MAGHREB: Student, jobless graduate protests spread

While the five states of the Arab Maghreb Union in North Africa approved a plan to enhance cooperation and academic integration among universities, violence, rioting and strikes by students and jobless graduates spread across the region from Tunisia to Algeria and Mauritania.

The other two Maghreb countries are Morocco and Libya.

On 10 January, the Tunisian government ordered all schools and universities to be closed indefinitely following continuing violent protests linked to anger over graduate unemployment.

In his speech that day to the nation, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali promised to create new jobs. "Efforts will continue, to employ the largest possible number of unemployed university graduates," Ben Ali said.

"This effort will also cover university graduates whose period of unemployment exceeds two years before 2012 - yes, before 2012 - and I undertake to do that. In this way, the total employment capacity during this period will increase to 300,000 new job opportunities," the president promised.

Also on 10 January, Mauritanian student unions - including members of the National Union of Mauritanian Students, the Free Students' Union of Mauritania and two other unions -launched a strike to protest what they claim are the deteriorating "living and education conditions" of their members. They warned they would strike indefinitely, not resuming classes until their needs are met.

However, life is gradually returning to normal in Algeria after violence that left five dead and 800 wounded. The violent protests began on 5 January in response to rising food prices, and quickly spread across the country.

A 2010 study carried out by the Carnegie Middle East Center (CMEC), titled Trading High Unemployment for Bad Jobs: Employment challenges in the Maghreb, concluded: "Despite the decline in overall unemployment, joblessness among the young and the well-educated remains high, and in some cases has even increased".

The 2010 second Arab Labor Organization report on employment and unemployment in Arab countries indicated that the problem of high unemployment rates among Arab-educated graduates from universities and colleges peaked in Morocco (26.8%) and Algeria (19.3%).

It is believed that a mismatch between the skills economies need and those tertiary education provides exacerbate graduate joblessness. To improve conditions in the Maghreb, the CMEC study suggested that "policy-makers must tackle the primary cause of high unemployment by reforming their educational and vocational training systems.

"Partial reforms and quick fixes pursued over recent decades have been mostly unproductive and cannot continue," the CMEC report continued.

Meanwhile, on 30 December the 10th session of the Council of Education Ministers of the Maghreb approved a plan to raise higher education quality in the region, in an effort to produce industry-ready graduates and ease the graduate unemployment problem.

In order to build a Maghreb academic arena for facilitating the transfer of students and teaching staff among universities, academic degrees and quality assurance standards will be made compatible throughout the Maghreb region.

As reported on the Magharebia website, under the plan a Maghreb network for scientific research and twinning centres specialising in alternative and renewable energy sources will be set up. It will include the National Academy for Scientific Research in Libya, the Research and Technology Centre of Energy in Tunisia, the Centre for Development of Renewable Energy in Algeria, and the Energy Sciences Laboratory at the University of Tétouan in Morocco.

On the conference sidelines several institutions in Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania were also twinned. These include Al Fateh University in Libya, University of the 7th November at Carthage, University of Algiers 3, Cadi Ayyad University in Marrakesh and the University of Nouakchott in Mauritania.

Libya is hosting the first symposium of heads of Maghreb universities this weekend, 15-16 January. The symposium focus is on reviving the union of Maghreb universities and formulating a new legal framework for the union.

Hassan Moawad Abdel Al, former president of Alexandria's Mubarak City for Scientific Research and Technology Applications in Egypt, told University World News: "We know that the problem of unemployment is facing all world countries, not just Maghreb countries.

"It was noted that 94% of the unemployed in Egypt are in the age group 15-29 years, reflecting a lack of consistency of education plans [with regard] to the needs of the labour market," Abdel Al pointed out.

"If the substantial and serious problem of university graduate unemployment has not been solved through higher education reform, it will turn into a ticking time-bomb," Abdel Al warned.