Professor-Politician Puts Education On the Agenda

On election night on October 7, as she waited to hear the results at her party headquarters in Casablanca, parliamentary candidate Nabila Mounib took a short break from giving interviews to go home and help her son do his homework.

The first female head of a political party in Morocco, a professor of endocrinology at Hassan II University and a leader of the national professors’ syndicate, clearly puts a great deal of value on education, for personal and ideological reasons.

But she’s hardly alone. Morocco just elected its new parliament, and one of the most frequent campaigns topics here was the failure of education, from the primary level to university. While everyone agrees that there is a problem, and many parties make similar propositions, reform efforts never seem to go anywhere.

At a campaign rally last week, Prime Minister Benkirane, of the Islamist Justice and Development Party, told a crowd of supporters that they deserved decent schools, hospitals and other public services. Yet many fault the PJD, which has headed the government since 2011 and which once again won the highest number of seats, for doing little to improve education. A common criticism is that the Islamist party is too supportive of privatizing education. The government has said that it hopes 20 percent of the country’s education needs will be met by the private sector.

Although Morocco is home to some high-quality universities, it also has high illiteracy rates and lags behind North African neighbors like Algeria and Tunisia in most education indicators. Its education system is ranked one of the lowest in the region. A recent UNESCO report said that at the current rate, the government wouldn’t reach its education goals until the end of the century.

Ali, a father of three whom I met at Mounib’s party’s headquarters, estimates he spends 80 percent of his household income on his children’s school fees. They attend private schools—“I might as well shoot them as send them to public schools,” he said, dramatically expressing a common sentiment that public education is hopeless.

“Why is Moroccan education failing, at all levels?” asked Nabila Mounib, who heads the Federation de la Gauche Democratique (FGD, Federation of the Democratic Left). “Choices were made. It didn’t happen by chance. It wasn’t: We tried and failed. No, we made Moroccan schools fail.”

In the 1960s and 70s, high school and university students here were at the forefront of protests against the monarchy.

“The Moroccan regime has always feared intellectuals and the intelligentsia,” says Mounib. “It did all it could to marginalize the school system.”

The current curriculum focuses on  “subjects” rather then critical thinkers, she argues. “Nevertheless we have renowned researchers,” says Mounib, “who, in the absence of scientific research policies, emigrate.”

Mounib’s party and others are calling for 1 percent of GDP to be invested in scientific research—a target that is actually set out in the country’s official strategic plan for educational reform (It is meant to reach 2 percent, the world average according to the World Bank, by 2030.).

The Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), which came in second in the election, proposes financial incentives for companies that finance scientific research and innovation; it emphasizes curriculum reform and the acquisition of foreign languages. (The party’s proposals are here, in French.)

Both the PJD’s proposals and the PAM call for greater autonomy for universities; for research into new technologies, financed by public-private partnerships; and for a more streamlined management of universities and other tertiary schools, of research institutes and sources of funding—all which are under the authority of different ministerial departments. Both call for strengthening scholarship programs and emphasize the need to support and recognize more technical, vocational degrees and training.

Mounib’s party also suggests giving a greater place to technical and vocational education. As she points out, out of 100 children who enroll in school, only 13 percent graduate from high school and are eligible to attend university. The many who drop out along the way might have a better chance if they instead attended good-quality vocational schools linked to the country’s emerging industries.

Mounib, the product of public schools herself, is particularly incensed by policies that seem aimed at privatizing the educational system and which she argues further entrench social inequality. “They want the elites to come out of these private schools while weakening public schools,” she says.

“We’re not saying everyone should pursue a doctorate,” says Mounib, but “we need to put back on its feet a free, quality Moroccan public school system.”

She suggests that funds for this could be found by reforming the fiscal system and cutting back corruption. Her party’s program also suggests funding education with a percentage of the country’s most profitable national industries, such as phosphates, banking, energy production and telecommunications.

These debates—over what has gone wrong in education, how to reform curricula, encourage research, and fund accessible public education—are taking place across the region. Perhaps one reason that education reforms advance so slowly is that political parties and parliaments have limited power to propose or implement them. Mounib’s small party only won a few seats. But in Morocco, no party is able to win an outright majority, so all governments are an alliance of different parties. The monarchy remains much more powerful than elected officials. So parties have little chance of implementing their programs, and little accountability. Their inability, election after election, to deliver on reforms—like education—that families care about the most is an important reason that many voters have lost faith in the political process.


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