ALGERIA: New policy to curb violence at campuses

With violence rising on campuses in Algeria - including a spate of shocking murders - the Education Ministry and the National Council for Higher Education are preparing a charter to prevent acts of aggression within the university community. While the charter will be implemented at the start of the next academic year in October, violence is also happening on campuses in other Arab countries.

Recent brutal events in Algeria include the start of the trial of a killer who murdered a Mostaganem University professor last October and the fatal stabbing of a law student in Tizi Ouzou in April. Mohamed Ben Chehida, a 58-year-old professor and chair of the computer science department at Mostaghanem was stabbed more than 20 times on 18 October by a 23-year-old disgruntled student apparently unsatisfied with his grades.

In a 2008 survey of Algerian students, 44% said they had suffered verbal aggression in universities, 27% had experienced sexual harassment and 33% had been assaulted in non-sexual ways. The aggressors in 60% of the cases were students but the remaining 40% were perpetrated by lecturers.

"Acts of violence seen on campuses are an important sign of the vulnerability of universities, and their inability to cope with the problems facing them," said Abdelhamid Aberkane, chair of the national ethics council.

The planned charter covers two main areas: tackling physical violence and coercion, and the freedom to engage in union activities.

On the issue of violence and coercion, the charter specifies that relationships between tutors and students should never move beyond the academic and any other relationship is prohibited. Harassment, whether sexual or verbal, will also be clearly defined and punished.

In practical terms, security will be stepped up in classrooms and lecture halls. The carrying of knives, which have been used in a number of violent incidents, is strictly forbidden.

Sadallah Boubaker-Khaled, a professor of mathematics at Ecole Normale Supérieure in Algiers, said: "The only way to curb violence in the university community is to deal with its main causes, not to issue a policy that will hardly be implemented on campuses and will appear as if it is out of touch with reality on the ground."

Khaled said among reasons for the violence were that most student organisations were manipulated by political parties, and some troublesome low-achieving students were leading student groups and engaging in disruptive behaviour.

Also, many students were not interested in higher education or its qualifications because of high graduate unemployment. University staff were also busy working outside universities to improve their living standards as a result of low salaries and most university managers were only interested in keeping their positions. Above all, regulations to curb violence and crime on campus were not implemented.

Tarek Saif, a researcher at Egypt's National Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries, said Algeria was not alone in experiencing violence at universities as it was also happening in other Arab countries.

Government and opposition supporters recently clashed at a university in Beirut in Lebanon, battering each other with sticks, stones and even furniture in violence spilling over from Lebanon's political crisis. Students supporting the Muslim Brotherhood - the leading opposition group in Egypt's political system - had been involved in political violence at a number of universities.

In March, there were clashes involving supporters of the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court in The Hague against Sudan's president and Sudanese paramilitary troops at the southern Kordofan-based Deling University. Student demonstrations against the ICC action have occurred at other institutions.

"Besides enacting regulations that allow for strict formal disciplinary action in violence cases, a more long-term approach to help peace to return to university campuses will have to involve teaching the ills of violent behaviour as well as greater political and cultural openness and wider freedoms within society," Saif suggested.