Maghreb higher education ‘space’ starts to take shape
This initiative was discussed at a fourth meeting of leaders of higher education institutions that are members of the AUF, held in Constantine in Algeria from 1-2 September.
The AUF is a global network of French-speaking higher education and research institutions aimed at establishing international academic and scientific communities that produce and transmit knowledge.
The meeting discussed management, objectives and an action plan, but the structure of the Maghreb higher education ‘space’ was not decided.
The initiative will be managed and coordinated by the Maghreb AUF's regional bureau in Rabat, Morocco, which represents the agency in Algeria and Tunisia and serves nearly 100 higher education and research institutions.
The Maghreb higher education space will focus on creating structures and mechanisms to help harmonise higher education systems, and to institutionalise cooperation and facilitate the mobility of students and staff between French-language universities in the region.
This, it is hoped, will enable higher education institutions in Maghreb countries – which include Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia – to face new challenges and contribute more to socioeconomic development, and to retain their cultures while also serving the common values that unite many Francophone countries.
The initiative will also support homogenising curricula in the Maghreb and gradually making degree and quality assurance standards compatible across the region.
There will be common training around regional issues and sharing of PhD supervision, enhanced academic exchange, promotion of scientific cooperation, support for research and innovation, training of future development actors and strengthening of the researchers' skills.
The region’s higher education systems face several challenges, according to a 2012 report titled Building Higher Education Partnerships in the Maghreb.
It found poor alignment between universities and industry, which is preventing universities from adapting curricula to meet labour market needs and teaching much-needed graduate skills such as communication and leadership.
Maghreb governments have allocated more funding for research for doctoral candidates in fields such as engineering, technology and biomedical sciences than for those in the social sciences, arts and humanities, the report found.
A major concern is the dearth of high quality professors. Professors often do not have up-to-date curricula, nor do they understand shifting labour market trends and how these impact on educational requirements.
There is little incentive for professors to improve the quality of teaching, especially in public higher education institutions where they are guaranteed salaries and benefits regardless of teaching quality, according to the report.
Business and entrepreneurship curricula are focused too heavily on the technical and financial sides of managing businesses, at the expense of developing ‘soft’ skills that are also fundamental for entrepreneurs, such as creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving.
Action learning courses, which help to equip students for employment, have been identified as a high priority for business and entrepreneurship education. These include projects with private sector partners in order for students to ‘practise’ real-world business skills.
Sadallah Boubaker-Khaled, a professor of mathematics at École Normale Supérieure in Algiers, cautiously welcomed the new developments. However, he told University World News:
“It remains to be seen whether the political will exists in the region to push this initiative towards reforming higher education systems.” Although Algeria had “huge human and financial resources”, he was not optimistic that there was sufficient will to benefit from national, regional or international initiatives.