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Free transfer, limited mobility: A decade of higher education reform in Egypt and Morocco

Une décennie de réforme universitaire en Egypte et au Maroc : transfert gratuit, mobilité limitée
Florian Kohstall
p. 91-109


Cet article montre comment les systèmes d’enseignement supérieur en Égypte et au Maroc sont informés et travaillés par l’internationalisation de ce secteur. Il compare les trajectoires des réformes universitaires dans les deux pays au cours de la dernière décennie, de leur mise sur agenda à leur mise en œuvre. En s’appuyant sur une approche en termes de politiques publiques, l’article analyse les réformes comme des processus de négociation complexes entre experts internationaux et acteurs domestiques. Le transfert des modèles internationaux du système d’allocation des fonds au processus de Bologne est la première force des réformes. Toutefois ces modèles ne contribuent pas nécessairement à une amélioration de l’enseignement supérieur quand ils sont imposés par le haut. Nous observons plutôt un processus d’internationalisation partiel et incomplet.  

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Notes de l’auteur

For valuable comments on an earlier version of this paper I would like to thank Marion Dixon and the members of the workshop “Neo-liberal reforms, local elites, and accountability in public service provision in the MENA region” at the 12th Mediterranean Research Meeting in Montecatini Terme (Italy), and two anonymous reviewers

Texte intégral


1In the last decade, higher education was one of the social sectors most affected by the restructuring of the international economy. The “knowledge society” emerged as both, a buzzword and a driver for change in higher education; it claims to be the reference for strengthening the economies of advanced and less developed countries. Especially for the later, the knowledge society is presented as the key to reshape their economy, from one that relies on raw material extraction and rents to one making use of information technology. Not only had the industrialized countries of Europe, Asia and the Americas witnessed the opportunity to reform their higher education system. Also regions like the Middle East, with a particular low performance in education, saw a new awakening through a boom in new, mainly private universities and new models applied to reform public higher education.

2Morocco and Egypt, two countries with a relatively huge population, large and expensive university systems, and high rates of unemployment of university graduates, stand out as good examples to discuss higher education reforms in the Middle East and North Africa. For a long time Egypt was a pioneer in the development of higher education in the region. Its oldest public university, the 1908 founded Cairo University, created branches in Khartoum and Beirut and sent many professors to the Arab Golf countries, acting there as an exporter of education. Compared to Egypt, Morocco is rather a late modernizer. Its first university, l’Université Mohamed V, was founded after Independence and pursued till the end of the 1960s an elite education grounded in the rule of the French protectorate. But in the last decade, since a new king acceded to the throne, Morocco presents itself as a reform leader in the region, being the first in the MENA to introduce the “LMD system” (Bachelor, Master, and PhD) in its public universities. Egypt also prepared a reform of its public universities with the World Bank sponsored Higher Education Enhancement Project (HEEP).

3Both countries are taking part in the current trend towards internationalization, but with important differences in the application of university receipts. While Morocco chose a more comprehensive approach, mainly through the application of a new selection system for its university leaders, the Egyptian government tried to reform the university by creating incentives for faculty members. The mushrooming of private universities is a phenomenon rather unique to the Egypt and the Mashrek countries, still widely uncommon in the Maghreb. Among other factors, the political constituency of each country seems to have a determining role on the reform process. Morocco’s monarchy with its extensive party pluralism always had less trouble in pushing through “liberal reforms”. Egypt for a long time diffused a more “socialist vision” for economic and social reform. The so far dominant National Democratic Party (NDP) party left little space for other political parties that could have taken part in a negotiated reform process and therefore has more difficulty in adapting to the international higher education market (inter alias Henry & Springborg, 2001; Kohstall, 2009a).

4This article analyzes the path of these reforms, from their emergence to their implementation. It observes the interaction between domestic policy-makers, the university and international organizations in order to understand how both countries adapt to the challenge of reform and how they cope with internationalization. Analytically, the paper renders on a public policy approach, namely the new literature on policy transfer (Delpeuch, 2008; Dolowitz & March, 2000) that explains how policies are informed by policy change in other countries and by the promotion of policy models through international organizations. We focus however on the domestic level and the way international receipts are negotiated. Here we observe that policy transfer and the internationalization of higher education in the aforementioned countries are largely confined to a top-down approach. The scope and the outcome of reforms depend on how policy-makers and other stakeholders do perceive specific problems and what representation they have of the world they live in (Cefaï, 1996). In that sense we observe how a specific policy narrative on the crisis of higher education in MENA countries is produced. Following Claudio Radaelli’s argument we consider policy narratives (récits) as an important resource for policy-makers (Radaelli, 2000). The narrative on the crisis of higher education and its international challenges are in fact the main driver of reform. At the same time a narrative limits the policy choices, not only of decision-makers, but also of those who demand more participation in the reform process. In fact the narrative on a specific type of crisis and internationalization as its proper remedy enables international organizations and policy-makers to impose a neoliberal reform agenda on the university. Even if a “participatory approach” is introduced into the decision-making process, higher education reforms remain confined to elite struggle; the reform process does not include the wider public of the university sector.

5Overall the article discusses reform politics in a specific policy area under – so far – authoritarian rule. It starts with a paragraph on current trends in university reform in the MENA region before it analyzes three phases of the last decade of higher education reform in Egypt and Morocco: the narrative on the crisis of higher education as a phase of problem identification; the fabrication of a national consensus through the establishment of commissions during the decision making process; and the production of change in the university during the implementation phase. The analysis is based on an extensive fieldwork in both countries for the preparation of my doctoral thesis (Kohstall, 2009a). It mainly consisted of non-directive interviews with members of the aforementioned commissions, senior decision-makers, university professors, students and domestic and international staff of the World Bank. These interviews and a careful reading of official documents helped us to reconstruct the policy process during its preparation phase. Four years in the field helped also to observe more closely how domestic decision-makers interact with the university and the donor community.

Privatization and internationalization of higher education in the MENA

6In the last decade several reports have portrayed the state of higher education in the MENA. The 2003 edition of the Arab Human Development Report was published by the UNDP under the programmatic title “Building knowledge societies”, setting somehow the agenda for reform in the region (UNDP, 2003). The World Bank’s flagship report published in 2008 tempered any enthusiasm with the title “The road not travelled: Education reform in the MENA” (World Bank, 2008). Both reports portray the shortcomings of higher education and research policy in the region and link these shortcomings among others to the authoritarian setting in which these policies are developed. But despite or because of this dramatic situation, many regimes have engaged in relatively wide ranging reform programs. During the last decade the region’s higher education landscape has witnessed a profound change: This change does not proceed towards more equity. Its most prominent feature is an ongoing process of privatization. Moreover, “internationalization” (Musselin, 2008; Teichler, 2004) has meddled into the business of privatization as a less criticized but not less controversial instrument to address change in higher education.

7In general, change in higher education occurs very slowly. Higher education systems are highly institutionalized systems, due to their size (the number of staff employed and students and parents involved) and the enormous impact they have on social integration and economic development (Ginsberg & Plank, 1995). Reform results in this sector may only be assessed after one or two generations have been channeled through the new system. In the ongoing reform processes it is especially difficult to identify winners and loosers of reform measures. The struggle is fought among university elites, barely including the users (students, parents), let alone those standing outside the system (workers, farmers and uneducated youth) (Salmi, 1985). What can be identified by now are a couple of more or less interrelated actions that do affect the university and the discourse on the role of higher education.

8The first change relates to the mushrooming of private universities and the tendency to elite education. Until the end of the 1980s higher education in the MENA region was mainly “public” or state-controlled. Only in exceptional cases like Lebanon and Palestine private universities outnumbered public universities. This changed rapidly during the 1990s: The first country to perform a shift from public to private universities was Jordan. Then, some rulers in the Golf countries realized that they had to invest their money not only in luxury cars but also in universities. With special zones for education, like Qatar Education City and Dubai’s Knowledge Village, the emirs and sultans created islands where international universities could set up their branches (Al-Shobakky, 2003; Romani, 2009). In 1994, Egypt enacted its new law on private universities. Only two years later the first five “Egyptian” private universities opened their doors. In 2003, a German and a French university were set up, beside the American University in Cairo, founded in 1919. In 2010 there are 16 private universities operating in Egypt, beside the 17 public universities. If they account not even for 5% of the 2.5 million students in Egypt, their market share is continuously rising.

9But in Egypt and elsewhere, the phenomenon of privatization is not reduced to private universities. First, tuition fees are also charged for special courses within the public universities. Study programs in foreign language, especially in English, are extremely popular for those who can afford them. Second, a good and valuable diploma is out of reach without a family’s personal financial investment in education. From the Kindergarten to high school, private tutoring has become the rule at all stages of the education pyramid. Combined with the ideal that education is the prime driver for social mobility – a heritage anchored through Gamal Abdel Nasser socialist policies of mass education – even Cairo’s poor invest now thousands of Egyptian pounds (EP) in their kids’ education (a.o. Hartmann, 2008).

10With all the talk on private universities the State also aims to reform the public universities. To do so, “quality assurance” has become the central reference for reform. For a long time education policy was guided by the principle of “democratization” as the way to widen access to all layers of society, even in countries with different economic legacies like “socialist” Egypt or “liberal” Morocco. This policy started to change when the old model went into crisis. After the oil boom of the 1970s, the stagnation of revenues affected all MENA countries and they had to abandon policies like the job guarantee for university graduates and free access to the university. Several measures were discussed to limit access and share the government’s burden in financing higher education, but finally most governments avoided to implement these measures, knowing that the university kept young people away from the street as long as job possibilities had not increased.

  • 1 So far Cairo University and Alexandria University are the only North African universities that have (...)

11If quality assurance became a reference for change, nobody knew really which changes should be undertaken to raise the quality of education in the absence of new financial resources. This was the moment where “internationalization” came in. For the MENA countries “internationalization” not only meant to attract foreign students and professors, but it was a way to adopt measures from the so-called “best practice” countries like England, France, Germany and the US. These measures range from the idea to imitate systems of accreditation, to adopt common diplomas and credit systems (the Bologna Process) and, more in generally, raising the level of competition between universities. The international Ranking-O-Mania affected every country including those nearly absent from those rankings1.

  • 2 The idea of this approach basically consists in the allocation of grants to universities, faculties (...)

12The transfer of international models has become the main characteristic of higher education reforms, when described as neoliberal reforms. Countries like Egypt and Morocco apply such different models as the grant-based approach2 encouraged by the World Bank or the LMD system promoted by some member states of the European Union; moreover they follow certain scripts, such as modifying the role of the state in the administration and financing of higher education, the participation of external actors in the reform process and different forms of privatization (Musselin, 2008). Some authors speak even of an “International Agenda for University Reform” (Johnstone, 1998) to explain why countries with different socioeconomic backgrounds adopt similar reform measures. How these reforms affect the distribution within the university system and the relation between those who are inside and who are outside the system is not clear yet. Still, this kind of “internationalization” has a tremendous effect on higher education systems that have once been built up with the aim of national emancipation and post-colonial awakening (Malcolm Reid, 1990).

13Not only in the Middle East and North Africa university reform is driven by the language of management, bench-marking and efficiency. Recent reforms in France and other European countries have put emphasis on university presidents as “managers of the university”. The State as the guarantor for quality has been replaced by (independent) accreditation bodies. Structural financial funding is substituted by calls for application and special funds that distribute money along the lines of socioeconomic demands and political conditionality. Research centers are renamed in centers of excellence, universities categorized in elite and non-elite universities. There is a deep diversification process on the way – as much in discourse, as in practice, that reshapes the university in Europe and along its borders. While it is intriguing that similar receipts are applied in very different socioeconomic environments, we will focus here on the question how this internationalization emerged on the agenda in Egypt and Morocco and how it was implemented.

Producing the narrative of crisis and reform

14Long before the UNDP and the World Bank published their reports on the crises of higher education, there was a deep consensus among policy-makers, university professors, students and international experts in Egypt and Morocco that the system is in need of an overhaul. The debate on the crisis of higher education started already in the 1980s when universities in the less oil rich countries witnessed the first signs of overcrowding. Still, little was done until the end of the 1990s when both countries started their last and still ongoing reform of higher education. In 1998, Egypt’s higher education minister Moufid Shehab set up a National Committee for the Enhancement of University and Higher Education (NCEUHE). This Committee drew up an action plan that was adopted in 2000 by a National Conference. Two years later the World Bank granted Egypt a credit line to implement the so-called Higher Education Enhancement Project (HEEP) (World Bank, 2002b). In Morocco, King Hassan II started the reform process in 1999 through a Special Commission for Education and Training (Commission spéciale education/formation – Cosef) that prepared a National Charter for Education and Training (Cosef, 2000).

  • 3 Interview of the author with a senior official of the World Bank, Washington D.C. November 2006.

15The fact that both reform processes started at the end of the 1990s indicates that in both cases international development agencies had a crucial impact. Since the beginning of the 1990s higher education reform emerged as a priority issue in several international organizations. After the fall of the Berlin wall, the countries of Eastern Europe had to restructure their education systems and were in high demand of receipts for reform. The World Bank, for a long time reticent to higher education as a matter of elite reproduction, published first, in 1994, the report “Higher Education: The Lessons of Experience” (World Bank, 1994) and then, in 2002, “Building Knowledge Societies” (World Bank, 2002a). Through the international conferences that followed up on these reports, policymakers from development countries like Morocco and Egypt gained expertise and fresh ideas for education reform3. Still the agenda-setting is a process that was shaped by both national and international factors and only their combination can explain the timing of higher education reform and its final results.

16In Morocco we observe since Independence an elite struggle on education reform. This elite struggle gained momentum in the 1990, when Hassan II tried to integrate the parties of the National Movement (Union Socialiste des Forces Populaires – USFP, Part Istiqlal – PI) into the institutions and finally charged them with government responsibilities in 1998, just a year before he set up the Cosef. Morocco’s professors are mainly organized in the Syndicat National de l’Enseignement Supérieur (SNEsup), which traditionally was controlled by the leftist USFP. It was clear that no reform could pass without the support of this party. While the palace and the USFP agreed on the urgency of higher education reform, they disagreed on the appropriate solutions. However during the 1990s a couple of events occurred that helped to produce a narrative on this crisis of higher education, a narrative both actors could agree on.

17The first of these “events” was the establishment of the so-called Conseil National de la Jeunesse et de l’Avenir (CNJA). Initially created by the king to address the problem of unemployment, it quickly developed into a forum of interaction with the opposition parties. Hassan II created the CNJA as a direct response to the emergence of a new movement; the “diplômés chômeurs” (graduates without job). While the government cracked down on any student opposition, the graduates without job were considered as putting forward a legitimate demand: a decent employment by the State (Bennani-Chraïbi, 1995). The CNJA first addressed the subject of unemployment, but soon stressed the importance of education reform. Especially higher education should become more adapted to the job market, it should be reformed along the lines of a market driven economy. More important was the fact, that the king nominated Habib El Malki, a leading figure of the USFP, the general secretary of the CNJA. Through this cooptation, the USFP took directly part in the king’s policy towards former university students.

  • 4 Le Matin du Sahara et du Maghreb, 15 octobre 1995, p. 3-7.

18A second event is the publication of a World Bank country report in 1995. This report recommended the introduction of tuition fees in the higher education sector4. For a long time the principale of free education had been the major point of discord between the king and the opposition. Already in 1981 King Hassan II aimed to reconsider the introduction of tuition fees to alleviate the financial burden of higher education on the State, but the nationalist Istiqlal party and the socialist USFP opposed these demands. They mobilized against the financial restriction imposed on the university with the implementation of a structural adjustment program during the 1980s. In 1994, the parliament’s education committee, dominated by these two opposition parties, issued a report on an education reform that rejected the introduction of tuition fees. The king publicly referred to the World Bank report to veto the parliament’s conclusions stressing that any reform had to take into account the financial impact for the state. But while he tried to discredit the opposition with the help of the World Bank, this report also pointed out the failure of the king’s technocratic governments in education policy. Consequently the opposition parties witnessed the report as an opportunity to demand more power in any future reform project and the repartition of government responsibilities (Kohstall, 2009b).

  • 5 Interviews of the author with members of the Cosef, Rabat April 2000.

19A third “event” was the increasing fight against religious extremism that became more and more visible in the 1990s. This fight put the language choice, a question that also preoccupied education policies since Independence, again on the agenda. Contrary to other countries of the Maghreb, Morocco never chose any form of “total arabisation”. But the last reform in 1984 which consisted in partial arabisation of the science curriculum in secondary schools put an undeniable burden on higher education. From 1990, the university had to cope with students that had been taught mathematics and physics in Arabic and not in French as it continued to be taught at the university. Arabisation, principally promoted by the nationalist Istiqlal party, was as such considered as one of the major causes of crises and rejected onwards by more and more parties as a sign of backwardness and being against the spirit of the country’s openness, not only towards the Middle East, but also towards its Sub Sahara African neighbors, and Europe, of course5.

20Taking these three “events” together we observe how a shared narrative of crisis of the university emerges. This narrative revolves around three major subjects: the question of employability, the question of public financing and the question of language. The king and his opposition converge on the fact that these issues are the ones to be resolved by any higher education reform. At the same time the debate on the reform is reduced to these three issues. Other questions, like the gap between elite education in Morocco’s grandes écoles and mass education in its public universities are evacuated from this debate. A process of framing begins that paves the way for reform.

21Looking now to Egypt, things are slightly different. The university has a different legacy and the reform emerges in a different political setting. What is similar however is that the crisis is also framed in terms that have little to do with the performance of the university. They also evolve around political choices and a rather diffuse agenda of internationalization. The debate is dominated by the problem of overcrowding, especially after the 9th year of secondary education was sacked. Another issue is privatization, especially after the authorization of private universities in 1994. Due to the hegemonic position of Egypt’s National Democratic Party (NPD), there is no clear cut government-opposition divide. The debate on higher education is more technical from its very beginning.

22In the Egyptian higher education reform process, a professional category became crucial: the professors of Cairo University’s Faculty of Engineering. Before the World Bank started to prepare the Higher Education Enhancement Program it had attributed a grant in 1989 for the reform of the Faculties of Engineering. In this pilot project, the Bank introduced some of the models that should later be used in the HEEP: e.g. the grant based approach and quality assurance. Some of the professors that were confronted with this reform emerged later as the agenda-setters of HEEP. An outstanding exemple is Mohsen Elmahdy who drafted a “manual for reform” (Elmahdy, 1998). In this manual he describes overcrowding as the major burden of Egyptian universities: In the absence of an increase in government resources overcrowding would have contributed to a decrease in the quality of higher education. As in many other reports, Egypt’s university system is depicted like Egypt’s geography: “too many people, not enough land”, an image jointly produced by international organizations and domestic policy-makers to justify their intervention (see Mitchell, 1991 & Mitchell, 2002). The country produces too many graduates without preparing them for the job market. In international comparison there are too many philosophers and social scientists, but not enough engineers, Egypt would have a great potential in terms of human resources, but it would not make use of it (Elmahdy, 1998). These reports – feed by statistics – reduce the university to figures and facts. Reflections about quality are shortcoming, often limited to the simple assertation that “learning in the Arab world means repetition and not reflection” (World Bank, 2002). In the absence of more detailed studies on the problem of learning in Egypt’s higher education institutions, “Mohsen’s manual for reform” framed the debate among Egypt’s main decision-makers: it paved the way for a change of paradigm from quantity to quality education.

23A second agenda-setter was the emergence of private universities. The authorization of private universities meant a major challenge for a country that garantuees free education in its Constitution. Therefore, when the law was passed in 1994, the debate was only at its beginning. While Cairo’s new middle class installed itself relatively comfortably in these new institutions, the government hesitated to grant private universities the autonomy they asked for. For the government the new universities are only an add-on to the mainly public universities. Officially they are not called “private” but “special” universities (jâmi’ât khâssa). Their programs should be limited to those not offered by public universities, but in reality these institutions offer the en vague program most in demand on the job market (medicine, pharmacy, information and bio technology, engineering). The public universities, in their struggle for their faculty that improves its salaries through teaching at the private universities, are pushing now for a second privatization through the introduction of special programs in foreign language or online learning programs. The mushrooming of private universities in Egypt changed facts on the ground. While government officials insisted till the beginning of the 2000 on the right to free education, the growing competition between private and public education for students and teachers persuaded many that there was finally no alternative to liberalize higher education. Internationalizing State universities became the only exit to deal with the growing gap between the public and the private.

24In Egypt, overcrowding and the decrease in quality at its public university on the one hand and the mushrooming of private universities on the other hand became the references of the crisis of higher education that would legitimate the reform of the sector. Holding up in theory to free education, the government kept tight control over all of its higher education institutions. It put forward measures to increase quality and international reform receipts such as the establishment of a quality assurance agency as the new references for reform. Instead of producing a clear cut analysis of the weaknesses of its higher education system it searched for an exit through the application of measures from best practice countries and the international agenda for higher education.

Fabricating a national consensus

25The production of a narrative on the crisis of higher education could be considered as the precondition for its reform. In truth it is an ongoing process that is recycled each time when crucial reform steps are undertaken. At one of the cutting point of the debate on the crisis, round tables are set up to produce expert studies, collect statistics and draft a reform program. This practice is known from Western democracies, where more and more sensitive policy issues are transferred to expert commissions before they are debated in the cabinet and in parliament (Ginsberg & Plank, 1995, Zegart, 2004). In the age of democratization this practice is also used in authoritarian regimes. The later adjust in fact to international norms such as participatory decision making through the use of councils, commissions, committees and national conferences (Kohstall, 2009a). As mentioned earlier Morocco’s king and Egypt’s higher education minister set up such commissions, the COSEF in Morocco and the NCEUHE in Egypt, both in charge of drafting a program for education reform. Both countries presented themselves as examples of “good governance” in specific policy areas and achieved to attract financial and symbolic support for their reform programs. The “participatory approaches”, as the World Bank labeled it, was certainly an exceptional moment of party pluralism in an authoritarian regime. Still the process had its limit in terms of redistribution in power. It rather strengthened those in place and enabled them to co-opt reform-orientated actors from within the university

26Moufid Shehab, the Egyptian Minister for Higher Education and Scientific Research, created soon after his appointment in 1997 the NCEUHE. On the one hand a tool to strengthen his own position within the cabinet, on the other a way to gain a credit line from the World Bank, the Committee was composed of 25 stakeholders from the university. Under the supervision of the Minister it should design within a few months a reform action plan to improve the quality of higher education. This action plan was approved in 2000 by a National Conference comprising more than 1500 participants (Ministry of Higher Education, 2000).

27The process was certainly unprecedented in terms of participation; still it showed the limits of pluralism in Egypt’s policy arena during the Mubarak era. The committee itself was composed of former ministers, university administrators (presidents and deans), senior officials from the Ministry of Higher Education and some of Egypt’s big business tycoons from the steel and textile industry. It also included members of the Senate and the People’s Assembly, both notoriously dominated by Egypt’s ruling party, the NDP. One could not identify any dissent voices, neither from Egypt’s legal parties (Neo-Wafd, Tagammu’, Nasserists), nor from the then illegal but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood. Student and university staff representatives only were convened to hearings without really having a say in the committee’s decisions. Finally, the committee rather served as a rubberstamp for an already prepared project. It rewrote decisions brokered between the Ministry and the World Bank in a “national” action plan, adding some of the old demands of Egypt’s higher education policy (building new universities, guarantying free education).

28The impact of the documents prepared by the National Committee and applauded by the National Conference were rather limited. When the World Bank approved the credit line, it accepted to finance only 11 of the 25 projects adopted by the National Conference, and clustered these 11 projects into 6 priority areas. The participatory approach, which was a World Bank’s precondition and then the reason to finance the reform, was full of shortcomings: it did neither discuss the financial burdens of the project, nor some crucial questions such as staff payment improvements and university autonomy. Consensus was produced through a simplified and stigmatic version of policy learning (inter alia Haas, 1992) and through some instruments very common to World Bank reforms: First, committee members were sent on study missions to so-called best practice countries in higher education reform such as New Zeeland in order to learn how things work abroad. Second, the Ministry, in cooperation with the World Bank, organized an International Symposium where policy makers from abroad talked about their visions of higher education reform. The committee moved more and more away from controversial questions, in search for solutions from abroad and from international experts coming to Egypt (Supreme Council of Universities, 1999). Finally it praised such new solutions as the creation of the establishment National Authority for Quality Accreditation and Evaluation of Education (NAQAEE), barely adapted for the Egyptian context (Farag, 2010).

  • 6 Interview with the author, Rabat, June 2006.

29In Morocco, the king’s Cosef went along a similar road, though in a fashion more adapted to the countries authoritarian settings. Contrary to Egypt, where party pluralism was completely absent from the committee, partisanship was the striking selection criteria in Morocco. The Cosef was composed of 35 members of which two thirds were members of political parties. Each party represented in parliament sent one member to the commission and each syndicate active in the education sector and affiliated with one of the political parties also had a seat. In the words of the commission’s president, the king’s advisor Meziane Belfkih, “Cosef was a faithful representation of Morocco’s political landscape”6. After the formation of the so-called alternance government, with the president of the leftist USFP as its leader, Cosef was on the one hand a way to affirm the king’s supremacy over the policy process and on the other hand a way to establish a consensus on higher education with the former opposition parties of the National Movement. In order to extend pluralism, the commission comprised representatives from the ulema, businessmen and civil society.

  • 7 Interview with the author, Rabat, April 2002.

30The outstanding pluralism that could have been an obstacle to handle such a sensitive topic as education reform was settled by a very tight negociation procedure. During its mandate, Cosef convened behind closed doors, so that anything that would be discussed in the press was filtered by the palace. The king called on all political parties to overcome ideological differences in order to settle this issue of “vital national importance” (Cosef, 2000b). Like in Egypt the president of the commission sent its members on study missions to explore reform experiences in foreign countries. While the World Bank and other international development agencies did not intervene directly in the negotiation process, Belfkih applied the instruments of international expert commissions in order to guide the Cosef to a success. Despite of its global approach to reform, discussions in the commission evolved around those two issues that had already dominated the debate before: language policy and the status of free education. In the commission these issues were settled through the direct intervention of the king (arbitrage), but also because the political parties formed unusual alliances with each other, in a forum that convened without direct media coverage. The representative of the Islamist PJD (Parti de la justice et du développement), a director of a private school of French language instruction, agreed with a pragmatic approach towards arabisation. A civil society member, also a director of a private school, defended the introduction of tuition fees, thus counterbalancing the demands of the USFP7.

31The outcome of the negotiation process was Morocco’s National Charter for Education and Training, which served as a map for the reform process. The Charter is more a moral contract than a legally binding document. Hassan II’s successor, Mohammed VI, asked the Parliament to translate the Charter’s propositions into laws. In April 2000, the Parliament adopted eight new laws by consensus, without a single vote against it, despite widearranging disagreement with some of its content. Overall the Cosef was a way to produce a road map for reform, which however lacked, like in the Egyptian case, some of the more crucial provisions for implementation. For a long time it was not clear who would be in charge of translating this road map into concrete policy steps and how to handle a national consensus largely imposed by the king.

32In Egypt and Morocco, the politics of commission was the moment to rewrite the narrative on the higher education crisis, bringing education policy a little bit closer to the implementation of the aforementioned international agenda for higher education reform. In Morocco, a formula was found to dissociate the controversial subjects such as arabisation and free education from the debate on education reform. A reform could now be undertaken, without being blocked by the political parties. In Egypt, the government did not cede to emphasize that all reform steps that are undertaken had already been approved on a national level. Both countries had experienced its “participatory approach” and international organizations like the World Bank approved this approach in order to fuel more money into the education reform process. But none of the commissions had achieved the empowerment of the third sector or real accountability for a highly politicized reform issue. As a main result, decision makers in both countries had been comforted through the politics of commissions to the point that they could start to confront the university with change, without being discredited by any of their opponents in the political arena.

Confronting the university with change

33So far our observations of the reform processes remained mainly on the central State decision making level, taking little into account the actors in the university. Despite the participation of university professors in the reform commissions, we cannot really speak about an involvement of the university in the decision-making process. Of course, many of the commission members had an affiliation to the university, but university professors are not like workers. The later act in a relatively secluded space, while professors form a specific professional category that hold often high political ranks and act as experts directly involved in politics. The limitation of higher education to the sphere of governmental affairs stopped however with the implementation phase of the reform, when the university was directly confronted with change.

34Both in Morocco and Egypt the reform measures implemented had only little to do with what had been praised as national reform programs. In Egypt, the reform started when the World Bank adopted its credit line. Together with the government, the World Bank designated six projects, all implemented through a grant-based approach. Moreover, a Project Management Unit (PMU) was set up to monitor the implementation of the six projects. The PMU was composed of Egyptian policy makers and representatives of international donor organizations. The first of the six projects was the establishment of the Higher Education Enhancement Project Fund (HEEPF). The faculty now could apply for funding with projects aiming to design new study programs, to reorganize the faculties’ management and to introduce new information and teaching technologies. This part of the reform went along relatively smoothly as the fund created incentives through financial support. A competitive selection mechanism was established which in a certain sense was shaking up the hierarchy within the university. Its “younger generation” – a reflection of the NDPs “new guard” – was in a certain way more eager to prepare the English Power Point Presentations, necessary to obtain such funding. But the reform remained a drop into the ocean. Mainly those faculties which suffer less from the problems of overcrowding, such as engineering, science and medicine, won a stake in the project, while the faculties of commerce, law and literature, which concentrate 70% of the universities’ students, remained largely untouched.

35The reform became more controversial with a second project, which aimed to establish the National Authority for Quality Accreditation (NAQAEE). Here, it was not clear how universities that were evaluated through the state administration should now be monitored by an “independent body” and how the new competition between institutions of higher education could be settled without new regulations for the redistribution of financial resources. The establishment of this new national body to supervise the university fueled the protest of the so-called 9th of March movement, a small but active organization of professors, initially created in 2004 to fight for the autonomy of the university and to protest against the presence of the State’s security forces on the campus. In an unprecedented step, the 9th of March movement presented an alternative draft law on accreditation and asked for wider independence of the body (El Sadda, 2006). While the resistance could only postpone the establishment of the agency, a new university law, presented by the Minister in 2008 but never adopted, triggered resistance from the same movement. Already in 2001, the Minister had to retreat from an amendment of the university law that aimed to reduce the privileges of senior professors. All this illustrates that the government was not able to overhaul the system, despite the application of the so-called participatory approach in the decision making phase. There was no clear cut division between those who are in favor and those who are against the reform. Resistance steams from those defending their privileges and those who aim to reform the university. The problem is grounded in the over-all top-down approach of the reform, that does not take into account the self governing bodies of the university but deals only with university presidents and deans, since 1994 all selected by the Ministry.

36Contrary to Egypt, where the reform was introduced through financial incentives for the faculty, Morocco’s university reform started through a change in the university’s administration. In a first step, a new system for selecting university presidents and faculty deans was implemented. This new system reflected the overall orientation of Morocco’s political legacy, as it was a mixture of election and selection, leaving the last decision to the palace. The power of university presidents was strengthened, presenting them now as “managers” of institutions which should establish ties between the university and its socioeconomic environment and conclude research contracts with private businesses.

37The second step consisted in the pedagogical reform through the so called LMD system. This international model acted like a “magic wand” for a reform that remained for a long time under debate. Since the approval of the new university law, the Ministry for Higher Education had set up several commissions and committees to discuss the establishment of a new pedagogical framework for the universities. The major challenge was to adapt the curriculum of different faculties and their diplomas to labor market needs and to render the system more permeable so that students could change from one subject to another and from the research to the professional track. In these committees several foreign models have been discussed, among others the Canadian study system. But in 2002 the Ministry suddenly decided to introduce the European LMD model. Already for the study year 2003/2004 the first bachelor had to be introduced, even faster than in any of the European Union’s member state.

  • 8 Interview of the author with a member of the expert committee, Aix-en-Provence, June 2008.

38The change towards LMD was partially operated by academia itself. An expert committee composed of university professors and created by the Ministry, seized the opportunity, when the Minister had to step down and was replaced by a new one, to finalize the draft on the pedagogical reform, mentioning the LMD as the best of all solutions8. While the former Minister would probably never have accepted this step, the new Minister still had little standing to oppose the proposal. But the shift towards LMD did not occur in a closed environment, it was also driven by the very dense relations between France and Morocco in all policy areas, and especially in those related to education. In 2001 an informal meeting was created between the presidents of the Moroccan Universities, which was a mirror of the French Conference des Presidents d’Universités (CPU). Still not institutionalized, this gathering held regular meetings with the French CPU, discussing among other issues the path of university reform. A new forum of exchange was created that served for policy transfer between France and Morocco. With the LMD reform on the way in Europe, France reactivated its old role as an exporter of ideas and cultural policies towards the Maghreb and francophone Africa (Benchenna, 2009). Morocco was the first country to adopt the LMD system, but other countries like Algeria, Tunisia and Burkina Faso followed (Mazzella, 2009).

39The Cosef’s charter only acted like a national cover to justify the adaptation of a foreign model and to push through a relatively unpopular reform. If most of the professors agreed on the necessity of reform they perceived the LMD reform like a top down decision they had to cope with, without being integrated into the decision process. They felt disposed by a reform that would neither improve teaching conditions, nor student mobility in their respective universities (Ghouati, 2009). Without substantial investments in infrastructure and payments, the approval of new bachelors served in fact only those faculties which suffer less from overcrowding. The comparability of diplomas triggered a new competition between the state-run universities, but it did not necessarily facilitate student mobility. The integration of a common European higher education area remains a lure as long as visa regulations remain unchanged. This is why professors and observers alike consider the LMD as one of Europe’s tentative to regulate migratory flux and a way it gains a cheap working force from the periphery without opening their borders. For some Moroccan professors the reform is another adjustment policy where their government plays the game of the “international community” instead of confronting the needs of the Moroccan higher education system (Ghouati, 2009).


40More than ten years after the start of higher education reforms in Egypt and Morocco outcomes remain still unclear. The discourse on the crises that once has put these reforms on the agenda is still ongoing, despite all the efforts undertaken since by international actors, domestic decision makers and university administrators. It is relatively common in many countries of the world to observe such criticism over their own higher education system. But especially in Egypt this discourse is fueled by the resignation over a system that is completely overloaded with some universities listing 250 000 students or more. In such a system most reform measures are like drops into an ocean. Still, it is remarkable how the discourse on higher education has changed and is now jam-packed of wording from the international agenda for higher education reform, from accreditation to benchmarking and quality assurance to ranking. A common language has emerged that shapes university administrators and faculty members alike when they apply for international funding. This is probably the most important side-product of a type of reform that otherwise has not yet lead to tangible results in the improvement of teaching and research.

41This article aimed to demonstrate how countries with a relative low performance in higher education are informed and worked by the forces of internationalization in this domain. In order to push through unpopular reforms and pave the way towards internationalization a narrative on the crisis of higher education is produced that enables to frame the debate in rather general terms. Reforms are not necessarily preceded by an assessment of the domestic situation but by the inclusion of policy-makers into international circles that preach the adjustment towards international norms. The word of a “national consensus”, a central goal of the reform commissions which have been set up, suggests that the solutions adopted are not all homegrown. Interestingly enough the models and receipts finally implemented have little to do with the solutions agreed on through “national consensus”.

42During the last ten years one observes an example of distorted internationalization in Egypt and Morocco. The international reform models are decided and implemented in an authoritarian way despite the application of the participatory approach. For a long time policy-makers in Egypt and Morocco have been building on instruments from the advanced countries without creating the necessary conditions: Quality assurance without better payments, competition between universities without granting them their autonomy. The free transfer of models is yet not accompanied by a greater freedom of movement for the people who have to cope with the effects of internationalization.

43If this will change after the events of January, 25th 2011, has yet to be seen. A failed higher education policy has certainly been one of many reasons behind the Egyptian uprising that ousted President Mubarak after only 18 days of protest. Inspired by the Tunesian example groups from all layers of society came together in different parts of the country to demand social justice, freedom and dignity. Students and professors did have an important role in the protests and once the protest against Mubarak had accomplished its goal, it spread from Tahrir Square to the universities to demand free student elections and new university presidents (Kohstall, 2011). It is not yet clear if these protests and demands may really reshape the university in Egypt. In September 2011, new faculty deans and university presidents are elected for the first time since 1994. It is remarkable that the first steps undertaken after the revolution – such as the election of new student unions and university administrators – have for so long been excluded from any university reform. International organizations despite all their expertise and their demands for more participation do apparently not have the same leverage as a protest movement when it comes to restructure the university along more democratic lines. Moreover, democracy on the campus is most probably not among the priorities of internationalization, especially when it comes to higher education institutions in the periphery.

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1 So far Cairo University and Alexandria University are the only North African universities that have been included into international rankings.

2 The idea of this approach basically consists in the allocation of grants to universities, faculties and departments through the establishment of a fund and a competitive selection mechanism.

3 Interview of the author with a senior official of the World Bank, Washington D.C. November 2006.

4 Le Matin du Sahara et du Maghreb, 15 octobre 1995, p. 3-7.

5 Interviews of the author with members of the Cosef, Rabat April 2000.

6 Interview with the author, Rabat, June 2006.

7 Interview with the author, Rabat, April 2002.

8 Interview of the author with a member of the expert committee, Aix-en-Provence, June 2008.

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Florian Kohstall, « Free transfer, limited mobility: A decade of higher education reform in Egypt and Morocco »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée, 131 | 2012, 91-109.

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Florian Kohstall, « Free transfer, limited mobility: A decade of higher education reform in Egypt and Morocco »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 131 | 2012, mis en ligne le 02 juillet 2012, consulté le 14 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Florian Kohstall

Directeur de l'office de la Freie Universität Berlin au Caire

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