Morocco still aiming to boost education quality and access

Last fall, we reported on planned education reforms for the Kingdom of Morocco, changes designed to improve quality and access, meet high market demand, and address growing student interest in building English language skills. Today’s post returns to Morocco to check in on the progress of ongoing reform efforts in the country’s higher education sector.

Unrest and unemployment

Morocco’s government, which operates under a complex power sharing agreement with King Mohammed VI, has been vocal about wanting to tackle major education problems. Those include low adult literacy, high youth unemployment, and a lack of skilled workers, including teachers. However, despite announcing several programmes to address these issues, the government has stalled on implementing changes.

A major complication has been ongoing clashes between students and security forces. Student dissatisfaction often centers on political corruption, but protests over more specific issues such as privatisation in education, transportation costs, and the banning of union activity on campus are commonplace. In response, the government has labeled the student movement a public safety issue, restricted campus demonstrations, and authorised police to enter university facilities.

The Moroccan paradox is that students are not only dissatisfied with government reform of universities, but with the quality of universities as they now stand, and the assessments of external bodies underscore the problem. The Global Competitiveness Report, for example, measures 144 countries and ranks Morocco 102nd for the quality of its education system, 104th for higher education and training, and 105th for both tertiary education enrolment and technological readiness.

As in many countries, the debate on educational quality in Morocco focuses whether universities are job-training centers for business and industry, or whether they exist to serve the aspirations of students, even if they choose fields with more limited employment prospects. While aspects of the debate are philosophical, the mismatch in Morocco between graduate skills and job market requirements is real.

Unemployment in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is the highest in the world, and it is youth that suffer the most. According to International Monetary Fund figures, the percentage of youth (defined as ages 15 to 24) in total unemployment is about 25% in the MENA region, reaching a high of 30% in Tunisia. Those percentages are approximately twice the overall global rate.

Moroccan joblessness has worsened in recent years as low-skilled expatriates have returned from economically fragile Europe, foreign refugees from warfare in Africa and the Middle East have found havens in Morocco, and highly skilled Moroccans have relocated overseas. This last group amounts to more than 400,000 locals with tertiary or graduate degrees taking their knowledge elsewhere, according to the Global Innovation Index. These issues have complicated the Moroccan government’s education reform plans.

Government approaches to reform

One worry voiced by observers is that reform in one area sometimes exacerbates problems elsewhere. For instance, with Moroccan employers preferentially hiring the privately educated, the government is now supporting private school development via tax incentives. But UNESCO’s latest Education for All Global Monitoring Report called the Moroccan education divide one of the world’s widest, and warned that more private schools could give rise to a permanent two-tiered system.

With equitable access a key concern, the Moroccan government has pushed ahead with a fresh set of changes. Rachid Belmokhtar, the Minister of National Education and Vocational Training, presented these in November as part of a new education project called Vision 2030. The programme aims to:

  • Restructure higher education by grouping big universities together into hubs in an effort to increase their visibility across the region and the continent;
  • Promote university scientific research;
  • Increase mastery of the Arabic language and instill a working knowledge of foreign languages;
  • Integrate general education with vocational training by identifying occupations during primary education, establishing a vocational track in secondary school, and moving towards expanded vocational training.

Vision 2030 addresses important areas, but the education sector’s needs are considered by some observers to be more immediate and concrete: smaller classes, better equipment, more accessibility to rural schools, laptops in classrooms, libraries on campuses, and more.

A new focus on English

One of the most important, if contentious, changes involves potentially shifting from French to English as the predominant language of instruction in higher education. Though French is not an official state language (only Arabic and Tamazight hold such status), it is widely used in classrooms. But its position is weakening. A new report submitted to King Mohammed VI by the Supreme Council for Education, Training and Scientific Research, recommends adopting English in the Moroccan curriculum.

However, a shift toward English had been underway even before the Supreme Council report. In 2014, for example, the Ministry of National Education and Vocational Training signed a partnership agreement with the British Council in Morocco to install fully English curriculum in three secondary schools. And as of January 2015, science students and selected STEM and health sciences professors must master English before being able to study or be employed in science universities.

Lahcen Daoudi, Morocco’s Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, has offered vocal support for plans to move toward English, but his statements have courted controversy. In August 2014 he said that in the future only five languages will exist, and Arabic will be one of them only because of its link to the Quran, not because of its importance in areas such as science.

The Minister noted the number of science and technology papers published in recent years – most of them written in English – and argues that the goals of less developed countries are made needlessly more difficult if students do not learn the language.

About 32% of Moroccans speak French, which contributed to France’s hosting 65% of Morocco’s outbound higher education students in 2012 (more than 28,000 Moroccan students studies in France that year). By contrast, Canada and the US were the top-ranked, English-speaking hosts, with about 1,300 and 1,200 students respectively. France’s lofty perch as the preferred study destination of Moroccan students is not likely to be threatened soon, but any shift in language proficiency in Morocco toward English suggests markedly improved opportunities for education providers on the horizon.

Recent successes

While more substantive reforms are still unfolding, the government has enacted two recent funding initiatives that have been met with widespread approval by students. Over the last two years it has created more than 100,000 new scholarships – a 70% increase – and managed to set aside 1.25 billion dirham (US$152 million) to fund them. Today 250,000 university students benefit in varying degrees from grants.

Unfortunately, Minister Daoudi overstepped himself when he announced in June 2014 that Morocco would offer financial support to all college students who applied for the 2014/15 school year. He later recanted the statement, provoking a dismayed reaction from campuses around the country.

At the end of 2014, however, the minister regained the approval of some observers when he announced a second plan aimed directly at students. The government now intends to improve students’ financial readiness for university by subsidising their medical insurance costs. Minister Daoudi explained, “We need to foster the right conditions so that the Moroccan student can be solely dedicated to studies and academic activities.”

The plan takes effect for the 2015/2016 academic year, and will eventually include all students pursuing education beyond the baccalaureate, whether in preparatory classes for engineers, higher education institutions, or professional and vocational training. Nearly a quarter million students are expected to benefit from the programme, and the plan lends credibility to government officials who talk about reforming Moroccan education in an equitable way.

According to UNESCO more than 44,000 Moroccan tertiary students were enrolled overseas in 2012. From a recruitment perspective, the strong Moroccan inclination toward international study means any increase in educational attainment brought about by government policy will likely result in new opportunities for international educators.

Working with the international community

Morocco maintains education agreements with many nations. For example, USAID, the lead international development agency in the US, is gearing up a US$38 million project to enhance the employability of Moroccan youth by assisting university and vocational students in their transition from school to work. USAID plans to build stronger links between education institutions and the private sector, with the long-term goal of generating the type of private-sector growth and employment levels that contribute to national stability. USAID also helps train teachers and offers ongoing professional development.

Morocco is closely linked to the European Union, particularly France and Spain, and is the largest recipient of EU funds under the European Neighbourhood Policy. Farther afield, Morocco renewed diplomatic relations with Iran after a five-year break, is in conversation with Russia concerning economic sectors from wheat to tourism, and was cited in a 2014 Canadian government report as a high priority country in Canada’s international education strategy.

But perhaps Morocco’s most important international plan involves reaching out to its own people. The government is building a profile of the Moroccan Diaspora, a community estimated to be five million strong. According to official data, more than 16% of Moroccans overseas are studying in top universities or working in leading businesses. There are about 8,000 Moroccan doctors practicing around the world. Canada’s predominantly French-speaking Quebec region has more than 350 Moroccan professors alone.

Morocco maintains or participates in outreach programmes designed to entice nationals back to their homeland to contribute expertise and entrepreneurship. One of these, the UN’s Transfer of Knowledge Through Expatriates (TOKTEN) programme, has been in existence since 1993. Another programme entitled MDM Invest encourages expatriate investment in Moroccan projects by direct investments, subsidies for start-up costs, and facilitating bank loans.

Moving forward

Some observers point out that the Moroccan government must maintain a coalition with top educators if it hopes to move ahead smoothly with reforms. Education International General Secretary Fred van Leeuwen has said, “If it is to have quality education for all, the Moroccan government must involve teachers and education staff to completely rethink the education agenda aimed at improving the quality of education and the status of teachers.”

While some believe the strong links are required between curricula and labour markets, critics of that approach say students will benefit only until the economy (and so the job market) changes, which these days it does rapidly. Carey Nelson, who served as president of the American Association of University Professors and knows the North African region well, told Al-Fanar Media last year that when business and industry shape university curriculum to produce the graduates they need, “they just produce employees that are expendable.”

In the end, the key to whether the country can realise real progress in terms of boosting the quality of education and access for Moroccan students may simply be the strength of the government’s commitment (including that of King Mohammed VI) to affecting real change.



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