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MOROCCO: Many elite Arabs opt for American-style education, moving away from the French mold

June 27, 2010 |  8:06 am

The 259 students who graduated this year from the Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco’s only English-language college, are practically guaranteed a job -- unlike those Moroccans who went through the country’s French-inspired education system.

Commencement weekend at AUI, as it is commonly known, is not a very Moroccan affair. The atmosphere at the campus, set amid the pine and cedar forests of the Mid-Atlas mountain range, is part Swiss ski village, part Ivy League college. The university is in Ifrane, a mountain resort originally built for the French colonial elite wishing to escape the summer heat of Casablanca and Rabat. On a recent weekend in June, it was beset by a different kind of elite: AUI’s class of 2010 and their proud parents.

It was quickly obvious from the speeches that AUI did things the American way. 

“AUI gives you not just a degree but a whole new personality,” said alumni President Khalid Baddou. 

“AUI is more than a university; it is a community with an amazing culture. Here, you are given the weapons to face the real world with,” said science and engineering graduate Ahmad Arjdane.


 The underlying message was loud and clear: This is what you miss out on if you study at traditional French-inspired universities in Morocco.

“I lost all hope with the French system while I was in high school,”  said Fahd El Hassan, a 2009 graduate. “It is all about memorizing, not about learning.”

El Hassan was invited to speak at this year’s commencement because he had won third place in the 2008 Imagine Cup, a student competition organized by Microsoft and Unesco to further sustainable businesses through technology. This year’s AUI graduates included winners of the Google Anita Borg Memorial Scholarschip and the Google Computer Excellence Award in computer science.

"Morocco has long been handicapped because it has been so oriented toward Europe and France," said the dean of the science and engineering school, Ahmed Legrouri. "Let’s face it: Where can you go with just French these days? France, Switzerland and Belgium? Even in France, technical publications are in English these days.”

Morocco-auiThe former Moroccan king, Hassan II -- although himself a strong Francophile -- was among the first to stress the need for Moroccans to learn English to help ensure international success. Fate lent a helping hand. In 1995, Morocco’s beaches were threatened by an oil spill from a foreign tanker off the coast. The oil eventually drifted away, but by then king Fahd of Saudi Arabia had written a $50-million check to come to Morocco’s aid. The money was used to found AUI.

The university likes to boast that Moroccan employers are falling over themselves to hire AUI graduates. A recent survey by the alumni association said 98% of AUI graduates had found a job, started a business or were working a master's degree within six months of graduation.

This is in stark contrast to other Moroccan universities, some of whose graduates have been demonstrating every day for months in front of the parliament building in the capital, Rabat, demanding to be given jobs. Passersby sometimes make snide remarks about these demonstrators, saying graduates think a university degree automatically entitles a person to a government job.

"Like in many developing countries, it was long policy in Morocco that college graduates were given government jobs straight out of school," said AUI alumni President Baddou. "It was part of an internal security strategy at the time."

Moroccans also have learned the value of learning English. Moroccans initially missed the boat of the economic boom in the Persian Gulf countries because French was of no use in Dubai or Kuwait. Now, English is becoming a requirement in Morocco. Even some French companies in Morocco require that employees know English.

“The demand for an institution like ours is insatiable for the moment," said Simon O'Rourke, AUI’s American communications director. “We are the only one to offer the overall college experience."

-- Gert van Langendonck in Rabat, Morocco

Photos: Graduation day at AUI in Ifrane, Morocco, a bastion of American-style education. Credit: Gert van Langendonck / Special to The Times