While English is increasingly the dominant language of global higher education, North Africa remains one region where it has made limited inroads.
In the countries of the Maghreb – Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia – in particular, French and Arabic are still dominant.
That could be about to change, however, with the challenge of tackling high levels of graduate unemployment prompting policymakers and university leaders to turn to what is seen as an international language of business.
North Africa’s youth unemployment rate is one of the highest in the world. It reached 29 per cent in the region in 2014, and was as high as 42 per cent in Tunisia that year.
At an event in London organised by the British Council, sector leaders from the region said that improving students’ English-language skills, and offering more courses with English as the medium of instruction, would be an important part of the solution.
Najla Romdhane, a senior adviser to Tunisia’s higher education ministry and professor of higher education at the National Engineering School of Tunis, said that some courses at the country’s institutions were already taught in English. But she said that the government would be pushing for that number to increase in coming years.
“I think we are really aware that, if we don’t speak English, we don’t access the world,” she said. “People are aware of the importance of moving to another phase with English teaching and learning.”
English-language skills in North Africa have a long way to go. New research released by the British Council, English and Soft Skills in the Maghreb, shows that only 7 per cent of the Algerian population speak English to at least an intermediate level, while in Morocco the figure is 11 per cent.
In Tunisia, 64 per cent of graduates are believed to have elementary or lower-intermediate English.
But there is new evidence suggesting that improved English language ability could help to tackle graduate unemployment.
Surveys conducted by the British Council in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia found widespread concern among employers about the English-language ability of the candidates that they interviewed, with companies considering English to be particularly important if they worked internationally, or operated in sectors such as telecommunications or IT.
Previous British Council research has suggested that students in North Africa and the Middle East who learn English are likely to earn more, and that countries that have invested significantly in English-medium education can expect to experience increased economic growth as a result.
One of the Maghreb countries to have made the most dramatic shift to English-medium tuition is Morocco, after Lahcen Daoudi, its higher education minister, called for English to be adopted on engineering and medical programmes and for doctoral students to be proficient in the language.
Fathellah Ghadi, vice-president of Morocco’s Ibn Zohr University, said that 98 per cent of courses at his institution are currently taught in French or Arabic, but that this would change, because English is now a “must-have”.
“Our objective is to do more and more courses in English,” he said. “We have some programmes that will continue in Arabic and some that will continue in French but for technical and scientific programmes we are obliged to do [them in] English if we want our graduates to have opportunities in the job market.”
It is not just about language of instruction. The most recent British Council research found that employers also had concerns about applicants’ dependability, work ethic, organisation and communication skills.
Work is under way to address these concerns, too. In Tunisia, for example, a $70 million (£54 million) World Bank-backed project is encouraging universities to improve teaching and management standards, and developing joint programmes with employers that provide internships and careers guidance.
But the intractability of the graduate employment issue appears to be what is prompting policymakers and university presidents to consider English, despite the longstanding dominance of Arabic and French.
“It may not be the most obvious thing for graduates to study English given how many other languages there are [in the region],” said Matej Damborsky, author of the British Council study, but “they do need to do it if they are going to improve their employability chances”.