Here’s the major question about the famous suicide by fire of the young Tunisian Mohammed Bouazizi: why did it trigger so much upheaval in so many Arab lands?
Widespread poverty, political corruption, and ruthless oppression are an old story in Arab countries. Why should this suicide have produced so many furious young adults risking their lives to defy security police and soldiers? There’s a plausible explanation that much of the media have missed: the frustrated expectations of young high school and university graduates. A great many young graduates had struggled to earn degrees, occasionally in demanding curricula like engineering or information technology. Government and university officials had routinely made speeches assuring them that education would result in well-paid jobs in private companies or in the bloated bureaucracies of their governments. Instead, many found themselves unemployed or forced to take menial jobs. Universities had turned into unemployment factories. To get the few good jobs, outstanding academic qualifications were of some help but not enough. Graduates had to be lucky and also pay bribes or have family connections.
In their mass demonstrations, young people railed against “corruption” and called for greater freedom. Suppose, however, they had gotten the good jobs that despotic leaders promised them while unrealistically building new universities. Had high school and college graduates found jobs, they would have had what criminologists call “a stake in conformity.”
A February newspaper article in the New York Times reported on the despair of unemployed university graduates in Tunisia despite the seemingly successful revolutions of the Arab Spring. “A young man I knew threw himself from a building,” said Ahmed Cherih, speaking outside a cafe in Sidi Bouzid. “The only winners in this revolution are the police,” said Mr. Cherih, 39, who described himself as a university graduate who had been without a job for years. “They [the police] earn even more money now, but we have nothing.” Ousting the former dictator of Tunisia, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, aroused initial euphoria in Sidi Bouzid, but the basic problem of youth unemployment remained unsolved – and led to growing disillusionment. Graduating students expressed that disillusionment by gluing about a dozen of their diplomas to the town’s municipal office doors. An estimated 80,000 university graduates will enter the job market this year in Tunisia, far more than the Tunisian economy can absorb.
The powder keg underlying explosive discontent in the Arab Middle East was – and remains — the disconnect between the economy and the system of higher education. Despotic rulers did not realize that they would inevitably create unrest by expanding opportunities for higher education without simultaneously growing the economy enough to provide jobs for university graduates. But their ability to grow the economy was limited. One limitation lay in the failure of Arab universities to offer many majors in subjects useful to businesses. As Adrian Savulescu, a German businessman put it, “German firms … can’t use most graduates… It’s easier for them to hire untrained, unspoiled people and train them up for two or three years.” The despots would have been better off if they had created vocational schools instead of more universities whose diplomas were tickets to nowhere. Savulescu pointed to the shortage of plumbers, carpenters, and electricians that universities were not designed to address.
Another limitation on the job opportunities of university graduates was that fertility has not declined as much as in Western countries. Even if Arab economies had grown as much as Western economies, such growth would not have been enough to employ the rising numbers of university graduates. The Arab spring did not – and could not — solve this problem. Mustapha Kamel Nabli, governor of the Central Bank of Tunisia, warned that the disparity between expectations of educated young Tunisians and what the economy could offer them had widened since the ouster of the former dictator.
A similar disconnect exists in other developing societies. In Mexico, the jumbo national university in Mexico City [UNAM] enrolled 275,000 students in 1999! They paid tuition of two cents per year. When the government attempted to raise tuition to $75 a year in order to improve academic standards—the government subsidy per student was at the time $4,420 per student — students launched a strike to preserve what was essentially free tuition and open admissions. The strike closed the university for nine-and-a-half months even though the government backed down on its proposed increase in tuition and its attempt to raise lax academic entrance standards. Here is how a Mexican journalist described higher education at the Mexican National University:
Only four out of every ten students at UNAM ever graduate. This is partly due to the fact that the professions they have chosen, at public expense, are already saturated. If students were asked to pay part of their tuition, they would be more likely to choose careers that are in demand. Another reason graduates have trouble finding work is that their competitors from private universities usually have much higher qualifications…. Some newspaper employment ads advise UNAM graduates to abstain from applying and others simply refuse to hire them.…
At the same time that UNAM-educated political scientists, architects, physicians and lawyers drive taxis or wait tables in growing numbers, jobs for mid-level technicians with a basic understanding of mathematics, electronics, computers, and English go unfilled. The failure of education to produce occupational opportunities in Mexico takes a different form than it does in Egypt and Libya. In Mexico, youths do not attack the government through political demonstrations; they join drug gangs who kill members of rival gangs and shoot the police officers who try to prevent them from working at illegal but profitable smuggling operations.
Developed countries like France, the United Kingdom, Italy and even the United States have a more modest version of the same problem: Western welfare states promote education as an escalator into the middle class, thereby kindling hopes for well-paid careers for everyone who gets on the escalator. These hopes are more realistic than the hopes of students in Arab universities. Western societies are better at providing good jobs for university graduates, but even Western countries, including the United States, are better at providing educational opportunities – building magnificent new universities and giving grants and loans to students who enroll in them – than they are at growing their economies enough to provide jobs for graduates.
Sixty years ago a distinguished Harvard professor of economics, Seymour Harris, published The Market for College Graduates,a book warning that not all college graduates would be able to find jobs requiring a college education. Harris’s pessimistic assessment of a college degree as an investment was almost unanimously pooh-poohed at the time. And his critics were temporarily correct; Professor Harris had underestimated the American economy’s ability to grow and to create jobs for college graduates. But his prediction was based on extrapolation of the future needs of the American economy for professional, technical, and managerial employees, as well as on his assumption that education is subject to the law of diminishing returns. At certain stages of economic development, the skills of highly educated people are scarce and are therefore rewarded in the job market. At those early stages, investment in higher education pays both for the individual and for the society. Once the point of diminishing returns is reached, however, the allocation of additional resources to higher education may not be needed for the American economy. Some evidence suggests that American society reached that point in the first decade of this century. If so, Professor Harris was essentially correct, albeit a half-century too early. American universities are becoming unemployment factories, though to a lesser extent than those in Arab countries. And, surprisingly, this is true not only of undergraduate colleges but of law schools as well. A high proportion of the graduates of third-tier law schools are not employed as lawyers.
Universities that become unemployment factories have very, very dangerous alumni, as Hosni Mubarak, and other Arab despots learned. No easy solution exists to the job problems of university graduates, now mainly in Arab countries but potentially in every country where economic growth cannot keep up with the “beneficiaries” of higher education.
As Langston Hughes warned,
“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?…
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?”