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Moroccan mountain university aspires to yet greater heights

Dr Driss Ouaouicha

Sitting high in Morocco’s beautiful Mid Atlas Mountains, yet just an hour’s drive from Fes, Morocco’s second largest city, Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane enjoys a special position in several ways. Driss Ouaouicha has been its president since 2008. Tony Martin asked Dr Ouaouicha about the successes and challenges of running one of Morocco’s – and the MENA region’s – top universities.

Of the three Moroccan institutions that are ranked in the top 100 universities of the Arab region by QS, Al Akhawayn University (AUI) is the highest, falling in the 51st–60th bracket. This is despite having just 2,000 students and being established less than 25 years ago. What have been the key strategies in its development that have enabled your university to achieve this status?

Al Akhawayn was founded in 1993 thanks largely to a substantial endowment from the then king of Saudi Arabia, King Fahd and the late king of Morocco, King Hassan the Second.

The vision was to establish a premier university, following the American, liberal arts education model – a university open to peoples of all creeds, backgrounds, with admission and progression based on meritocratic achievement. This was to be an environment conducive to serious study, research, multi-cultural perspectives, open-mindedness, critical thinking, intellectual curiosity and inquiry, anchored in solid academic exploration and adhering to highest ethical standards.

What long term advantages has this brought to the university?

AUI has built a reputation as the premier, privately run university in Morocco, and is able to attract students from around the world. The university is also able to offer scholarships and financial aid to students – need and/or merit based.

In any given semester, AUI hosts students and visiting scholars from around the world. As the only residential campus in Morocco, AUI offers   a pristine, secure environment where students and scholars can focus on their studies and research. The diversity and richness of our student, staff and faculty also allows for multiple interactions at various levels.

Internationalisation is a major component of university development and academic advancement. Including graduate studies in the USA and the UK, your personal experience has a strong international element.  With this perspective, what do you feel that Al Akhawayn University can further contribute to global higher education in such a way that students and faculty from around the world will see you as an attractive partner? Do other Moroccan universities have similar opportunities to contribute in this way?

The entire Al Akhawayn experience is predicated on adherence to good liberal arts educational values of academic rigor and excellence, ethics and critical thinking. The culture of rigorous inquiry with an open mind applies to all our endeavours and is expected of students, faculty and staff. While the language of instruction and communication is English, our students are also required to master French and Arabic. This gives our graduates – and our university – a competitive edge. It also allows international faculty and staff – and visiting scholars – to navigate our institution with ease.

Our focus on excellence, as reflected in our attainment of programmatic accreditation and pursuit of institutional accreditation, means that our students – whether degree seeking or exchange study abroad students – have the assurance that their course work and university experience meets the highest standards. Accreditation Quality Assurance and ranking of universities is new to Morocco, and AUI is delighted to be at the forefront of these activities and efforts. We particularly value the dialogue with an organisation such as QS – as it has afforded AUI – and indeed Morocco – to have its voice heard, for example during workshops on the methodology of ranking, and what efforts can mean for branding and awareness when   it comes to educational institutions around the world.  We appreciate these exchanges, which allow us to share facets of our institution that are particular to a liberal arts university operating in a Moroccan context. Our very identity is focused on being a university that enhances Morocco and engages the world. Our students leave AUI having a deep appreciation for their own culture and a thorough understanding of the global community. Equally important, our students are trained to be involved citizens, who contribute to local communities, through mandatory community services. Students and employers cite this type of experience as an added value which enhances the maturity, understanding, critical thinking skills and social responsibility of an AUI graduate.

Al Akhawayn University is one of the few Moroccan public universities to charge fees. How does this sit with the non-fee paying institutions in terms of fair resourcing? Does this mean that high quality but low-income students are unable to attend Al Akhawayn? How is the value of an Al Akhawayn degree a) measured and b) perceived domestically and regionally?

Several universities in Morocco are fee-charging institutions. However, AUI is a public and independent not-for profit institution.

Thanks to our cost-structure and support from the government – no qualified student is turned away due to lack of funds. AUI offers both need- based and merit-based support to enable qualified candidates to complete their studies at AUI. As of today one-third of our students get financial support in one form or another.

AUI is seen as the premier, liberal arts educational institution in the region. The best testimony to the value of an AUI degree is the placement rate of our graduates, and the expressions of enthusiasm from employers who value the critical thinking skills and global view our graduates bring to the work environment. This, in turn, means that we attract highly qualified students from the broader region and the world.

The Arab region is highly diverse politically, socially and economically. The oil-rich states of the Gulf Cooperation Council see their higher education pushing ahead in quality and volume largely due to this wealth. What opportunities can Morocco take to advance its higher education in the absence of such levels of investment? Does Morocco have circumstances in common with its neighbouring MENA countries that enable collaborative progress?

Morocco is uniquely positioned in terms of geographic location – sitting at the nexus between the MENA-region, the Arab world, Africa and Europe –  it is, and has always been, cosmopolitan in outlook. While lacking the resource endowment found in the Gulf region, Morocco capitalises on its open-minded society, which has always welcomed peoples of different ethnic, religious, cultural backgrounds. This openness and respect has facilitated many collaborative enterprises and exchanges.

AUI, its students and professors have benefited from collaborations, grants and exchange programmes worldwide, particularly with European countries, including academic exchanges, such as the Erasmus programme, grants from European countries and consortial arrangements among liberal arts universities – such as the Global Liberal Arts Alliance, the Association of American International Universities and Colleges, and many more. The fact that many academics in Morocco are bi- tri- or quadri-lingual enables students and faculty from North and West Africa to navigate our curriculum and extracurricular activities with ease.

In recent years, Morocco has seen several international universities open branch campuses, including universities from France, the United Kingdom, and the USA. While the current security environment in North Africa, at the moment, may not be very conducive to exchanges and collaboration – AUI is engaged in the World Bank project on university governance and was recently presenting at a conference in neighbouring Algeria, which also saw participants from Tunisia, Egypt and the broader MENA-region. AUI also counts among its faculty and staff nationals from neighbouring countries

Dr Driss Ouaouicha has served as vice president for academic affairs, interim dean of the School of Business Administration, and dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Al Akhawayn University. In December 2008, he was named university president. President Ouaouicha was executive director of the “The Scholar Ship” in 2007/08 and from 1988 to 1999 he was dean of the School of Humanities at Moulay Ismail University in Meknes. He is general secretary of the Moroccan British Society, and former secretary of the EuroMed Permanent University Forum. In February 2011, President Ouaouicha was appointed member of the National Economic and Social Council. Dr Ouaouicha holds a PhD from the University of Texas at Austin, a master’s from the University of Wales, and a Bachelor of Arts from Mohamed V University.