In a widely criticised move, the higher education ministry instructed all university presidents to forbid any activity related to political campaigns on university campuses ahead of the general elections held last week. This was despite the fact that individual academics made up a significant proportion of the candidates standing for election.
In last Thursday's election, which attracted a voter turnout of 38.25%, the National Liberation Front secured 164 out of 462 seats, followed by the National Democratic Rally with 97 seats and the Islamic Alliance with 37. The remainder were shared by over 30 smaller parties. An alliance between the two front runners is expected to secure a relative majority.
In a press communiqué issued prior to the elections, the ministry said that the order to prohibit political debate on campuses was aimed at protecting the university franchise from any political manipulation and misuse.
The decision has sparked a series of commentaries and protests from members of civil society, university communities and political parties.
Samir Azzouz, editor of the student supplement of national daily newspaper El Watan, said “academics are coveted but infantilised”.
“It is absurd to forbid political activities at universities … On the contrary, the role and place of politics should be highly considered at universities and higher education centres and institutes, as they contribute to political life,” he wrote.
Hassen Ferli, head of communication at the Socialist Forces Front, one of the oldest opposition political parties in Algeria, also questioned the decision.
“It is nonsensical; it is exactly at universities that political debates should be held … With that decision, the university is [another] space to be confiscated.”
Atmane Mazouz, from the Rally for Culture and Democracy Party, pursued the same argument.
“I don’t understand why the ministry denies students the right and opportunity to express themselves in an essential debate. In fact we should encourage and engage students in serious debates that concern the future of their country, without forgetting to question the interests behind the decision to close university spaces.”
However, Samir Anser, secretary general of the General Free Students Union, admits openly that some of his union’s members are candidates for the elections and will be offered support by the union, “but outside universities spaces”.
“As students, we also are concerned about political issues,” he said.
According to Anser, based on the lists of candidates from 60 parties and independents, each party prides itself on having candidates from universities.
However, Anser said, in general business people tended to appear at the top of the lists and emerge as victorious in the elections.
However, the degree of participation of academics is significant. Prominent political party, the National Liberation Front or FLN, announced that 70% of its candidates are academics.
Participation of academics
FLN Secretary General Djamel Ould Abbas, who is also a former minister of health and social security, said: “The academics’ participation is our pledge and commitment to seriousness and credibility.”
The National Liberation Front also announced that among its national list, there are four ministers who are on special elections leave. One of them, said Abbas, is Professor Tahar Hadjar, Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research.
Another party, the National Rally for Democracy party led by Ahmed Ouyahia, secretary general and chief of cabinet in the Presidency of the Republic, claims that 50% of the party’s candidates are academics, in addition to former ministers, engineers and experts.
In addition, the presidents of the University of Blida, about 50 km south of Algiers, Medea University, 120 km south of the capital, and of Guelma and Souk Ahras universities, about 550 km to the east of the country, are standing for the coming legislative elections.
Most of the political parties champion the power of education to change the world, according to El Watan’s student supplement editor Azzouz.
For example, the FLN proposes to create more seats for future students. It also intends to create specialised universities and push the modernisation of academic programmes and pedagogy.
Democratisation of HE
For its part, the Workers’ Party has pledged to defend the democratisation of higher education, whereas the party of El Moustakbal (The Future) has suggested a review of university education with a view to adapting it to meet economic and industry needs.
The Rally for Culture and Democracy Party proposes greater autonomy for universities and decentralisation of their management. The Movement of Society for Peace suggests setting up a national consultative council to represent students.
The National Rally for Democracy seems to be the only party favouring the participation of the private sector in training at all levels.
While, the democratic principle of access to higher education appears to be observed and included in most programmes of political parties, most remain silent on the issue of quality, which remains a serious challenge for politicians and academics alike.
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