Morocco’s universities are providing too many graduates for too few jobs, says Martin Rose in an article published on Chatham House’s website.  It is about how the Universities and the higher education trap that is getting increasingly tight for the greater number of Moroccan youth. This situation would not be specific to this country only and like elsewhere, migration as a direct consequence is a quick reaction to the enduring status-quo and Europe is envisaged as a close by landing platform.

The higher education trap

Trainee teachers protest in Rabat about their lack of job prospects

Expansion of opportunity in higher education is a good thing, right? Well, it’s not quite that simple, and North Africa provides a chastening example of why: a lot of money is spent on education, universities are proliferating and student numbers ballooning. But graduate unemployment is rising fast.

Every country in North Africa offers shocking figures, but as The Economist noted of Egypt in 2016: ‘The more time you spend in school, the less chance you have of finding a job.’ It is this perverse truth that undermines the explosive growth of higher education in the Middle East and North Africa region.

The unemployed graduate has been very visible in the Arab Spring, in the riots that swept Tunisia in January, in the Hirak protest movement in Morocco’s Rif region and in ‘graduate recruitment’ to the ranks of the Islamic State jihadist group.

Morocco provides a useful petri dish, spending 26 per cent of its state budget on education, more than its North African neighbours. Its ‘youth bulge’, combined with success in getting children into primary school and a dramatically increasing pass-rate at the ‘Bac’ school-leaving examination, has meant huge growth in student numbers. State universities have grown from 308,000 students in 2009/10 to 822,000 in 2017/18, a rise of 167 per cent in eight years, and it is far from finished. This ‘massification’ of higher education is well ahead of population growth, with the Gross Enrolment Ratio − the proportion of the age-group in tertiary education − growing from 10.9 per cent in 2003 to 28.14 per cent in 2015.

This year the system expects to launch 98,129 new graduates on to a job market that cannot absorb them. Graduate unemployment in Morocco has risen from 6 per cent in 1984 to 24.4 per cent in 2015, with most of these graduates still chasing their first job.

The speed of growth makes resource planning intractable: ever more students are being taught by ever fewer professors. This has a serious impact on quality. Only one university, public or private − Cadi Ayyad in Marrakech − appears in the Times Higher Education’s top 1,000 universities in 2016. Most professors in open-access faculties − essentially all except medicine, engineering and some science − are overwhelmed with a paralyzing teaching load.

Most employers agree that there is a serious problem with both curriculum and teaching. Since independence, university education has been the gateway to public administration, and the certificate has been more important than its subject or quality.

When the public service was still a significant recruiter, humanities and social sciences were filled with students simply wanting entry to a secure, well-paid, well-pensioned career.

The size of the public administration has been cut back dramatically since the 1980s. Morocco, where in 2008 public salaries ate up 51 per cent of the state budget, has been particularly effective in cutting civil service numbers, but it has not staunched the deluge of graduates coming out of the ‘soft’ faculties. A recent education minister described humanities departments as ‘factories of unemployment’.

There is little effective attempt to adjust syllabuses or teaching to what employers, or the economy, need. In 2016-17, some 75 per cent of students were studying the humanities and social sciences, and only 22.1 per cent science and technology. Added to this is the fact that the first two faculties teach in Arabic and only the sciences in French. Good careers require French, and fluent, ‘educated’ French is effectively confined to the well-off by the preponderance of Arabic in state schools and open-access university faculties. Expansion in the low-prestige, faculties that teach in Arabic is much cheaper and defends the privileges of the francophone upper class.

Driss Guerraoui, an expert on Moroccan graduate unemployment, wrote in 2013 that 80 per cent of the graduate unemployed came from five departments: Arabic literature and Islamic studies, and chemistry, biology and physics, which are taught for the annual teacher recruitment, and useless in industry for the majority who fail to get a teaching job.

The result is a mass of unemployed graduates who demonstrate every week outside parliament demanding ‘unconditional and non-competitive absorption into the public administration’. Skills are irrelevant: they just, understandably, want meal tickets for life. With a constipated labour market and high hiring and firing costs, their choices are heart-breaking − the black economy, under-employment or family-funded idleness while sticking out for ‘appropriate’ work.

Small-scale entrepreneurship is much touted as a solution, and while such skills are starting to be taught, the legal and administrative infrastructure remains very resistant. Real solutions to the graduate unemployment problem need to reach well outside the education system into language policy and labour market reform. 

Read more of the article on Chatham House’s publication and / or on A degree of overkill Rose.pdf