Small Step In Curing the Big Unemployment Problem
The discussion about the mismatch between Arab education and employment is longstanding. But one British university is now suggesting some possible solutions.
The proposed remedies include moving away from face-to-face careers advice to online workshops. Another change would have universities adjust their programs in response to the proportion of the program’s graduates who are employed—an option that makes some experts uncomfortable.
Terry Dray and three of his colleagues from the World of Work Careers Centre at Liverpool John Moores University outlined their tried and tested program of employment at a workshop organized by the British Council in Morocco in early June.
The point of the meeting was to transfer the knowledge of the British team to their Moroccan contemporaries in an attempt to make the private sector—and not just the government—be a legitimate source of graduate employment. Dray and his team have taken part in similar workshops across the Arab world including Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.
The British university, while perhaps not able to boast of a global reputation, says 92 percent of its students are placed in a job or further training of some kind within six months of graduation. (Not all of them are in “professional jobs.“) Dray says that placement statistic rivals the United Kingdom’s elite universities.
The “World of Work” model is based on three things: a comprehensive online platform of career support and advice, asking potential employers want they actually want from graduate employees, and paying close attention to graduate-employment statistics. If a degree sees high rates of graduate employment, the university wants to expand on that success. If a program is performing poorly, then university administrators want to know how to reform it into a more employable degree. The university actively solicits the advice of local industry leaders in those decisions, says Dray.
The involvement of corporate advisors in curricular decisions tends to make faculty members uneasy and debates over such matters have been stirred up in many countries. In the United States, the American Association of University Professors has issued “56 Principles to Guide Academic-University Engagement.” Carey Nelson has just finished a term as the association’s president and he’s fervently opposed to private-sector involvement in academe: “For a corporation to mandate any part of a curriculum is unsavory.”
Youth unemployment may touch countries both rich and poor but the burden isn’t equally shared. According to figures from the International Monetary Fund, the unemployment rate of 25 percent among younger populations in the Middle East and North African region is the worst in the world. In Tunisia the figure reaches a staggering 30 percent.
Two years ago the IMF penned a report to look at the causes of this problem. There are two main issues at play, says the author, Masood Ahmed. A combination of region-wide economic woes and demographics has created a larger work force than available jobs.
Student aspirations in the MENA region are dominated by the public sector, which is typically seen as a highly desirable career path, says Ahmed, who is also director of the monetary fund’s Middle East and Central Asia Department. This is principally due to higher pay and benefits. “Young people would rather wait and be unemployed than work in the private sector,” said Ahmed. In addition, the skills students acquire are designed for public-sector jobs, of which there is a limited supply.
To compound the sobering IMF statistics, Abderrazak Bensaga, the head of information at the Ministry of Higher Education in Morocco, who attended the meeting with Liverpool John Moores and Moroccan universities, hinted that student fees may be introduced in Morocco. “We’ve started to think about that, but it’s a decision with strong political, social and economic consequences,” he said. That change could increase the pressure for students to demand a return on their investment.
At the end of the conference there was an agreement between those present to try to use some aspects of the British model. “It’s a success because … they’d like to establish Université Ibn Zohr as a model to follow for career development,” said Amina El Abdellaoui from the British Council. Bensaga however is keen to point out the real aim is to “generalize this with other universities in Morocco.” Mohammed V University, in Agdal, and Université Cadi Ayyad, in Marrakech, also attended the meeting.
Skeptics of this sort of model, such as Nelson, fear the new model could hurt a university’s long-term mission. “In the short run an industry may need a specific skill, which they may convince a university to provide,” he said, “but the student is then narrowly trained.” In his view, jobs are rapidly changing and students need to be broadly trained to stay qualified in the future. “Frankly I haven’t seen any industry involvement that does that,” he says. “They just produce employees that are expendable”.
Hanan Bennoudi, a researcher at IUniversité Ibn Zohr, would love to see her institution embrace the British model, but confesses it won’t be easy. Universities in Morocco have roots in the French system, which discourages institutional autonomy. Reforms typically come from the top tiers of government. This means Bennoudi and sympathetic colleagues couldn’t decide on their own to use a model similar to Dray’s. “Some people will be hostile to this change,” she says.
Whether the British model is appropriate for Moroccan universities is left to the Moroccan Ministry of Higher Education, “We’re not expecting them to go for our model wholesale, they’ll just pick and choose what works for them,” says Jo Ives from Liverpool John Moores University.
The conference didn’t conclude that Moroccan universities should alter degrees based on feedback from employers yet—something that Ahmed says would have been “helpful”. The attendees decided instead that the first step towards a British model of graduate employment will be to create an online platform inspired by the World of Work. From its online platform, the Liverpool university offers resume-building advice, e-mail guidance and the opportunity to register for in-person workshops. The Moroccan version will include “frequently asked questions” for graduates, job opportunities, and video guidance.
The switch to online career advice may seem minor, but marks a distinct change for Moroccan universities, which have had to struggle to provide in-person advice to student bodies that often exceed 30,000.
The challenge now lies in making good on the conference’s intentions. “Everyone recognizes that we need to do better,” said Ahmed. “At this stage we need anything that’s a step in the right direction.”