In an historical U-turn for Algerian higher education, for the first time since independence in 1962 the country has authorised the creation of private universities. There are reportedly already four applications for private institutions.
A legal framework adopted last October by the people's national assembly (parliament) fixed the rules, principles and ‘codes of charges’ that individuals and private companies should observe to invest in higher education.
Bachelors and masters, but not medicine
One of the main points in official decrees stipulates that private universities can only deliver courses for licence (first degree) and masters degrees in all domains except medical sciences, which remains exclusively under public monopoly.
The authorities have not provided justification for the exclusion of medicine from private higher education, but Elyas Nour from TSA electronic newspaper argued that they probably feared the “proliferation of degrees of complacency”.
Other restrictions concern the nationality of investors – the director and pedagogical leaders should be of Algerian origin. If foreigners want to set up private universities, their projects will be subject to a bilateral treaty between their government and the Algerian government.
Applications already received
In spite of these restrictions, local media reported that four applications were already on the table of the minister of higher education for formal approval.
Cevital – a private Algerian enterprise led by millionaire Issad Rabrab, who made his fortune in the food and electrical household goods industries – is one of the applicants.
His public relations officer Kamel Sid Saeed affirmed: “Cevital is ready to comply fully with all decrees mentioned in the codes of charges, and yet it is working to set up its own university that meets high pedagogic and technical international standards.”
Saeed explained that “the main challenges we face are not related to structures and infrastructures, but to the quality of academic staff, who should be of a higher level and calibre. We cannot invest heavily in structures without providing excellent academic supervision.”
He added that the university would enrol Algerian skills, locally and abroad, especially drawing on members of the 'brain drain'.
Professor Abdelhak Lamiri, who obtained his PhD from the United States and is head of the International Institute of Management, is another applicant interested in a higher education project.
“Public universities are facing so many uncertainties in terms of efficiency and adequacy of needs and concerns of the national economy, particularly in this crisis period,” Lamiri observed.
The scholar contended that “we have to requalify and update human potential to meet huge economic diversification needs and put an end to the catastrophic results of the hegemonic economy of hydrocarbons”.
Although private higher education in Algeria is making a timid debut, Lamiri pointed out that “even North Korea has its private universities” and, closer to home, Niger, Mauritania, Tunisia and Morocco had private universities.
He said private higher education comprised around 35% of all provision worldwide, and could reach 50% in the next 10 years.
In spite of being officially adopted by parliament, the privatisation of higher education remains debated and questioned in the public domain.
Abdelmalek Rahmani, who represents higher education lecturers, is sceptical. “I question whether these universities will enrol excellent or rich students only, and will they adopt the same conditions and rules of access as presently done by public universities?”
A representative of the free student general union Samir Ancer was also dubious, fearing that the privatisation of higher education “will lead to creating a social and knowledge gap in society".
"Only students whose parents are wealthy and in higher political positions will be able to benefit from private universities’ privileges.”
Mohamed Badrani of the Algerian Union of Students was also critical of the project. “The privatisation of higher education is a tricky process that will ultimately undermine democratic and popularly acquired rights for students from deprived populations."
The question of financing studies is another source of concern for future students.
Although Ali Haddad, another local potential investor and president of the Forum of Enterprise Chiefs, affirmed that: “Our action intends to help Algerian students; we will not make any benefit and we will do it voluntarily.”
However, Lamiri explained that “financing studies could be done through private enterprises sponsoring [students] or loans from banks”.
It is clear, argued Badrani, that free and democratic access to universities – which has been at the soul of the Algerian political system since independence – is coming to an end owing to the current economic crisis.
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters