Calls for tighter regulation of private universities

A recent government warning about the use by private universities of manipulated or fake data about curricula and international partnerships to programmes that have not received official authorisation, has highlighted the need for tighter regulation, say higher education observers in Morocco.

“It is forbidden to open enrolment for departments that have not been recognised by the ministry,” said the statement from the Ministry of Education, Professional Training and Higher Learning, according to a local news report on 8 June.

The statement warned citizens that some private universities involved in these activities had not yet themselves received institutional accreditation.

Stressing the importance of credibility and social trust as pillars of academic practice, the ministry said misinformation should not be used as bait for more “customers”. It said certificates and all other documents obtained in such conditions were null and void.

Observers say the number of private higher education providers in Morocco is growing rapidly.

"Faced with the failure of public higher education, dozens of schools and institutions of higher education are appearing to merge to obtain the private university label," said Jabrane Amaghouss from Cadi Ayyad University, Marrakech. "However, most of them are not accredited and carry out fraudulent practices to attract student attention."

"To fight against the fraudulent practices phenomenon, it is necessary to invest more in public universities to improve their attractiveness and to carry out a rigorous policy in control of accredited and non-accredited private universities," Amaghouss said. "I recommend the creation of a unique platform for registration in higher education that allows high visibility for students."

Heterogeneous sector

While the problem is serious, not all private institutions should be tarred with the same brush, according to Aomar Ibourk, professor of quantitative methods and social economics and director of the Economic and Social Research Group at Cadi Ayyad University.

"The private higher education sector remains heterogeneous and is broadly in line with the regulations of the ministry of higher education and some exceptions should not lead to a stigma for all these institutions," Ibourk said.

"There is no general problem with Morocco's private universities as some of them play an important role in research and will ultimately contribute significantly to the emergence of Morocco.

"Competition brings excellence and diversification that ultimately benefits students. It is therefore important to allow innovation and to adapt the regulatory framework that is still mainly built for public universities," he said.

However, Ibourk conceded that for some private higher education providers, developing comprehensive programmes and international partnerships is challenging. He called on the regulator to study specific cases in detail on their individual merits.

"Containing the fraudulent practices phenomenon requires, in my opinion, some curative and corrective actions,” he said. "It is a matter of conducting a regular check of the proposed degree programmes and preparing a sort of list of recognised diplomas.”

Comprehensive data box

"This cannot make sense without the institution of an integrated information system that provides access for all stakeholders to a comprehensive box of data on proposed degrees, programmes and international partnerships," Ibourk said.

"This would allow the supervisory authorities, at the same time, to register the proposed diplomas, to put this information at the disposal of interested parties, to follow the evolution of programmes and diplomas, facilitate accreditation, and to provide relevant information."

"As preventive action, the ongoing regulation, monitoring and evaluation of the quality of the trainings are essential," Ibourk concluded.

Misrepresentation of academic offerings in the region is not unique to Moroccan institutions. Egypt's Ministry of Higher Education issued a statement on 7 July, endorsed by the Egyptian Arab American Academy for Academic Studies, warning high school students about unaccredited institutions falsely claiming to be able to grant university degrees in cooperation with Egyptian and foreign universities.

In August 2017, Tunisia's leading engineering organisation, the Ordre des Ingénieurs Tunisiens (OIT), which represents most of the country’s qualified engineers, published a statement indicating that it would recognise the qualifications of only five private engineering schools out of 28. OIT said the institutions not included had not met standards of educational quality.

Addressing the problem requires “firm measures”, according to Juma Shabani, former director of development, coordination and monitoring of UNESCO programmes with a special focus on Africa.

"Such measures could include the suspension of non-accredited programmes, the strengthening of quality audit mechanisms and the use of all available media tools to inform the public about the nature and scope of such practices," Shabani said.

Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid, science and technology expert at Cairo's National Research Centre, argued for national and regional virtual observatories to monitor all accredited private universities in the North African region with regard to their educational programmes, international partnerships, as well as names of registered and graduated students, including their degree results and academic qualifications.

The observatory would include a database-driven website that could be accessed by potential students who may want verification about specific educational programmes or any official information about a private university, as well as employers, recruiting universities and government institutions who may need verification of a specific candidate’s degree results and academic qualifications, according to Abdelhamid.

Besides exposing unaccredited private universities or those using manipulated or fake data about curricula and international partnerships, as well as bogus degree holders, Abdelhamid said the observatory should also include a list of bogus universities, degree mills and websites peddling fake certificates.