NORTH AFRICA: Social anger prompts universities reform

Following the uprisings that toppled autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and led to conflict in Libya, two North Africa countries - Algeria and Morocco - are attempting to deal with protestor demands by launching plans to invest in innovation and higher education as well as graduate employment programmes.

With Morocco's youth-led 'February 20 Movement' planning to hold a rally on 20 March, the government has launched US$63.4 million plan to support innovation and promote business-university partnerships. The plan was announced by Minister of Trade, Ahmed Reda Chami, at the Second Conference on Innovation held in Skhirat on 1 March.

As reported by the Magharebia website, the plan includes reforming the legal framework of scientific research, establishing four 'innovation cities' and offering financial support to promote the emergence of an innovation-based high value added economy.

Funding will be divided into three types of support:

* $ 6.2 million will provide young researchers with grants worth around $125,000 per research project, to be repaid within four years only if the project is successful.
* $49.7 million will provide Moroccan companies with grants up to $500,000 for projects that focus on research and development, in partnership with universities and research centres.
* $7.5 million will support the formation of consortiums of companies working on R&D programmes.

In addition, four 'innovation cities' will be built across Morocco that will host research centres, specialised companies and enterprise incubators. Three 'cities' will be built this year in Fez, Marrakech and Rabat, and a fourth will be built in Casablanca next year.

The Morrocan Centre for Innovation will lead and supervise the new plan, and will monitor its implementation, playing the role of an innovation and invention 'observatory'.

Education Minister Ahmed Akhchichine said Morrocan universities were "fully prepared to move ahead within the framework of this plan and to keep up with it."

According to the Magharebia website, on 2 March officials also announced a decision to temporarily boost state employment for university graduates. Morocco will employ 4,304 graduate degree holders in government positions immediately.

While this temporary solution was welcomed by some, a number of experts warned that it would not solve the problem of unemployment in Morocco.

As reported by Magharebia, economist Karim Machidi called for "the introduction of a well-defined strategy to reduce unemployment by changing the general trend of university education to favour areas of study which are in greatest demand in the labour market."

Also, on 3 March the General Confederation of Moroccan Businesses proposed a raft of measures including speeding up reforms of special training contracts, developing apprenticeships, building better bridges between enterprises and universities, involving businesses in career guidance for students, and special conversion training for graduates in subject areas with no economically viable openings.

In Algeria, in an effort to improve the working and living conditions of scientists, Magharebiareported that the government had launched a plan to tackle lack of laboratories, low remuneration, bureaucracy and several social problems.

Such problems prompted 300 scientists from the Algiers Nuclear Research Centre to stage a sit-in on 21 February, demanding allowances and pay hikes. They were also protesting against the brain drain of scientists abroad in search of better opportunities. More than 40,000 Algerian scientists work abroad, according to national figures.

Under the plan, by 2012 the number of research units and centres in Algeria will rise to 100 and 300 new laboratories will be built. By 2020, training will be provided to 60,000 lecturers.

While Tunisia boasts 2,200 specialists per million people, Algeria has only 600 scientists per million - 22,000 researchers in total - which is about half the world's average ratio.

There have been numerous student protests, sit-ins and class boycotts in Algeria since late February, demanding among other things changes to the higher education system, reform of the qualification system and poor teaching quality.

Speaking to University World News Hilmi Salem, Director General of Applied Sciences and Engineering Research Centers at Palestine Technical University, said that universities should focus on quality and not quantity, and encouraging postgraduate study as on average only 2.5% of students at Arab universities are postgraduates.

At the regional level, to promote the development of higher education systems in North Africa and face the region's hurricane of change, Italy's Minister of Foreign Affairs Franco Frattini in February announced a pact for Euro-Mediterranean stability.

It includes the launch of a massive new Euro-Mediterranean Erasmus programme in higher education to help spread hope among young people. Offering the opportunity to study and train in Europe would also be a way of curbing illegal immigration and trafficking.