Medical students continue five-month-long protests

Resident medical students from the University of Algiers are continuing a five-month strike over their working and training conditions.

Demanding changes to the civil service system, the students want mandatory civil service for Algerian doctors suspended, exemption from compulsory military service and better teaching.

Students began cyclical protests in mid-November 2017, with protests a week ago allegedly erupting in violent conduct by law enforcement officers.

Several students were detained and some injured during a police crackdown on 19 March when they were forced to disperse as the protests turned ugly.

Video clips of the protest action by the medical students and the actions of police officers went viral on social media.

Algerian doctors completing the residency phase of their studies following six years of medical studies and a one-year internship are demanding changes to the civil service system that requires them to work in far-flung corners of the country once they obtain their medical licence. They want a flexible system supported with benefits such as housing, improved salary and travel privileges in return for working in remote locations. They also called for reforms to medical education by improving the quality of medical training, teaching methods and evaluation mechanisms.

The Autonomous Collective of Algerian Medical Residents (CAMSA or Collectif autonome des médecins résidents Algériens), the organisation behind the strike, has denounced the police response to the protests. In a statement, the organisation said: “We call for everyone in the healthcare system to take a stand against the violence faced by their fellow medical residents in the last few months.”

CAMSA has also called on its members to launch a nationwide cyclical strike on 27 March to replace its current cyclical strike action.

Medical residents boycotted the first day of the Diploma of Higher Medical Studies (DEMS) academic examinations on 18 March, and the internal internship programme, which began on 20 March, according to the CAMSA Facebook page.

The Algerian Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research refused to postpone the examinations insisting they would go on as planned on 18 March, ending on 12 April, according to a local news report quoting Tahar Hadjar, the minister of higher education and scientific research. “Medical residents involved in the boycott must take full responsibility,” warned Hadjar.

The ministry did not respond to enquiries from University World News.

“The problems facing Algeria's medical resident students are no exception to North Africa’s medical students’ challenges,” says Morad Ahmed Morad, a professor of medicine at Tanta University, Egypt.

Morad said the lack of financial resources, low medical education quality, poor medical research, insufficient physical infrastructure and accreditation systems, student selection and faculty recruitment, retention and development, as well as the brain drain of trained medical personnel, were among the main challenges facing medical education at North African universities.

Algeria currently suffers a shortage of medical doctors: there are only 1.2 doctors per 1,000 people according to Global Health Observatory data. In addition, Algeria suffers from a high rate of medical brain drain, as indicated in a 2017 report entitled Medical Brain Drain from Maghreb to Northern Countries: For a new social dialogue?, and the country has 11 medical schools, according to the World Directory of Medical Schools.

To tackle medical education challenges at North African universities, Morad said higher education in the health professions must not imitate the West but should be closely aligned with community health needs by adopting an integrated, student-centred, problem- and community-based curriculum.

He called for a think tank of experts to draw up a strategic plan to ensure global standards in medical education are met.

Local academic Professor Sadallah Boubaker-Khaled from the École Normale Supérieure in Algiers, said while some Algerians feel that the protest is related to next year’s presidential elections, others believe the ministry is unable to meet the financial needs of students because of the country’s economic situation.

He told University World News there was a perception that students are turning to medicine as a career for “quick profit” but the government policy no longer supports this trend, which has led doctors to embark on protest action.

“Whatever the reasons behind the position of the medical students and the ministry, there is no justification for having a five-month-long protest without a solution,” Boubaker-Khaled said.