Jobs for the boys

The despair over unemployment that sparked the Arab Spring continues to dog graduates in the region. David Matthews reports from a British Council conference in Morocco that aimed to find solutions

April 26, 2012



Credit: Getty
Programme language: francophone nations are pondering a move to English to take a share of an IT-specialist market dominated by India


After police stopped Mohammed Bouazizi from selling fruit and vegetables because he lacked the necessary permits, the unemployed 26-year-old Tunisian set himself on fire.

His death at the start of 2011 was a vital link in the chain of events that helped to inspire revolts across the region that deposed long-standing autocracies in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya. But despite the seismic political change that has been felt across the Arab world since then, self-immolations continue.

At the end of January, five unemployed Moroccan graduates set themselves alight outside the education ministry in the country's capital, Rabat, as part of a demonstration demanding public sector jobs. One died from his injuries.

The number of jobless graduates in the region is a critical issue and was the focus of a recent British Council-organised conference, The Future of Higher Education in the MENA Region, held in Mohammedia, Morocco.

Over the past decade, the number of students in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region has exploded, but the job market has failed to keep pace.

According to one study by the Institute of International Education, the student population in the region soared from 2.9 million to 7.6 million between 1998-99 and 2007-08. The figures represent a jump of 162 per cent during a period in which Mena's overall population climbed by 40 per cent.

As Stephen Chan, professor of international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, asked at the conference: "What are you going to do with all these people after they graduate? It's one thing to be young, angry and at university. It's another to be young, angry and unemployed."

The rate of enrolment in higher education, which was 25.8 per cent in 2010, is projected to climb to 32.4 per cent by 2020. According to a World Bank and French Development Agency report into Mena university finances, titled Breaking Even or Breaking Through, in 2010 almost a quarter of unemployed people in Egypt had degrees. In Tunisia, the country where the Arab Spring started, the figure rose from 8.7 per cent in 2000 to 21.9 per cent in 2010. And in 2005, as many as 46 per cent of Tunisian graduates were out of work 18 months after graduation.

"The unemployment rate for graduates [in the Mena region]...is the highest in the world," says Adriana Jaramillo, senior education specialist at the World Bank.

The Moroccan self-immolations demonstrated frustration and fury at the lack of public sector jobs for graduates. Commentators say there is a widely held view in the region that a university degree should lead to a public sector position, an assumption that makes graduate unemployment an even more explosive issue there than elsewhere in the world.

The appeal of these jobs is clear, according to Breaking Even: the report explains that they have "relatively generous medical and retirement benefits, relatively short work hours, and transportation benefits". But there are not enough of them to go round.

Asian economies such as India and Malaysia have benefited from outsourcing by multinational companies in a way that those in the Mena region have not, Hussein Eissa, vice-president of Ain Shams University in Cairo, says.

Eissa, who was speaking at the conference, argues that these companies are put off by weak human resources in the region, so Mena institutions "need to qualify students...trained in soft skills, computer skills and language skills".

Almost 40 per cent of firms in the region cite an insufficiently educated workforce as a "major constraint", more than in any other part of the world, according to the World Bank. Some argue that training graduates strictly to employer specifications might help.

Eissa says that in 2008, 1,500 graduates were retrained at his university's business school in computer, language and soft skills in return for a chance to work at a major international company in Egypt. The employment rate for this group is high at 80 per cent, he says, and the programme has been expanded to 80 schools and includes 10,000 students.

But he acknowledges that the more fundamental problem is that "the supply of business graduates is very high compared with the demand".

Universities in francophone countries in the region - Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia - also face a dilemma over whether to switch to English. Companies "can't recruit IT specialists in Tunisia" so they "go to India instead because they have English skills", according to Adel Lagha, a Tunisian member of the British Council's Young Arab Analysts Network International, a group of regional experts.

The problems begin even before enrolment. Mena school systems may be supplying universities with relatively weak candidates, according to Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) indicators of 15-year-olds' reading, science and maths skills, compiled by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Pisa scores do not measure all Mena countries, but the four they do cover - Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Tunisia and Jordan - all ranked below the OECD average in 2009; all but Dubai languished in the bottom fifth.

Remarkably, Qatar - which had the highest per capita income in the world last year - came fifth from bottom in a table of 65 measuring reading and science skills, and fourth from bottom in maths.

In an effort to improve standards and graduates' skills, quality assurance regimes are being devised across the region. But doubts remain over the powers of quality assurance bodies - and over their autonomy from what are often autocratic and opaque governments.

So far, 10 out of 22 Arab countries have established quality assurance agencies, while eight are developing them and four have no plans to do so, explains Nadia Badrawi, president of the Arab Network for Quality Assurance in Higher Education, which is supported by the World Bank and Unesco. But only four in 10 of the agencies that currently exist actually publish their findings.

Most are affiliated to the national ministries that look after higher education, which creates a significant conflict of interest.

"The ministries of higher education are the main provider. So how can an evaluator be the [main] provider?" Badrawi asks.

In Egypt, the Qualification for Accreditation in Higher Education has been active since 2007, and has denied sub-par faculties its stamp of approval, explains its director, Mostafa Radwan.

He believes that a black mark damages the image of a university enough to persuade it to improve its quality. Institutions are encouraged to "develop a more ambitious strategic plan and this [will] be funded [by] the government", he explains.

But universities' public funding is not at risk if quality is found to be poor. Asked at the conference whether there are sticks as well as carrots for the Egyptian sector, Radwan joked that "carrots and sticks are not for humans" and stressed that his focus was not on punishing errant institutions.

"There should be some sticks. [You] can never be without sticks," counters Badrawi. She believes that these should include a threat to withhold public funding, and that "there should be some threat to shut down" universities that fail to perform.

Jaramillo recommends that states invest more money in the sector. But Mena universities might find it difficult to persuade their governments that they are underfunded. The proportion of gross domestic product spent on higher education in the region has grown from 1.1 per cent in 2000 to 1.4 per cent in 2010, the same as the OECD group of wealthier countries, according to the World Bank. Indeed, Algeria spends 2.6 per cent of its GDP on higher education, more than South Korea.

Privately, university presidents are thought to favour the introduction of tuition fees to boost their budgets, but politically this is anathema in many parts of the region.

If it is difficult to attract overseas companies to the region, can graduates set up their own? Conference delegates were near unanimous in calling on them to become more entrepreneurial.

Lahcen Daoudi, the Moroccan minister of higher education, scientific research and executive training, explains that one of his "major concerns" is to encourage student "self-organisation" at university in the form of student societies in order to "instil...independence and economic independence".

Chan argues that the "Asian tiger" economies of Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan have transformed themselves because "they gave their young people the scope to create their own employment".

But whether young graduates can start new firms is largely out of the academy's hands, he cautions. If it takes two years in a Mena country to set up a company, for example, "it doesn't matter what the universities do. You are killing yourselves," he says.

In the past year, Daoudi's call for self-organisation by students has been taken up most vigorously in Egypt. Universities there have been democratised, with many presidents and faculty heads now elected in what Badrawi describes as a "hunger for elections".

But the economic fundamentals underpinning graduate unemployment are likely to remain. The problem of unemployed graduates across the region "is probably going to get worse before it gets better", Jaramillo predicts.


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