With newspaper headlines focused on violence and political upheavals across the Middle East and North Africa region, it is easy to forget that an annual beginning is also underway. Children from the Mashreq to the Maghreb have started going back to school. Parents are buying school supplies for little ones and millions of teenagers are going down a path that may shape their future careers. This week, Voices and Views presents Back to School 2013 - a series focused on the challenges that both teachers and students face in the region, and the policies and programs that can change a generation. We look forward to your comments.
The numbers are staggering. Almost one third of the populations of Algeria and Morocco are under the age of 15, with Tunisia following close behind. This ‘youth bulge’ is placing immense pressure on the education systems of the Maghreb.
More and more teenagers are entering universities and virtually all students have the reasonable expectation that their studies and hard work will help them find meaningful employment. And yet, over the past decade, it seems that educational opportunities, once a pathway for success, have ceased to equate to good jobs for graduates. In all three North African countries, unemployment is actually higher for university graduates than it is for those with lower levels of education.
Dozens of factors have contributed to this phenomenon, including rigid labor markets, distortions that favor public sector employment, and skills mismatches. Universities themselves are a key factor. In general, higher education systems in the Maghreb are highly centralized, a legacy of a common colonial history, with a poor record of accountability. As a consequence, they have tended to be immune to both market forces and the actual success rate of graduates.
Higher education in the Maghreb has undergone several transformations in the past two decades. Perhaps the most obvious is access. University entrance has greatly expanded, and more university facilities are available than ever before. But quality has not always kept up with this progress.
Since 2007, education officials in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia have begun to restructure their higher education systems to make them compatible with international standards, to be more efficient and responsive to the needs of the public and private sectors. Educators have become increasingly aware of the importance of governance in improving the performance of universities, and promoting more autonomy to allow them to adapt to changing needs.
Maghreb countries have realized that competing globally requires more than providing graduates opportunities in public administration – it requires nurturing the skills that will produce homegrown entrepreneurs, while attracting quality foreign investment. University graduates in the Maghreb, like graduates all over the world, are now competing for jobs not just domestically, but globally.
In an increasingly globalized world, how can universities in the Maghreb transform themselves into engines for growth and economic opportunity?
The east Asian country of Malaysia provides some answers. Backed by bold reforms in its higher education system, Malaysia aspires to become an international hub for higher education excellence by 2020. With a well-established quality assurance system and full autonomy for eight of its public universities, Malaysia has outperformed its regional peers in terms of graduates’ insertion into the labor market. The unemployment rate for university graduates stands at a paltry three percent.
Malaysia’s example was the inspiration for a recent study tour of government officials and university leaders from the Maghreb, sponsored by the British Council and the World Bank South-South Knowledge Exchange Fund.
The study tour was an opportunity for North African participants to learn from their Malaysian counterparts at the Malaysian Ministry of Higher Education, the Malaysian Qualifications Agency and select universities, including public, private and international branch campuses.
Discussions among participants covered an array of topics such as: The framework governing the Ministry-University relationship; how Malaysian and Maghreb universities define autonomy; the importance of finding a balanced equation between university autonomy and accountability; and the value of different quality assurance (QA) mechanisms. All three Maghreb countries are currently in the process of developing national quality assurance agencies.
University administrators from the Maghreb were particularly interested in how Malaysian universities help to ensure the employability of their graduates and the university’s social responsibility vis-à-vis their communities – issues that have begun to take on increasing importance in the Maghreb.
To hear from the participants themselves, I invite you to watch the following video: