Ensuring access to education has been a prime objective for Morocco in recent decades. The country devotes a relatively high share of public and private resources to schooling, yet still struggles to maximise social and economic development. Despite attracting significant investment, growing demand means that keeping pace with the funds needed to hire enough teachers while building and maintaining facilities remains a challenge.

Reform measures and investment requirements for the sector are outlined under the Strategic Vision 2015-30, drafted by the Higher Council for Education, Training and Scientific Research (Conseil Supérieur de l’Education, de la Formation et de la Recherche Scientifique, CSEFRS) and unveiled in May 2015. The strategy rests on three main pillars: fairness and equality of opportunity, reform of business education and training, and the provision of technical and vocational courses.

SCHOOL STRUCTURE: Many children attend preschool from age four to six in either a kindergarten or religious school. Enrolment is then compulsory between the ages of six and 15, with six years of primary school until age 12 and then a further three years of lower-secondary school. More than half of students then progress to upper-secondary education for a further three years, leading to the final baccalaureate exam. Having passed, students may be accepted into universities based on their scores, where programmes last for three years.

Improvements in infrastructure have contributed to an increase in educational access in the primary and secondary system. This has led to more students pursuing higher education and, in turn, the development of new universities has risen to meet demand. The gross tertiary enrolment rate grew from 11.9% in 2007 to 28.1% in 2015, according to UNESCO. In more recent years, the option of a professional baccalaureate has been introduced, as have a number of non-formal education options, including “second chance” schools for those who previously left formal education but want to enrol in school or professional development again.

BY THE NUMBERS: According to the Ministry of National Education and Vocational Training (Ministère de l’Education Nationale et de la Formation Professionnelle, MENFP), there were 6.9m primary and secondary school students in the education system during the 2016/17 academic year across 10,800 schools and 13,000 kindergartens, as well as 430,000 students enrolled in professional training. Some 688,000 students enrolled in the first grade for the first time, a 3.7% increase on the previous year, and the number of teaching staff reached approximately 230,000.

A study by UNESCO in 2016 suggests that student absenteeism and non-completion of studies is a large issue for the country. Of the population aged 15 years and over, 7m did not have access to any sort of schooling in 2014, with only 60% of the total population pursuing education. Of those aged over 15, 56% completed the entire secondary school curriculum and 24% went on to study at a university. Almost three-quarters of students – 72% – left school before receiving any qualifications in 2014, according to the IMF.

Barriers to completion include a lack of motivation, financial difficulties or – most notably – unreliable transportation to and from the classroom, with those in rural areas and from lower socio-economic demographic groups less likely to attend. Absenteeism is not confined to students either, with a rate of 7.5% reported among teachers, which costs the state Dh1.2bn (€111.1m) each year.

Education accounted for 21.3% of government spending in 2014 and a relatively high share of GDP at 5.9%. This spending has increased by around 5% nearly every year since 2002, according to a 2016 report by the IMF. Figures from the MENFP show that 200 schools were created in the 2015/16 academic year, of which 54% were in rural areas, while the number of local community schools increased to 119 during the period.

PERFORMANCE: While student performance is improving considerably, it continues to lag behind international standards. The 2015 Trends in International Maths and Science study, a global assessment of fourth- and eighth-grade students, showed “higher than average achievement” in the kingdom in both science and mathematics between 2011 and 2015. For fourth graders, student scores rose by an average of 65 points – up 30%. Eighth graders achieved an average 15-point increase, boosting their scores by around 4%.

Although this progression is encouraging, the country still has a lot of catching up to do: Moroccan students performed “significantly below average” in both mathematics and science on an international scale. In maths, both fourth and eighth graders scored three places from the bottom, with 377 and 384 points, respectively, compared to first-placed Singapore with scores of 618 and 621 for the respective grade levels.

According to a national evaluation of student outcomes conducted by the CSEFRS in 2016, secondary students performed below average in mathematics, Arabic and French. The study also highlighted that 98% of secondary students in the public school system come from low socio-economic backgrounds. This encourages richer families to send their children to private or international schools, exacerbating educational inequalities. Indeed, the trend of students from middle-and higher-income families going to private schools has led some public facilities in areas around Casablanca and Rabat to be dismantled due to a lack of students.

CROWDING OUT: Another issue affecting outcomes is increasingly overcrowded conditions at primary and secondary schools, particularly in rural areas. Speaking at a seminar in September 2016, Rachid Belmokhtar, the former minister of national education and vocational training, told attendees that the average classroom size countrywide is around 40 students, but in some cases classrooms holding up to 70 pupils have been reported.

This is in part the result of a funding shortage for new school buildings, a rapidly increasing student-age population and a lack of qualified new teachers to replace those retiring. Yussef Allakouch, the general-secretary of the Autonomous Education Federation, a teachers’ association based in francophone countries, told local media in December 2016 that on top of the existing 30,000 deficit in teacher numbers, a further 17,500 were scheduled for retirement during 2017.

NEW TEACHERS: To tackle some of the most acute staffing shortages, the MENFP opened 24,000 new positions on a contract basis in June 2017. The aim was to have a sufficient number of teachers in place by the beginning of the 2017/18 academic year, as well as to reinforce the ranks of administrative and technical staff with 8000 hires. However, contract positions have historically done little to incentivise instructors to stay in the public system, with many of the most talented teachers leaving for better-paying positions in the private sector after gaining sufficient experience.

Around the same time, Mohamed Hassad, then-minister of national education and vocational training, announced his ministry’s intention to replace 12,000 middle- and high-school teachers that retired or were planning on taking early retirement. Hassad also announced that approximately Dh5bn (€463m) had been budgeted to replace the 25,000 mixed-level classrooms – most of which are located in rural areas – with local community schools within two years, as well as plans to construct 50 new educational facilities and 10 boarding schools across the country.

In 2017 authorities lifted a 2015 ban on public teachers working overtime hours in private institutions. These additional hours are usually performed in the evenings at private tutoring facilities. Although lifting the ban was designed to keep public teachers in place while allowing them to make some extra money on the side, it may not stem the flow of teachers to the private sector and could even raise public instructor absenteeism if they are overworking in the evenings.

LINGUA FRANCA: Other issues have arisen from the policy of Arabisation, under which primary and secondary education was taught in the Arabic language for the past 30 years. This led to a number of challenges for students as they transitioned to university, where most programmes are taught in French, or if they entered a workplace where knowledge of French was essential. Instruction in Arabic was a particular issue for those who needed to use more technical terms in French to further their education or career.

To address this, King Mohammed VI announced in February 2016 that the education system would return to providing basic instruction in French at public primary schools, while mathematics, physics and the natural sciences will be taught in French at the secondary level. “This is going to make a particularly big difference for students choosing to pursue more technical training, such as engineering. At the moment, students coming from public schools who have not been instructed in French before attending university find that when they get there, they are at a big disadvantage,” El Hadi Bencherif, director-general of College Lasalle, told OBG.

These changes are being implemented from the 2017/18 academic year onward, with French-language instruction beginning for those entering primary school and French classes added to the curriculum of those who are already in the education system.

“Over the years, we saw a drop in standards in public schools as a result of the policy of Arabisation. Not because of the language itself, but because it was applied to elementary, middle and high schools and not generalised for all levels of education,” Bencherif added. “French remained the language of higher education and, more importantly, the language of the workplace. As a result, those families that could afford it chose to send their children to private schools with a strong French curriculum. Hopefully, reinstituting instruction in French will help raise standards and increase the attractiveness of public schooling.”

In addition to reinstituting French instruction, authorities are trying to boost proficiency among students in English, the country’s newly adopted second foreign language. Initiatives include implementing new teaching methodologies and encouraging English-language clubs in secondary schools. The 2016 English proficiency index by Education First labelled Morocco a “low proficiency” country; however, it ranked first out of 13 countries in the MENA region, even beating those that have English as an official second language. Indeed, a noticeable trend has emerged of many young Moroccan students studying English in their spare time instead of French, with many considering it an easier language to master and a gateway to opportunities with multinational companies.

BACCALAUREATE EXAM: Among improvements to standards, a number of steps have been taken to tackle cheating during the baccalaureate exams. These have included a law on cheating, a commitment document that those participating in the exams must agree to, as well as a number of other measures. Law No. 2.13 of 2016, issued in November, introduced disciplinary penalties for those caught cheating, including a failing grade on the paper in question and all courses taken during the academic year, as well as exclusion from passing the examination for a period of two years. These efforts bore fruit immediately, with the MENFP reporting a 60% drop in the instances of cheating in 2017.

In total 325,785 students participated in the baccalaureate exams in 2017, of whom the vast majority – 91% – were from public schools. In a notable development, 143 candidates from four professional disciplines also sat for the exams. The MENFP extended this to 19 disciplines for the 2017/18 academic year, with a focus on the agricultural, industrial and service professions. Nearly 450 educational institutions now offer the Moroccan baccalaureate as an international option.

TERTIARY SEGMENT: The number of students enrolled in tertiary education increased by an average of 14% per year in 2010-15, according to UNESCO, to stand at around 877,400 students during the 2015/16 academic year. The “University Statistics 2016-17” report by the MENFP shows that 781,500 students were enrolled across 12 universities for the 2016/17 year.

A number of universities have been recently constructed to satisfy the rising demand for higher education, opening new possibilities for students and broadening the choice of courses on offer. New facilities include a handful of private universities, such as Université Privée de Fès and Université Internationale de Casablanca, as well as institutions developed as public-private partnerships, including Université Internationale de Rabat, which was created by a group of Moroccan professors and the state-owned Caisse de Dépôt et de Gestion. Several universities have also been set up in partnership with foreign institutions. For example, engineering school Ecole Centrale de Casablanca, a partnership uniting France’s Ecole Centrale Paris and the Moroccan government, opened in 2015.

The country continues to invest in broadening the range of higher-education options. January 2017 saw the inauguration of Morocco’s newest campus, the Mohammed VI Polytechnic University, which is expected to become the lynchpin of Benguerir Green City, a research and innovation centre. The building was awarded Morocco’s first LEED designation.

UNIVERSITY ENVIRONMENT: In June 2017 Cadi Ayyad University in Marrakech was recognised as the top-ranking university in Morocco, and a leading institution in the Maghreb region and francophone Africa, according to the latest BRICS & Emerging Economies University Rankings. Within the kingdom, Mohammed V University in Rabat ranked second and Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdelah University in Fez followed in third. The same three universities also placed in the top-28 institutions in the Arab world, according to the Times Higher Education Rankings published in May 2017.

While the reputation of some universities is growing, certain fields are becoming neglected, notably professional research in the sciences. “There is stagnation in the production of publications locally. Until 2003 Morocco was ranked third in Africa in terms of the number of publications,” Omar Fassi-Fihri, permanent secretary of Hassan II Academy of Science and Technology, told OBG. “Overall, the profession of scientific research is, from a financial perspective, not as valued here as in Europe or the US.” Regionally and internationally recognised publications can prove an important avenue to promote a country’s capabilities in a certain field, helping to attract the brightest minds.

Late or non-graduation is another issue. According to the MENFP, 58% of students enrolled in Moroccan universities do not graduate, while only 13% complete their degree within the standard three-year time frame. The remaining 29% graduate in year four or sometime thereafter. This lag in graduation times can be attributed to challenges such as overcrowded facilities, frequent student strikes, financial difficulties of the students and issues of educational quality. In addition, the French language barrier encountered at university can cause problems for those students who received a majority of their schooling in Arabic.

Language skills continue to be a hurdle for young jobseekers. “University graduates are generally well trained technically, however, communication can be a challenge,” Benchrif told OBG. “Those who have benefitted from extended tuition in French from a private or international institution have little problem transitioning to the labour market. Conversely, two to four years of French instruction in university is often insufficient to make up for not having had any before that.”

Those who leave education after the baccalaureate exam – and especially those who pass with only average grades – tend to struggle to secure skilled work. “Those students often need further training before they can get their first job,” Bencherif added. However, even some students who do attend public university are leaving in favour of vocational training or private universities to gain skills better aligned with the labour market. The number of public sector jobs are decreasing and the curricula taught in public universities are still somewhat misaligned with what private sector companies look for in employees.

BRAIN GAIN: A trend that bodes well for the country is that many highly skilled graduates are choosing to stay in Morocco. Historically, Europe and the US have been particularly favoured destinations for some of the top-ranking graduates around the globe. However, advances in domestic education and the current economic environment in the US and the EU have changed the way Moroccan professionals view moving abroad. “On the one hand, economic weakness in Europe and the US means that immigrants are not in as high demand there as previously. On the other hand, Moroccan businesses are becoming much more competitive and internationalised,” Bencherif told OBG. “Even if jobs may pay less in Morocco, at least people will be in their home country. Taken together, this means fewer highly educated Moroccans feel the need to emigrate.”

SECOND CHANCES: To reduce the number of students who have not completed the first cycle of their secondary education and to provide educational support for children aged nine to 16 who, because of their family’s financial situation, have had to leave school, the European Initiative for Second Chance Schools (E2C) was launched in 2010. The E2C schools provide a variety of classroom-based courses in coordination with work placement initiatives for older learners needing an edge in the labour market. The programme promotes a regional network of accredited guidance, training and professional integration centres with the goal of strengthening the employability of young people.

In the 2015/16 academic year the E2C programme saw the reintegration of 10,620 pupils, 6818 of whom returned to a formal education curriculum and 3802 who underwent professional training, according to the MENFP. During 2015/16, more than 69,600 pupils benefitted from some form of informal education programme aimed at allowing out-of-school learners to catch up on their education.

BRIDGING THE GAP: With initiatives such as E2C, the professional baccalaureate and options for informal education, authorities have tried to respond to the challenge of providing avenues for Moroccans to acquire the skills they need for the jobs they want. These efforts have also seen increased emphasis on improved technical and vocational training, which forms the third pillar of the Strategic Vision 2015-30.

The most recent figures from the MENFP indicate there were some 430,000 Moroccans in professional or technical training in the 2016/17 school year. One recent development in this area has been the introduction of the €76.9m Charaka fund. The programme, which is grant-funded by the US through the Millennium Challenge Corporation, formally launched in June 2017 in Casablanca. The initiative will see an extension of Morocco’s existing network of professional training centres, which are run in partnership with the private sector. The centres aim to improve employability by bridging the skills gap between the knowledge and competencies of those graduating from formal education and the needs of the private sector in terms of human resources. The programme also aims to address social, regional and gender inequalities.

PRIVATE EDUCATION: Private education is relatively new to Morocco. While engineering and management courses have been on offer at private institutions since the 1980s, the past decade has seen accelerated growth of private sector involvement in education. This trend is particularly evidenced by the proliferation of private colleges and universities, and an increasing number of parents choosing to send their children to private institutions at the primary and secondary levels. It is common for parents to spend one-third or more of household income to enrol their children in private schools, and the fees charged are not regulated or restricted by the authorities. While a student attending public kindergarten, primary or secondary school can do so free of charge, fees for a private French school in 2016/17 ranged from Dh41,030 to Dh46,180 (€ 3800-4300) depending on the level, according to Courrier International. Schools teaching the US curriculum remain the most expensive. Although proposals have been made to introduce fees to the public system, these have not gained sufficient political traction.

The MENFP reports that 15% of primary school pupils were enrolled at private institutions in 2015, up from 4% in 1999. In 2017, 30,640 students participating in the baccalaureate exams at the end of their secondary education attended private schools, representing 9% of the total. Many students continue their private education at the university level. “With limited space at public universities and limited options in terms of the programmes available, it was inevitable that the private sector would eventually fill the gap,” Bencherif told OBG. There are now two, large private tertiary institutions in Casablanca and at least one in each of the main urban centres, all accredited by the state. Partnerships between local and leading international universities now allow double diplomas to be offered at the Moroccan institution, as well. “This means that many young Moroccans no longer have to leave the country to pursue their chosen career path,” Bencherif added.

The government is making significant progress in granting recognition to private colleges and their degrees, extending such recognition to eight further colleges in the spring of 2017 alone. This puts degrees from these private institutions on a similar footing to those from their public sector counterparts.

PUBLIC EDGE: In certain disciplines, however, prestigious public universities are likely to remain the most popular choice for students achieving the highest grades on their baccalaureate exams. Not only are the institutions free to attend, but in areas such as medicine, official attachments to hospitals mean that public universities offer better opportunities to practise in a professional setting. Still, one debate remains: there is currently no mechanism for financial redistribution within the public system, so even students from wealthy families are exempted from making contributions. Proposals to address this regulation have failed to gain sufficient political backing.

GOVERNANCE: A common suggestion to improve the education sector is to train all levels of administrators – from management to instructors – to shift from executors of MENFP direction to more active decision-makers through a decentralisation process.“Governance is probably the single biggest challenge facing Morocco’s education sector. There has been major reform in terms of curricula and the language of instruction, but nothing has yet been successful in changing the seemingly top-down culture that can constrain creativity and innovation in education,” Hassan Sayarh, director-general of business school Institut des Hautes Etudes de Management, told OBG.

Change would require political will from the central government, as well as an infusion of trust into the system that local actors would rise to the challenge of fulfilling new responsibilities. Sayarh pointed to three areas where reforms should be targeted. “First, there should be a separate human resources system tailored to the specific needs of the education sector, rather than it being subject to the same system as for all public servants. Second, responsibility for the management of resources could be decentralised to local entities, and even to the school level so that principals have more control over the employees in their own school. Third, teachers could be given more encouragement and margin to innovate and use their teaching skills in a targeted way, rather than simply carrying out detailed instructions from the top,” he told OBG.

Governance challenges affect private education as well. “The laws and rules governing private education are still a little opaque. Moreover, the MENFP still exerts significant control of activities. This is not as big an issue in secondary education, since everyone teaches for baccalaureate preparation, but it can hamper innovation in the tertiary sector where there are no state exams,” Sayarh added. “Still, overall it is fair to say the increased role played by the private sector in Moroccan education has helped to raise standards.”

OUTLOOK: Morocco has made great strides in boosting school enrolment, but the primary medium-term challenge is to ensure students finish their studies and leave school with both a qualification and the skills needed to enter the labour force. Efforts to tackle overcrowding in public schools, most notably in terms of hiring more teachers, is also likely to remain an immediate focus, as the sector moves to give all pupils equal opportunity.