Parents and workers in the Maghreb are demanding higher educational standards for students as the academic year approaches. Nearly 20 million students are to resume studies this month, a landmark achievement for a region that has long lacked modern schooling.
Six decades ago, Morocco had just 350 university students, only two of whom were female, the Morocco Planning Committee said. The situation was similar in Algeria where the National Office of Statistics said there were 1,000 university graduates at the time. Official data from Tunisia said there were only 700 university students in that country at the time of its independence.
Families, intellectuals, politicians and business leaders are looking to education to provide young people with the knowledge and skills needed to advance society and spur economic growth.
They also view schooling as a gateway to civic participation, political engagement and increased quality of life, as well as a shield from radical Islam, which has jolted the region.
Education experts cite studies showing that highly educated people play an active role in their communities and are less likely to commit crimes. They also point to a direct link between cognitive skills and economic growth.
A look at the region’s education systems reveals an urgent need for reform, however.
A recent study by the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said the Maghreb was behind other regions in terms of basic maths and science skills.
Tunisia and Morocco were ranked 64th and 74th, respectively, in school performance out of 76 countries surveyed. Students in the United Arab Emirates were a step above others in the Middle East and North Africa, ranking 45th. Saudi Arabia ranked 66th, Qatar 68th and Oman 72nd.
The study, written by Stanford University Professor Eric Hanushek and Munich University Professor Ludger Woessmann, looked at results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).
Morocco, after two decades of failed reforms, tried to more effectively engage students and cut down on teacher absences. Mohamed Hassad was moved from his post as interior minister to the Education Ministry to spearhead the changes.
One of the measures he aims to take is trimming the number of pupils from an average of 60 per classroom to 44. Official figures indicate that 38% of students are taught in classrooms of more than 40 of them.
To be effective, Hassad will have to win support to overcome resistance from powerful teachers’ unions.
“The unions keep a firm grip on the education system and they care only about what they get, not what they offer. Their main tool is a strike to pressure the government,” said Taoufik Bouachrine, publisher of Akhbar al Youm.
“Teachers give only 20% of their energy and capacity in the task while the best among them deploy their skills in private schools. “Meanwhile, parents buy books and other materials for their kids and wait for good scores without checking up,”
Bouachrine noted that the situation is similar in Algeria and Tunisia. In Libya, children going to school are at risk of violence.
“The immediate outcome of the mess the education system has become is that 300,000 students drop out each year without gaining any diploma and without learning the basics of reading and writing,” said Bouachrine.
Tunisia’s former Education Minister Neji Jalloul was pushed to resign in the middle of the academic year after he came under pressure from the teachers’ union. He had attempted to introduce minor reforms to the system, including a crackdown on teacher absences.
The quality of Tunisia’s educational system was reflected in last year’s baccalaureate — the final placement exam for university — in which 7,000 students received a mark of zero on the English section and 5,000 received a zero in French. This alarmed the country where foreign language competency is key to stronger ties with a diversified world.
Tunisia, like many other countries in the region, has seen a rising number of its teachers leave the country for better wages and conditions. More than 1,800 university teachers have left the country in the past three years.
“Some university professors left the country in the beginning of 2011 but the number increased in the past three years, 800 of them this year,” Higher Education Minister Slim Khalbous told a local interviewer. “They practise their rights to choose their future but we lose important skilled national competences.”
In Algeria, thousands of highly skilled university teachers, doctors, nurses and others left the country during the 1992-2003 civil war.
In Libya, more than 550,000 children need assistance due to violence and political strife that have displaced families, UNESCO said in a statement.
Lamine Ghanmi is a veteran Reuters journalist. He has covered North Africa for decades and is based in Tunis.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.