Morocco’s deepening graduate unemployment problem could be eased if fewer university courses were taught in Arabic, according to one of the nation’s senior university leaders.
In an interview with Times Higher Education at its Emerging Economies Summit at the Mohammed V University in Rabat, Wail Benjelloun – a former head of Morocco’s Conference of University Presidents and current leader of the Mediterranean Universities Union, which represents 84 universities across 21 Mediterranean countries – said that he wanted to see more non-science courses taught in French, Spanish and English, reflecting the country’s proximity to Europe, which is just eight miles away by sea.
Student numbers in Morocco have almost trebled over the past eight years, rising from 308,000 in 2009-10 to 822,000 in 2017-18.
However, graduate unemployment has also risen dramatically in recent years, leading to frequent protests outside parliament. In 2015, 24.4 per cent of graduates were unemployed, compared with just 6 per cent in 1984, while the current national unemployment rate is about 10 per cent – prompting some to ask whether Morocco’s labour market can support so many graduates.
Others have questioned whether too many students are taking humanities and social science degrees taught primarily in Arabic, with 75 per cent of undergraduates enrolled on such courses. In contrast, only 22 per cent of students take science subjects, which are taught in French – a language spoken fluently by only about 15 per cent of Morocco’s 35 million citizens.
“We are very lucky with our geographic position, so we need to promote many other languages in our courses,” said Professor Benjelloun, a neuroscientist who led Mohammed V University from 2010 to 2015.
“Science courses are traditionally taught in French, but I would like to see more of them taught in English,” added Professor Benjelloun, who noted that “even the French are moving towards more English-based courses”.
Universities should also seek to limit student numbers in some subjects with poor graduate outcomes, Professor Benjelloun said. In 2013, employment expert Driss Guerraoui wrote that 80 per cent of the unemployed graduates came from five departments – Arabic literature and Islamic studies, as well as chemistry, biology and physics, which are taught largely for those seeking to enter teaching, leading to limited opportunities in other professions, according to a Chatham House paper published in February.
“Too many students choose Islamic studies because it does not require maths, and they think it’s an easier subject than others, which is generally the case for humanities,” Professor Benjelloun said.
“It’s because they are more comfortable in Arabic as they learn in this language at school; but I would like to see more courses in other languages,” he added.
However, Morocco’s graduate unemployment rate could not be blamed wholly on its universities, which have been described by a recent education minister as “factories for unemployment”, Professor Benjelloun said.
“It’s only as high as [the rate] in Spain, Italy and Greece – it’s a problem that affects both sides of the Mediterranean,” he continued, adding that the country’s 3 per cent growth rate is a problem.
“You need at least 6 per cent growth to absorb the number of graduates leaving university,” he said.
Morocco’s rapid expansion of student numbers has also led to high dropout rates, the summit heard. About 27 per cent of undergraduates leave in their first year and 58 per cent fail to finish their course, while only 17 per cent complete their degree within three years, according to a Ministry of Education report published last year.
“This high dropout rate is linked to the growth of universities – student numbers are probably higher than we planned,” said Professor Benjelloun, who explained that more funding was needed for universities and for preparing students for university, with participation rates now only catching up to those in neighbouring Algeria, he said.
“Massification has been an issue, and so has university funding; but I don’t think there are too many students,” he said.