Friday

Lamenting Morocco's Failing Universities

Mohammedia University in Mohammedia, Morocco. By DanMclean
Every year the British newspaper Times Higher Education publishes its rankings for the top universities in the world. In the 2011-2012 edition, no Moroccan university made it onto the list.

This struck me as both predictable and slightly shocking. Only four universities in Africa made it onto the list of the top 400 (three in South Africa and the University of Alexandria in Egypt). Additionally, Morocco's higher education system is notoriously bad, and its reform has been the focus of many government initiatives over the last decade. But how bad does your university system have to be to fail to achieve this kind of recognition?

Writing in the Moroccan newspaper Akhbar al-Yawm al-Maghribiyya, Muhammad Al-Khemlichi laments not only the poor state of Morocco's university, but also the national attitude towards the university system. Below is a partial translation of his editorial which ran in the newspaper's March 26 edition.



Speaking of the Times' rankings, he begins by declaring:
A Moroccan university's name was not highlighted neither in the bottom rankings nor in the 3000 ranks above! This means that Moroccan universities are "unrecognized" on the international stage. It also testifies to the level in which our education system finds itself today.
Some of our more "hard-working"Arab brothers were guided by their concern for the quality of Arab universities to adopt a 'special' path to assure their institutions' place among the top 400 universities in the world. The American magazine "Science"* reports that King Saud (rank 200) and King Abd al-Aziz (rank 370) universities in Saudi Arabia presented famous scholars with cash and fake contracts in order to add their names to papers and studies published by both institutions. And all of that for the purpose of improving their international standing.
Recently, French President Nicolas Sarkozy officially expressed his resentment at the state of scholarship in his country by mocking academics who "carry out research but don't discover anything." In response, French society went into an uproar. His comments ignited a wide-ranging debate, expressing France's social cohesion and vitality. On the other hand, when the Morocco's universities failed to be included in the Times' new rankings, no one in our government, nor society, nor otherwise voiced any concern whatsoever. This, more than anything, proves the sad state of our education system.
In a time of increased reforms, it bears mentioning that most reform projects deserve to be continued. However, education deserves a greater share of attention. By consensus, the experience of nations around the world proves that education is the first step towards development. And despite repeated attempts at reform, from the National Education Charter to the more recent Emergency Program to Recover Education, a neutral observer would note numerous problems and weakness remaining in our system.

In principal, the university has two main tasks: education and scholarly research. However, the case is that the quality of education is weak across the board. In general, our system fails to provide the competencies Moroccan society demands as well as the needs of the job market. Similarly, scholarly research is practically non-existent. So what is the appropriate rank the Moroccan university when it cannot accomplish its principal responsibilities?
What makes this reality even more upsetting is that fact that our universities have become breeding grounds for practices that shame our country. Some professors profit from their students, forcing them to purchase works they have published. Administrators have transformed the university in sources of income that benefit their private interests. And reports by the High Council for Accounting have revealed serious mismanagement of university finances. And the list goes on. 
The need to reconsider the Moroccan university system is a conviction stemming from the steadfast belief that education is the principal instrument for advancing our country in the medium and long terms.
[...]
Improving scholarly research will require bold government policy, such as initiating research contracts between state institutions and universities. Additionally, we could encourage, or require, the largest semi-public institutions, like OCP, the national phosphate corporation, ONCF, the national railroad office, and ONE, the national electricity office, among others, to contract studies and research with universities that would to their operations.
Likewise, giving incentives to private companies to encourage open themselves to scholarly research would be a means for innovation and the strengthening of competition in the open market. It's possible that these several suggestions will help to invigorate scholarly and scientific research in Morocco. Even if the costs of scholarly research were high, its yields for the economy and its benefits for the country as a whole are substantially greater.
As for university management, perhaps the most urgent decision is make university administration more transparent.  The fact that universities operate in relative secrecy, is not only ridiculous but also goes against calls for reform and modernization.
To begin, we should consider the process to select university administrators. It's well-known that the candidates for these positions must present an project agenda for their respective institution in front of the selection committee. It's strange that these programs remain 'secret' for some unknown reason. As a result, only the candidates and the committees know the details of such programs, the latter of which loses no time in disbanding once it's work is finished. It's only logical that candidates chosen for these positions should publish their proposals, considering that he is obligated by the university to meet these stated goals. Otherwise, there's no reason to demand these administrations be held accountable.
Mr. Al-Khemlichi's editorial expresses a common sentiment in Morocco: the education system is in disrepair and no one seems to care about fixing it. Like many post-colonial administrations, Morocco's government established a free higher education system after gaining independence. For decades, this system functioned reasonably well, until changes in the late 70s and 80s initiated a slow but steady decline.

By the time King Muhammad VI ascended to the throne, the system was in full disarray. One of the new King's first initiatives was to declare the "Decade of Education" in 1999, with the goal of reforming the education system by 2009. However, by most measurements, the reform projects launched during this period have not succeeded, if not made the situation worse.

Mr. Al-Kemlichi's frustration is obvious. Morocco's universities are an embarrassment on many levels, as he describes, yet none of the important actors seem to care. Even Saudi Arabia, which is resented in Morocco as well as around the Arab world, goes to great, though corrupt, lengths to ensure its universities receive some sort of recognition.

His suggestions for reform seem reasonable enough. It's seems surprising to me that contracts between universities and the nationalized corporations he lists don't already exist. That seems like an easy solution for raising expectations on university quality, invigorating scholarly research, and providing Moroccan students with employment, another big issue.

One reason I can think of as to why such relationships don't already exist is that these operations - the refining and export of phosphates and the management of the railroad and electricity infrastructures - are too important to trust to unqualified students. What does it say when a government has such little faith in the university system it created?

*"Saudi Universities Offer Cash in Exchange for Academic Prestige" Science 9 December 2011

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