With much fanfare, on July 7 the Kingdom of Morocco announced that Crown Prince Moulay Hassan, the 17-year-old heir apparent of ruling monarch King Mohammed VI, successfully passed his baccalaureate exams. This news was met with warm congratulations from Education Minister Said Amzazi, who promptly painted the crown prince as a star product of Morocco’s educational system and, by extension, a paragon of Morocco’s educational ideals.
Indeed, Amzazi himself channeled these ideals in January, announcing the construction of 34 new institutions of higher education across Morocco. These moves reflect a growing concern among Moroccan policymakers to create viable degree alternatives to programs in other countries or private institutions within Morocco.
In recent years, the need for new knowledge centers has only grown across Morocco’s young and educated classes. An increasing number of Moroccans are seeking specialized knowledge and skilled labor training, particularly in the grisly economic context of COVID-19, and the government is now pressured to act. Its pledges in January are likely the first of several steps toward that effort.
Since King Mohammed’s ascent to the throne in 1999, the kingdom has led a continental charge in cultivating some of the finest schooling and trade programs in North Africa.
Morocco is not new to the game of education reform. To the contrary, since King Mohammed’s ascent to the throne in 1999, the kingdom has led a continental charge in cultivating some of the finest schooling and trade programs in North Africa. In the past two decades, Morocco has repositioned itself as a hub of international education, making successful overtures to foreign students from both Europe and the greater Maghreb in the last two decades.
Mohamed al-Alawi confirmed this success last year, noting that high international demands for Moroccan students alone were “testimonials to the excellent ‘quality of training and education,’” with “foreign countries falling over themselves to recruit engineers, doctors[,] and researchers trained in Morocco.” On one level, expanding educational opportunities within the country will only burnish this esteemed reputation.
On another level, however, these promises fail to recognize one of the largest factors impacting Morocco today: national outmigration.
In the last decade, Morocco has witnessed dramatic changes in the demographics of migrants leaving its borders, particularly with education levels. According to Özge Bilgili and Silja Weyel, researchers on migration and development at United Nations University, “[f]or Morocco the migration of the highly skilled has increased by 78% in the last decade of the 20th century,” and this includes college degrees. They write: “not only low skilled people are migrating, but increasingly those with a certain educational background and sometimes even university education are also leaving.”
The Moroccan diaspora is estimated to be the biggest non-European group living in Europe, seeking both established higher education degrees and stable employment opportunities.
Now, the Moroccan diaspora is estimated to be the biggest non-European group living in Europe, seeking both established higher education degrees and stable employment opportunities in the European Union’s labor market. And Morocco has been unable to reverse this trend, despite strong government investment in education. The number of young, educated individuals leaving the country continues to surge, and renewed school construction has not slowed down the exodus. Moroccan education policy, therefore, resembles a slow-motion collision: it must find a middle ground between state educational objectives and a national brain drain.
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In large part, this intractable problem arises from the self-conscious specialization of many Moroccan colleges and universities as trade schools in the comparatively unspecialized context of the Moroccan economy, which has become synonymous with the lower-level industries since the late 1950s. Steven Friedman, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, characterizes Morocco’s development in two movements, in which its “economic situation rapidly deteriorated before rapidly improving in the 1980s and onwards.”
In the late 1950s, King Mohammed V began focusing the new nation’s industrial resources on farming, in order to develop further independence from European markets. By 1960, he had successfully wrested industrial control from rural elites, threatening to nationalize agriculture to suppress discontent. This stratagem worked, and his son, King Hassan II, used this framework to consolidate power over agriculture after his father’s death in 1961.
King Hassan encouraged large capital investments in agriculture through the 1970s, implementing deep technological reforms in farming just as the Green Revolution swept through North Africa. Additionally, he enacted policies of economic “Moroccanization,” which redistributed national farmland and took out massive foreign debts to underwrite several systemic shifts. Although this bolstered Morocco’s agriculture markets, producing near-total national food self-sufficiency, it stunted the growth of other industries, leading to an economic downturn by the decade’s end.
King Hassan spent the late 70s and early 80s course-correcting and deregulating the economy with the help of the World Bank.
Hassan spent the late 70s and early 80s course-correcting and deregulating the economy with the help of the World Bank. Fortunes began to reverse after a punishing period of state-imposed currency controls to stabilize the Dirham, and Morocco inverted its financial trajectory—from loss to growth—by the start of the 1990s.
Consequently, Mohammed VI inherited an economy that was characterized by new influxes of foreign investment and greater diversification, branching from agriculture to textiles, clothing, shoes, and, importantly, tourism. Further progress was achieved in the 2000s. Morocco made new agreements with the European Union to broaden trade and security cooperation, and the king promoted a surge of new tourism through hotel constructions and job creation directed at foreigners.
In major urban cities, the number of visitors swelled upwards of 8 million by 2008, presaging a tourism dominance that responded to renewed Western interest in the Arab World during the Iraq War. This proved fortuitous for Morocco. The West became interested in sending citizens abroad to learn Arabic in safe countries, and the kingdom quickly turned into an obvious hotspot.
Three years later, the 2011 Arab Spring sparked Western fascination in North Africa, and Morocco expanded its tourism sector further. Since then, Moroccan tourism has rapidly professionalized and become essential to the country’s economic formula.
The upshot of this is a Moroccan economy that intersects with national higher education in two pernicious ways. First, it does not provide enough jobs that utilize the advanced skills or knowledge being taught in Moroccan schools. Despite the widespread popularity of degrees in administration studies, business studies, or design studies, these programs meet either a general shortage in jobs or a burgeoning social services industry that is still too small to be economically viable. Consequently, they do not always translate into domestic employment success.
Equipped with the relevant competencies to succeed in agriculture, tourism, or textile sectors, recent Moroccan graduates nevertheless find an economy at capacity.
Second, traditional economic industries are already saturated. Equipped with the relevant competencies to succeed in agriculture, tourism, or textile sectors, recent Moroccan graduates nevertheless find an economy at capacity—relegating them to a competitive and time-consuming search for further education at best. At worst, meanwhile, they are forced to accept low-level, unskilled work that depresses their future prospects.
The Moroccan parliament has responded to this by enacting programs that focus on “social protection programs, job creation, and reducing economic disparities”—but educated citizens continue to seek prosperity elsewhere.
Nowhere does this tension inhere more clearly than between Morocco’s domestic educational opportunities and the pace of its national capitalism. The state’s historical reliance on a select few industries has slowed the growth of advanced economic sectors, leaving little professional space for a continually diversifying group of job seekers. Small wonder, then, that so many of them go overseas: the work they seek exists abroad.
Morocco’s colleges and universities, therefore, have rushed to cater to a globalizing economy at the expense of Morocco’s own; the result is a steady brain drain from the labor force. Now, these trends stand to jeopardize Morocco’s national development, at a time when its income inequality has already become the highest in North Africa. Left to fester, such problems could entrench a dangerous national relationship with the globalizing world.
Moroccan policymakers can no longer afford to leave these issues alone. On one hand, they could make efforts to more closely harmonize the schools and the industrial policies of its developing economy, ensuring a smoother transition from the former to the latter. On the other hand, they could take up a more difficult task and reform the economy itself to encourage more specialized skills.
Either way, they must ensure that educational resources are spread out across economic classes, and that the Moroccan rank-and-file will not stumble into an industrial market largely frozen in the 1970s. Getting to this point will not be easy, but it is necessary. Morocco must find solutions that prioritize economy-building, safeguard the national future, and create excellent schooling. With luck, in matters of education, Moulay Hassan will not be the only one to reap its rewards.