University-to-jobs transition and youth unemployment in North Africa

The International Labour Organisation’s Global Employment Trends 2013 estimated the global youth unemployment rate last year at 12.6%, representing 73.8 million young people without jobs. The highest rates are recorded in the Middle East and North Africa.

At the time of the Great Recession, youth unemployment became a serious problem in most countries around the world, including in developed nations such as Spain, Greece and Italy. And more recently youth unemployment was one of the driving forces behind the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa.

One of the many reasons behind the high unemployment rate of 15- to 24-year-olds in North Africa – Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco – is the quality of higher education and the poor transition from university to employment.

Statistics have shown that university graduates are common among the young unemployed in Arab countries, with the labour market demanding knowledge and skills that graduates just do not possess.

University-employment mismatch

There is a major mismatch between higher education and employment in North Africa today. The gap is due to complex and interrelated factors.

The issue may be identified and analysed at two levels: today’s university graduates are not equipped with transferrable skills required by the job market; and universities do not offer programmes that are relevant to the labour market.

Overall, educational systems in the region focus too much on theory and provide little practical experience. In today’s globally competitive labour market, companies hire on the basis of what people can do rather than what they know – the private sector worldwide complains about universities not producing graduates with the skills they need.

Although knowledge and skills may be intertwined, the trend is for industry to value skills, while academic institutions value knowledge and argue that a valuable skill for graduates is the ability to learn.

The feeling in North Africa is that universities need to offer students quality learning and skills acquisition in collaboration with business and industry.

Linking universities and industry is necessary to provide students with opportunities to attain entry-level jobs after graduating. It is believed that improved access to labour market opportunities will significantly help efforts to decrease high youth unemployment.

To achieve this, professionals from industry should be involved in teaching, improving the quality of learning and designing educational programmes.

The demand-offer principle is not being respected in these countries, it is argued, and there is an urgent need for more innovative programmes to equip graduates with skills.

Since the public universities that graduate most students mostly offer traditional courses in the humanities and social sciences, universities and companies should collaborate to balance course offerings and change demand.

Higher education quality

The Global Competitiveness Report 2012-2013 ranked higher education quality in North Africa as follows: Tunisia (41), Morocco (105), Algeria (131), Egypt (139) and Libya (142).

The youth unemployment rate in North Africa is estimated by the ILO at 23.3% – the second highest rate in the world after the Middle East’s 27.6% and nearly double the global youth unemployment rate of 12.6%.

Very low ranking in quality of higher education and a very high youth unemployment rate indicate that there is a link between the two. Over and above the quality problem, curricula are so traditional that they barely include the knowledge young graduates need for the labour market.

With higher education systems characterised by a dominance of theory over practice, to gain experience students need to spend more time in labs and in companies through internships and apprenticeships to gain the skills that are relevant to their programmes of study.

As a former student in a Moroccan public university, I noticed that only a small proportion of students get work experience while studying. There are numerous reasons for this:
  • • Lack of awareness among students of the importance of getting work experience during studies.
  • • Lack of interesting and relevant internships linked to programmes of study, especially in humanities and social sciences.
  • • Centralisation of internships in a few big cities.
  • • Very low levels of student mobility.
  • • Inactive university career services.
  • • Over-enrolment in most universities.
The current youth unemployment situation calls for more serious actions from North African governments in order to improve the quality of higher education.

Key to improving higher education systems is allowing innovation in programme offerings and in higher education management. University-to-employment transition is a complicated process that calls for the intervention of governmental, social and economic actors.

* Nour-eddine Labiad is a research fellow at ADAPT – The Association of International and Comparative Studies in Labor and Industrial Relations – and a PhD candidate at the University of Bergamo in Italy, with interests in quality of higher education, labour market skills, university-to-employment transition, and assessment of learning outcomes and training.