All over the world, the new academic year has started under unprecedented circumstances, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Morocco is no exception. Decision-makers in the education sector differ on the best way to continue the learning process, while containing the spread of the virus.
The ministry of education in the North African kingdom has chosen a blended approach, in which parents can opt either for attendance or online learning modes for their children. This ‘policy to have no policy’ deepens the divide between those who have the luxury of making that choice, and those who struggle daily to make ends meet. This article discusses the impact that COVID-19 has had on the education sector in Morocco, in deepening the vertical inequalities (between social classes) and horizontal disparities (between cities and villages) that already existed prior to the pandemic.
As was the case in every nation in the world, Morocco was infected by the coronavirus. Swiftly, the kingdom followed a strict – somewhat repressive – lockdown in an attempt to contain the pandemic. These measures were justified because the country has a fragile and underfunded health sector, incapable of dealing with a large number of daily infections. Moreover, education was affected by the outbreak, classes were suspended in schools and lectures were delivered online since March. The Ministry of Education and Vocational Training made an effort to finish the academic year in these unprecedented conditions in the schooling process. To ensure equal opportunity between students from different social backgrounds, the unified national baccalaureate exam (the final high school exam) focused only on topics covered in face-to-face classes completed before the lockdown. Despite these efforts, there are deeply ingrained inequalities that already exist throughout Moroccan society, and in the education system, that are exacerbated not just by the pandemic but by a lack of government policy to address them.
Disparity and dropout in Morocco’s education sector
The school dropout rate is a significant issue in Morocco. In a 2018 report, the Supreme Council of Education, Training, and Scientific Research indicated that Morocco has succeeded to lower the primary school dropout rate to 2.2% in cities and 4.8% in the urban regions. Yet, the rate increases in secondary education to reach 12.9% in urban centers and 16.8% in rural areas.
The same report demonstrated that starting from the secondary level, the disparity in access to education between urban centers and rural areas, and males and females, widens significantly. For instance, in 2016-2017, secondary education rates are 96.9% for urban children (with parity between boys and girls) and 75.8% for their rural counterparts (81.9% male and 69.4% female). Moreover, inequality increases in high school education. The high school rate in urban centers is 86.3%, while it drops substantially in rural areas to 49% for males and 32% for females.
These statistics illustrate unequal access to education between males and females as well as between cities and villages. COVID-19 worsens the situation, as the pandemic widens social inequality between the rich and the poor and increases levels of poverty and unemployment, which eventually affect the ability of families to educate their children.
Poverty and unemployment
In a recent report, Oxfam International stated that the aggregate wealth of billionaires in the Middle East and North Africa increased by $10 billion during the Covid-19 pandemic, while around 45 million people have been pushed into poverty. According to a report from Haut Commissariat au Plan, the Moroccan economy lost 589,000 jobs, of which more than 88% were in rural areas, with total unemployment reaching almost 1.5 million.
With a rise in the poverty rate, access to education became a heavy financial burden on the shoulders of poor families, as online education requires electronic devices they cannot afford to buy. In Morocco, poor families do not only consider education a right, under the Article 28 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the kingdom signed on January 26th, 1990, and ratified on June 21st, 1993, but it is the only tool available for them to penetrate the social pyramid and improve their socio-economic conditions and those of their relatives. However, if education requires additional financial resources to obtain devices and internet connectivity, poor children will likely abandon their schooling. Consequently, the child’s fundamental right to education under Article 31 of the Constitution will not be met and poor families will never be able to get out of the poverty trap.
The social and economic impact of COVID-19 is enormous. Yet, the greater effect is on vulnerable and poor communities. Haut Commissariat au Plan estimates that the percentage of citizens vulnerable to poverty in Morocco will increase from 17.1% in 2019 to 19.87% in 2020. These numbers indicate there will be an additional million poor in 2020. Moreover, COVID-19 will hit hard those who work in the informal sector; particularly low-skilled Moroccan and foreign communities, both migrants and refugees. Consequently, the current unemployment rate increased from 9% to 13% at the national level, from 7.8% to 12.2% in the centers, and 10.6% to 14.1% in the rural areas. As families struggle to afford both basic living expenses and the extra financial burden of online learning, many poor students will be forced to drop out of education. Since poor Moroccans live hand-to-mouth, this situation will lead to widening inequalities in access to education across the kingdom.
There is a significant disparity in connectivity between urban centers and rural areas, where 14 million (40%) of Moroccans live. According to the World Bank, in 2015 only 47% of the rural population had access to the internet compared to 76% of urban households. This digital gap between the two communities violates the constitutional rights of rural citizens to access different sources of information including health consultancy and education opportunities, as entitled by the Constitution.
According to the same World Bank report, the main factors that contribute to this reality are related to the prices of subscriptions and equipment compared to the average income in the semi-urban and rural areas. The private internet providers concentrate their efforts on the populated urban centers, where the purchasing power is high and demand for services is strong. Students in rural areas often suffer from a lack of suitable classrooms, schoolbooks, and other educational materials. It is not unusual to see in the same classroom pupils from different grades being taught by one teacher, due to a lack of funding for facilities and teachers.
According to a 2019 Freedom House report, the variation of connectivity between urban and rural areas persists and network coverage is unequal. In its latest annual report in 2017, the National Agency for the Regulation of Telecommunications (ANRT) stated that city residents are more accessible to the internet than village dwellers, with a rate of 67% to 43%, respectively. This disparity is attributed to the high level of illiteracy, particularly among rural women, which represents another serious challenge facing universal internet access in Morocco. The illiteracy rate in rural areas in Morocco is 47% of which 60% are women.
COVID-19 deepens the gap between social classes in Morocco and makes it difficult for the poor to penetrate the social hierarchy and improve their living conditions. In the North African kingdom, education is one of the main black holes in social policy. As COVID-19 pushes one million citizens into poverty and reduces people’s income, families struggle to secure basic needs for their children and internet connectivity and electronic devices will be out of reach, forcing more children to drop out of education. A 2013 survey showed that the share of national income of the richest 10% in the country was 12 fold of the share of national income of the poorest 10%, and as the education gap between social classes widens those inequalities persist.
As the new 2020-2021 academic year is about to start, the Minister of Education and Vocational Training decided that it is up to parents to choose if they want their children to attend classes in schools or study online. While the only role of decision-makers is to make a decision, this is clearly a policy to have no policy, and simply deepens further the existing inequalities in society. While those who can afford it will be free to make that choice, it is a violation of the right to education of those who cannot afford access to the internet. As in many countries, COVID-19 worsens an already catastrophic social situation in Morocco, in which basic rights are absent.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Noureddine Radouai is a master’s degree student in Public Policy at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Doha, Qatar. He obtained his MA in Media and Cultural Studies from the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies and he earned a BA, with honors, in Mass Communication, with a minor in International Affairs, from Qatar University. He is interested in social policy, economic development, and the political economy of the MENA region.