HE system under pressure as student numbers mount

On the eve of the academic year in Algeria this month, there are concerns about how the government can meet the expectations of free quality higher education on the part of increasing numbers of university students – this year over 1.7 million.

All education, from primary to doctoral level, is free in Algeria. In addition to tuition fees, the government meets the costs of accommodation, food and transport for students in the country’s 101 public universities.

The system is reported to cost DZD700,000 (US$6,000) per student each year. At an Algiers press conference at the end of July, Higher Education Minister Tahar Hadjar said costs were variable, depending on the specialties and specific needs of each region.

For the year 2018, the budget allocated to the higher education sector and scientific research, is DZD313 billion (US$2.6 billion).

With the financial crisis due to the fall of the oil price, the maintenance of state subsidies to this sector has come under increased pressure, especially as the creation of private universities is still at an embryonic stage. Currently, private higher education institutions attract only 1% of students.

In early August the minister of higher education and scientific research announced the opening of nine private institutions which are to accommodate 1,500 students. Although the minister has repeatedly stated that the state will not end its financial support for education at all levels, opposition parties fear a renunciation of the socialist-based principle.

The Workers’ Party (Parti des Travailleurs) deputy Khadidja Boudine said in a recent statement to the media that the opening of private universities will discredit public universities and attract the sector’s best teachers.

However, the state system is under strain. Currently there are 59,217 academics in the country, plus an additional 3,000 new academics expected to commence in September. The teacher to student ratio is 1:7 in some specialties such as medicine but 1:50 in others, the minister said.

In order to accommodate students, 45,000 additional beds have been provided for the upcoming academic year. In total, over 629,000 beds are available, according to Farouk Bouklikha, director of the Office of Academic Works, speaking from Oran in late July. In addition, there are 10 new university cities – built to allow the students of each region to attend a university closer to their home – and 70,000 new teaching places.

But will this be sufficient to meet demand for places in Africa’s largest country by land area, and where one region such as Adrar or Tamanrasset is as large as France? In a public statement in early August, the General Union of Free Students (UGEL) in Algeria claimed the failure rate of new students had reached 70% in science and 50% in the social sciences, calling into question the efforts of government to manage enrolment and university curricula.

Concerns are mounting about the effect of the demand for higher education on quality.

The Algerian League of Human Rights (LADH) has highlighted a deterioration in the quality of student experience, ranging from accommodation to catering. In a statement released in late July, the league also called into question the mismanagement of the academic process, particularly at the postdoctoral levels.

Coordinator of the National Council of Higher Education Teachers (CNES) Abdelhafid Melat has highlighted the challenges facing academics in getting published, including the low number of journals approved by the ministry for the publication of scientific research by masters and doctoral students in the "C" class.

The new list includes only 38 journals, down from 200, to cater for approximately 100,000 researchers seeking to have their work published. (Class "A" and "B" journals are international and set strict conditions that many Algerian academics and researchers have difficulty meeting.)

Critics argue that these conditions are behind the significant skills flight suffered by the country. By 2020, it is estimated there will be more than one million executives of Algerian origin working abroad, according to Fetah Ouazani, president of the network of Algerian graduates of French universities and colleges (REAGE).

Currently, there are between 40,000 and 60,000 Algerian executives living in the United States and Canada. More than 7,000 doctors and 3,000 computer scientists are based in Europe. In France, of the 10,000 immigrant doctors surveyed, 7,000 are of Algerian origin, 50% of them specialists. There are also 100,000 entrepreneurs from Algeria listed in Europe. These skills earn their host countries $45 billion.

In addition, there are thousands of professors who teach in prestigious Western universities, as well as researchers who lead world-renowned research institutes and laboratories, Ouazani said.