Morocco is attempting to reform its education system to pull the country into the global economy. Hassan Bouzidi considers the hurdles
Consider the following. More than half of Morocco's population remains illiterate, with the figure approaching 90 per cent among women in rural areas. In addition to this, a large number of degree-holders (many of them doctors and engineers) are forced to go on hunger strike to voice their grievances and their demands for jobs.
Consider, too, that only 6 per cent of those who enter school actually manage to get into university, where the average period for the completion of a licence (BA equivalent) degree is a staggering seven years.
What you get is a very bleak picture of a system of education on the threshold of the third millennium. The engineers of Morocco's new education charter are only too aware of this state of affairs.
The recently drafted Charte de l'Enseignement has come largely as a response to a 1995 World Bank report. The report's recommendations seem to converge on a single objective: to work towards "a modern, open and competitive economy" within a larger global market and to prepare the country for the challenges of the 21st century.
To achieve this goal, the World Bank's report suggests that Morocco should undertake a radical reform of its economy, its administration and its education system.
The education system, the report recommends, should aim at inculcating analytical and adaptive skills into children at a very early stage of their schooling. The education system needs to shake off its traditional methods of dictation and rote learning, which often persist well into university level, and to adopt a more analytical approach to learning.
Higher education in Morocco remains free, but not for long. In accordance with the charter, fees will be gradually introduced and will be supported by a new system of student loans.
The meagre grant that students receive ($40 a month) has stagnated for decades. The scholarship system will be "revised", but "deserving" students from low-income families will be awarded grants and they could also see their fees waived.
Apart from a few ecoles superieurs, public universities in Morocco do not require any competitive examinations for admission, and there is strong resistance to the introduction of such entry exams.
In the department of English at the University of Agadir, an attempt was recently made to introduce an "informal" test for students joining for the first time, but this was vehemently rejected by the student union. The union fears that this test, albeit informal, may constitute a precedent and pave the way for more formal, compulsory tests.
This fear is well founded - there are clear indications in the charter that it is now only a matter of time before such tests are standardised to serve as competitive entry examinations.
University teachers will be encouraged to seek further training to update their teaching practices and to engage in research to consolidate their knowledge. The charter clearly states that this continuing professional training would later become systematic and a prerequisite for career advancement. Some social benefits for lecturers are also envisaged.
Private higher education institutions are also in trouble. During the past two decades, the government has actively sought to develop this sector to ease the burden on state-funded universities.
However, the private sector has been dealt a serious blow: people have come to view many of these private higher education institutions as profit-making bodies and dismiss their degrees as being not worth the paper they are printed on.
Students from middle and high-income families have a tendency to shun both public and private universities and instead opt for the private ecoles superieurs or universities outside the country.
It is clear that the degreeawarding powers of these private institutions should be reviewed. But there are no clear indications in the charter as to how the government proposes to tackle this issue.
The major challenge facing the Moroccan universities today is graduate unemployment. Many graduates are beginning to question the role of the university in preparing the students for the workplace. A huge number of students are virtually unemployable when they leave university because, in many cases, the skills they have acquired do not correspond to the needs of employers.
In an attempt to limit the damage, the government has, in the past, created training centres for recycling degree-holders in order to improve their job prospects. The universities are under mounting pressure to open up to their immediate environment, both social and economic. The new charter stresses the necessity for the introduction of more vocational courses to suit the needs of local employers.
If it is to stand even a remote chance of ever playing a role in the global economy, Morocco has to revamp its education system as a whole and its tertiary colleges in particular. The years 2000-09 have been declared a national decade for education and training, and the Charte de l'Enseignement is an ambitious project.
But there is no quick panacea for the result of decades of mismanagement of the education system. The effective implementation of the reforms will depend heavily on how well the mistakes of the past charters are heeded.
Hassan Bouzidi is a lecturer in English at the University of Agadir.