.
“The admission rate is very low,” said Sultan Ahmed, a 25-year-old who works as a sales representative.
To join the University of Bahrain, the biggest public university, students have to get more than 70 percent on their final high school exam. Ahmed, who got 68 percent, could not join either the public university or the many private ones. “It is very expensive, and many can’t afford it,” he said. (See a related chart on the cost of Arab private universities.)
Ahmed says girls enjoy better educational opportunities, as their families pay for their education while expecting male students to rely on themselves at an early age.
“Without the support of my family, I would not have been able to complete the university,” said Fatima Khalil, who has a bachelor’s degree in accounting and works at a private company. “My father did not finish his university study as he had to work early, but he was interested in enrolling me at university,” she said, with pride.
There are no figures on the impact of the shortage of male university graduates on the economy or even the young men’s careers. But Bahrain’s government has recently reduced the “Bahrainisation policy”—a labor law that gives priority to local citizens over expatriates when it comes to jobs. That policy has been in place since the 1990’s, but the government has found that there isn’t enough expertise among locals to fill many jobs.
“We need more college graduates to support the local labor market with local expertise and reduce foreign labor,” said Zebari. “It’s the government’s responsibility to encourage students to complete their university study.”
Some men already believe this. “Studying at the university has changed my whole idea about my life,” said Salem al-Naimi, a male third-year student in accounting in Bahrain University. “It’s not how much I am going to earn later but how I feel about myself,” he added. “I am much better now.”
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