Maghreb education systems under scrutiny as children head back to school

September 10, 2017
Young hope. Students at a school in Benghazi. (Reuters)

Tunis - Parents and workers in the Maghreb are demanding higher educational stand¬ards for students as the academic year approaches. Nearly 20 million students are to re¬sume 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 situa¬tion 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 need¬ed to advance society and spur eco¬nomic growth.

They also view schooling as a gate¬way to civic participation, political engagement and increased quality of life, as well as a shield from radical Is¬lam, which has jolted the region.

Education experts cite studies showing that highly educated people play an active role in their commu¬nities and are less likely to commit crimes. They also point to a direct link between cognitive skills and eco¬nomic 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 De¬velopment (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 sur¬veyed. 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 Uni¬versity Professor Eric Hanushek and Munich University Professor Ludger Woessmann, looked at results from the Programme for International Stu¬dent Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

Morocco, after two decades of failed reforms, tried to more effec¬tively engage students and cut down on teacher absences. Mohamed Has¬sad was moved from his post as inte¬rior minister to the Education Minis¬try to spearhead the changes.

One of the measures he aims to take is trimming the number of pu¬pils from an average of 60 per class¬room 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. “Mean¬while, parents buy books and other materials for their kids and wait for good scores without checking up,”

Bouachrine noted that the situa¬tion 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 be¬come 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 Minis¬ter Neji Jalloul was pushed to resign in the middle of the academic year after he came under pressure from the teachers’ union. He had attempt¬ed to introduce minor reforms to the system, including a crackdown on teacher absences.

The quality of Tunisia’s educa¬tional 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 for¬eign language competency is key to stronger ties with a diversified world.

Tunisia, like many other countries in the region, has seen a rising num¬ber of its teachers leave the country for better wages and conditions. More than 1,800 university teach¬ers 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 chil¬dren need assistance due to vio¬lence and political strife that have displaced families, UNESCO said in a state¬ment.