Moroccan Universities Must Begin to Charge Tuition

Morocco made a commitment to free higher education shortly after its independence, and today, free public higher education is framed as an “acquired right.” But times have changed, and the policy of free higher education, which once made sense, is now hurting Morocco.

In August 2012, the minister of higher education, Lahcen Daoudi, stated Morocco would begin to charge fees as part of other higher-education reforms, only to be met with widespread criticism. The policy seems to have stalled since then. Morocco needs to start to charge at least nominal tuition at public universities, or else it will be unable to build the high-quality university system that Moroccans deserve.

The right of free public higher education is largely taken for granted. In fact, Moroccan students at Mohammed V University – Agdal – the oldest public university – protested when the administration wanted to charge them for student identification cards. Many students even complain that the cost of transportation to universities and the cost of photocopies are too expensive and the government should be giving more scholarships to offset these costs. Many students who come from great distances to study even get stipends to live on while they study — not large to be sure, but enough to live on and support themselves.

This type of generous benefit made sense at one point in Morocco’s history – when very few students were attending higher education, and it was expected almost all university graduates would later work as public officials. In the early days of the modern Moroccan state, free higher education helped train the growing state bureaucracy.

However, as the higher education system in Morocco has expanded, the costs have become increasingly burdensome. Morocco already spends roughly a quarter of its budget on education and increasing support for higher education would detract from other national priorities. Moreover, the number of university students is expected to continue to grow rapidly in the coming years.

The growth of higher education has been fueled by Morocco’s “open access” policy. By law, everyone who passes the baccalaureate (Morocco’s high school exit exam) is entitled to enroll in the university in their administrative region. The consequences of open access and free tuition are predictable, and severe. University classes are overcrowded; universities have high drop-out rates, students and faculty members are often not that engaged, and little research is produced, because professors are expected to take on high teaching and mentoring loads.

The open-access policy, coupled with free higher education means that the opportunity costs to attend university are very low for most Moroccans. Moreover, the higher education admissions process does not effectively screen out students’ for whom university is not a good fit. This leaves university professors teaching classes of students with anywhere from 40 to 150 (or more) students technically on the roster, many of whom are not actually interested in the material or don’t show up. Professors are also short on the academic and technological resources they need for teaching such large classes.

Charging tuition is not the only reform that Moroccan higher education needs, but it is an important first step. Many of the students in Morocco’s public universities come from families that are relatively well off and could afford to pay for higher education. Sizable numbers have gone to private schools through high school, often paying thousands of dirhams a month — to then enroll for free in public universities.

Many international students who are in Morocco are from Mauritania, Mali and a variety of other African and Asian countries. Those students get scholarships from their home country governments – and these scholarships could likely cover tuition fees as well.

Some universities have experimented with charging small enrollment or registration fees. One benefit of charging tuition is that only students who are serious and committed to their education will choose to enroll. Professors and administrators would welcome this change – the chance to teach students who are fully engaged and committed.

The major criticism of charging tuition is that free higher education promotes equal access—and charging will discriminate against the poor. But free is not necessarily equal – and academic research from other contexts suggests that free higher education actually tends to serve as a subsidy for the upper middle class. By charging tuition, universities can use the resources to hire more faculty members and reduce class sizes or invest in needed learning resources, including books and technology resources. Tuition can be used to promote higher quality of education for all. Moreover, tuition fees can be offset by government scholarships and tuition that is proportionate to income, so that only those who can actually afford to pay have to do so.

At this point, charging tuition is still very controversial in Morocco. It would require a significant commitment by politicians and officials from the Ministry of Higher Education. In interviews I have conducted on higher-education reform, some have suggested that given politicians’ fears of widespread protests in the wake of the Arab uprisings, now is not the time to go stirring Moroccan youth’s passions over their right to free education.

Moreover, the current government does not seem to have the political capital to make such a controversial change, as the Minister’s statements on charging tuition were met with widespread criticism and little was heard about it subsequently.

However, the King Mohammed VI’s August 20th speech, which criticized the state of education in Morocco, suggests that there is high-level support for reform. Let’s hope that charging tuition gets back on the negotiating table.

Elizabeth Buckner is a Ph.D. candidate in international and comparative education at Stanford University Graduate School of Education. She was a Fulbright Grantee to Morocco in 2006, and has researched higher education in Jordan, Tunisia, Morocco and Syria, as well as working, teaching, and studying in those countries.

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