Graduates self-immolate over lack of jobs

Last Wednesday five jobless university graduates in Morocco set themselves alight in the capital Rabat, in protest against youth unemployment. It was the latest in a wave of horrific self-immolations that began with the December 2010 death of a young Tunisian vegetable vendor, which helped to ignite the Arab uprisings.

The five Moroccans were part of a national movement called Unemployed Graduates. Along with some 150 other graduates, they had been occupying a building of the Ministry of Higher Education for two weeks.

Three of the youths were badly burned, while two escaped with singed clothing.

Youssef al-Rissouni, of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, told Associated Press that the five men self-immolated after being prevented by police from receiving food and water from supporters.

Unemployed Graduates is a loose association of groups across Morocco who are demanding jobs against the backdrop of a 16% graduate unemployment rate. Their demonstrations have been violently dispersed by police and in some towns have resulted in sustained clashes, it has been reported.

There have been several other self-immolations by unemployed Tunisians this month, and on Friday about 70 people threatened to commit collective suicide by trying to march into phosphate quarries filled with explosives, according to Reuters. They demanded jobs at the state phosphate company. Police broke up the protest and arrested six people.

Time bomb

Wednesday’s event highlighted the urgent need for higher education reform in North Africa to produce employable graduates, and for a focus on entrepreneurship education to train self-employable graduates, in an effort to tackle the huge problem of graduate joblessness.

On Thursday Morocco’s Islamist-led government, elected last November, presented its new macro-economic plan to parliament. It has a focus on job creation and education, including the creation of 200,000 new jobs a year through public and private investment.

Last November Education for Employment, a network of non-profit organisations in the Middle East and North Africa and the MasterCard Foundation, launched a four-year, US$3.2 million partnership to increase youth employment in Morocco.

Called MORAD, the project is working with a network of universities, local and international companies and youth centers to reduce unemployment by addressing the mismatch between young people’s skill sets and what employers need, by improving employability skills.

Also, Morocco is working in a TEMPUS programme to establish tight links between universities and entrepreneurs and to achieve a better match between university education and labour market requirements.

Reasons and some solutions

According to the November 2011 report, Graduate Unemployment in the Maghreb, countries in the region are producing graduates with low levels of competencies for the job market. This has resulted in failure to reduce unemployment in general and graduate joblessness in particular.

In analysing the deeper socio-economic roots of the Arab revolutions, the French daily La Croix identified rising graduate joblessness and the erosion of the professional middle-class as two of seven main causes for the ‘Arab rage’ that resulted waves of protests across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) including Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Jordan.

Numerous international reports have pointed out that in the Arab world, young educated people under the age of 25 comprise almost 40% of the population. The unemployment rate among young Arabs is one of the highest in the world and at current projections the Arab world will have more than 60 million jobless individuals in 2020.

The October 2011 Arab World Competitiveness Report 2011-2012 noted that a “striking feature” of MENA economies was the high rate of joblessness among graduates, which it said was 22% in Morocco.

Women, who have made major advances in education, showed higher rates of unemployment across the region than men.

High levels of graduate unemployment represent a painful waste of financial resources, education and human capital. The figures shed light on the need to reform the development trajectories adopted by many governments.

In North Africa, entrepreneurship education is severely lacking, according to a paper published last June, Arab Countries Can Perform Better with Clear Emphasis on Innovation, Entrepreneurship and an Evolving Culture.

It said that very few Arab private universities or institutions provided teaching and training that matched the demand for new business skills, knowledge and innovation. Also, most public institutions did not update curricula in line with international emphasis on entrepreneurship education.

“For Arab countries to become internationally competitive, trainees and students should be taught entrepreneurship in a local as well as in a global context. If seriously undertaken, the drive towards knowledge-based economies and societies should speed up this shift, particularly when higher education institutions in the Arab world take the lead,” the paper concluded.

In 2010, UNESCO recommended that a strategy targeting entrepreneurship education in Arab countries be developed and adopted with the intention of entrepreneurship becoming a culture and mindset in the education system and in society.

The report called on the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation to develop the strategy, taking into consideration international experience and encouraging relevant regional organisations to be active partners in delivering entrepreneurship education.

It has been suggested that to foster entrepreneurship in the Arab world, universities and technology incubators should be supported to commercialise entrepreneurial ideas and to transfer university science, technology and other knowledge to companies.

But for many Tunisians, such long-term solutions may be too slow in coming.

* Wagdy Sawahel is a higher education and scientific research advisor in Egypt, general coordinator of the Science Development Network and director of the Virtual Incubator for Science-based Business.

See a video of the event