Morocco facing a major rebuild of education systems

Morocco is currently one of the largest source countries for outbound student mobility in Africa. UNESCO estimates that 44,161 Moroccan students studied abroad in 2012 – which puts it on par with the burgeoning Nigerian market, a market that sent roughly 50,000 higher education students abroad in the same year. (Editor’s note: Some reports will indicate Morocco to be the more significant African source market based on 2010 mobility data. Sometime between 2010 and 2012, however, Nigerian outbound mobility surpassed that of Morocco.)

Reflecting the widespread use of French in the country – about 32% of Moroccans speak the language – France is by far the leading international study destination, hosting 65% of Morocco’s higher education students abroad in 2012. After France, Spain (7%), Germany (6%), Italy (4%), Canada (3%), the US (2.8%), Ukraine (2.3%), and Russia (2%) account for most of the remaining outbound enrolment.

The Kingdom of Morocco is found in North Africa and has a population of more than 33 million. The government is based in the capital of Rabat but the largest city is Casablanca. Predominantly Muslim, its official languages are Berber and Arabic. Morocco was formerly a protectorate of both France and Spain and gained its independence in 1956.

Strong outbound student mobility is due, at least in part, to persistent quality challenges in the country’s education system that can be traced back to the mid-1950s. The market news site Marcopolis notes that at the time, “Almost all the schools other than the madrasas were run and taught by French teachers. But with independence, most of the French colonists who ran the major institutions returned to France…Thus, while the country faced a desperate need for educated citizens to run every aspect of its government and economy, it also needed to educate a new generation of native teachers.”

To compound the challenge, the country also saw dramatic population growth, moving from about 7 million people in 1956 to more than 33 million today. This has meant that Morocco needed to not only re-staff its education system (and reconcile the strong French tradition in education with its independent status as an Arab state) but also to dramatically expand system capacity at the same time.

The result is a system that many observers conclude favours “quantity over quality” and that has been under considerable pressure for some time. The New York Times reports that Morocco spends about a quarter of its state budget on education (as compared to an OECD average for developed countries of about 13%). All told, education accounts for 5-6% of GDP spending and employs about a third of public-sector employees in Morocco. The system accommodates an estimated 6.5 million students at the primary and secondary levels and another 600,000 in higher education.

The challenges facing Moroccan education, however, are best reflected in the country’s youth unemployment rates. Morocco has a high unemployment rate generally – in the range of 9% of late – but it is particularly high among the young and among recent graduates, for whom unemployment levels have passed 30% in recent years. The North Africa Post reports that it “takes 65% of unemployed youth an average of one year to land a job.

moroccans-protesting-against-unemployment
Moroccans protesting against unemployment

Moroccan universities, as a result, are often derided as “unemployment factories” and are not held in high esteem by the country’s private-sector employers. Government and academic leaders have taken steps in recent years to adapt university programmes to labour market requirements but it seems that much work remains to be done on that front.

To say the least, the issue is a pressing one for the government to the point where it has even drawn the attention of the monarch, King Mohammed VI. The King said in a televised address in August 2013, “It’s sad to note that the state of education is worse now than it was 20 years ago…How is it that a segment of our youth cannot realise their legitimate aspirations at professional, physical and social levels?”

“Thousands of unemployed graduates regularly protest in front of Morocco’s Parliament in Rabat, demanding help from the government in finding work in a job market that has become increasingly hostile to new graduates,” adds The New York Times. “They say that their education has left them ill-equipped for the workplace… Instead of hiring graduates of the Moroccan public education system, recruiters tend to look for graduates educated abroad or the products of Moroccan private schools.”

Challenges in higher education arise in part from what some observers characterise as a weak connection between secondary and post-secondary education in Morocco. This disconnect is perhaps exemplified by a language divide within the system. While Arab language and culture has been asserted in the primary and secondary systems since the 1980s, French remains the predominant language of higher education in the country. This is believed to contribute to poor student performance and high rates of attrition at the post-secondary level.

The situation led King Mohammed VI to establish a special Higher Council for Education, Training and Scientific Research in July of this year. The Council has already kicked off what is expected to be a wide-ranging consultation leading to comprehensive reforms for Moroccan education in the years ahead.

The Council marks only the latest in a series of attempts to reform the education system, and educators, employers, policymakers, parents, and students will now all be looking for real evidence of progress and change. The process is in an early stage but it seems likely that foreign institutions may be asked to play a role in strengthening Morocco’s education capacity. In the interim, the calls for reform will, equally likely, continue to drive demand for study abroad among Moroccan parents and students.



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