Students protest against new scholarship conditions

Several students’ unions and associations are protesting a decision by Mauritania’s ministry of higher education and scientific research to drop from 25 to 22 the age of students eligible to apply for local and external scholarships.

The decision announced on 17 January will lead to more than 60% of students becoming ineligible, according to the Students' Front for the Defense of Rights and Acquisitions, which organised protests on 22 and 25 January and 1 February. Another protest is planned for this week on 8 February.

The Facebook page for the National Student Union also displayed photographs of student protests, while two video clips of Mauritanian students protesting on 1 February were posted on social media.

University World News received no response from Mauritania's ministry of higher education and scientific research as to why the scholarship conditions had changed and its response to the student protests.

Local journalist at the Mauritanian News Agency M Hamed Cheine el Bekaye, who covered the 1 February student protest, told University World News that the ministry of higher education “did not provide a justification for changing the age of scholarships from 25 to 22 years old".

"I have not seen any statement from the ministry declaring its position in this respect," El Bekaye said.

With reference to the February student protest, El Bekaye said: "The students’ demonstration was not licensed so it was suppressed by the police, causing minor injuries to a number of student demonstrators."

El Bekaye's comments have been supported by photographs posted by the National Student Union.

El Bekaye was himself attacked by a group of riot police while covering a protest march by students at his alma mater, the University of Nouakchott, on 1 February, according to the Mauritanian News Agency.

He was hit several times with batons on different parts of his body, causing scratches and bruises on his back.

In a 2 February statement the Mauritanian opposition is reported to have condemned "the brutal repression of the students by the authorities" and declared "solidarity with them in order to meet their legitimate demands".

Students have demanded the immediate withdrawal of the ministry’s decision. On 29 January, the Students' Front for the Defense of Rights and Acquisitions said in a statement: "We are in the student front in defence of the rights of the Mauritanian students and safeguarding their gains and in the face of this catastrophic situation, we emphasise the following:
  • • Condemning the brutal repression that has been inflicted on the masses of students protesting against the improvised decisions of the minister of higher education and his confused policies in the management of the sector, leaving dozens of student casualties, and saluting their steadfastness and peace despite the barbarism of the repression machine and its barbarity in dealing with peaceful student protest.

  • • We hold the minister of higher education and scientific research fully responsible for the consequences of continuing to pursue the security solution and the hand of police in the oppression of students in the face of simple and fair students’ demands.

  • • We are committed to the immediate withdrawal of recent decisions that deny the right of thousands of Mauritanian students at home and abroad to the scholarship, and put students abroad into the unknown as they already struggle with alienation and neglect.

  • • The immediate provision of adequate transportation for students to and from the new university compound and the maintenance of individual and collective freedoms on campus."
An 'unfair' decision

The General Union of Mauritanian Students denounced what it said was an “unfair” decision by the ministry of higher education concerning the conditions for obtaining grants.

In a 29 January statement in Elhourrya, it said: "We declare our condemnation of this unjust decision, which affects most of our students at home and abroad.” The union called on all student unions “at home and abroad” to “stand up in defence of the student cause and serve the students and the homeland … We call upon all university staff unions to stand up for our just cause and help us find a solution to this dilemma."

The union also appealed to political parties “not to politicise our just cause".

The General Union of Mauritanian Students also called upon the government to reinstate the social assistance for students which was cut in 2015 and improve the conditions for local students and those studying abroad.

Students studying in countries such as Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Senegal, France and China are also affected by the new conditions.

In response to the news, the Mauritanian Student Union in China issued a statement on 27 January confirming "the union's solidarity with Mauritanian students inside and outside the country to achieve their legitimate rights". The union called on the ministry to reverse the decision and reconvene the National Scholarship Committee which ensures student representation at all meetings concerning scholarships.

On the same day, 11 Mauritanian student unions and associations abroad issued a joint statement in which they said the grant was the right of the student and “the ministry is not entitled to deprive him of it".

They also condemned the "unfair conditions provided by the ministry", and confirmed their refusal to "deprive a large number of students of their grants".

The students also called upon the ministry to re-activate the National Scholarship Committee, stressing their readiness "to carry out the activities of struggle and escalation in front of and inside the premises of Mauritanian embassies abroad". They also declared their "solidarity with Mauritanian students inside and outside the homeland to obtain their rights".

Mohamed Yeslem Elbagher, a former Mauritanian researcher at the University of Nouakchott, agreed that students needed greater representation in certain decision-making processes.

"For this kind of issue, the ministry should sit down with representative student unions and associations and prepare a referendum before taking the decisions,” he told University World News.

Asked about the motive behind the ministry’s decision, Elbagher said: "I think it is to encourage an early school age and decrease the school dropout rate."

Elbagher, who is a member of the Islamic Development Bank Alumni and Science Development Network, added that "the ministry must use the poverty level and school rank only in the scholarship selection".

"The ministry can prepare a scholarship system that uses age as a factor but not to prevent [giving] the grant because of it," Elbagher said.

"The students must respect the ministry decisions and concentrate on their studies," he said.