Students arrested in protests over university age limit

Two students were arrested after student unions and associations protested outside Mauritania’s Ministry for Higher Education and Scientific Research in Nouakchott after its recent decision to bar more than 1,000 high school graduates aged over 25 from studying at higher education institutions.

After the arrests on 9 October, the Students’ Front for the Defence of Rights and Acquisitions staged another demonstration outside the ministry two days later. The Union of National Students posted photos of the first protest, while the National Union of Mauritanian Students issued photos of the second, after it made a statement on 9 October, signed by nine student associations, to denounce the ministry’s decision.

The union called on the ministry to reverse the “unjust and arbitrary decision [which] lacks any legal justification or rationale” as it would “deprive more than 1,000 students of their natural right to enrol at university to continue their higher education”.

In support of the students, Mauritania’s opposition party, the National Forum for Democracy and Unity (FNDU), called for the detainees to be released, declaring “full solidarity with those who are unjustly deprived of their right to pursue university studies”.

The student bodies include the National Union of Mauritanian Students, National Syndicate of Mauritanian Students, Independent Union of Mauritanian Students, General Union of Mauritanian Students, Union of National Students, Syndicate of Students Chouela, Union of Students, Union of Hope for Mauritanian Students and Free Union of Mauritanian Students.

42% live below the poverty line

The FNDU said that the decision by the Ministry for Higher Education and Scientific Research “strikes social justice at the core as the students of vulnerable families are often unable to study early and follow up regularly because of economic problems in their families”.

Some students are unable to pursue continuous study, with a February 2018 report revealing that about 42% of the population of 4.5 million live below the poverty line.

An earlier statement by the Union of National Students said the ministry’s decision would “have a harmful effect as it might put thousands of students at risk of unemployment and early dropout, and deprive them of their natural right to higher education”.

The ministry’s website lists Mauritania as having one public university – the Modern University of Nouakchott – a higher education school and three higher learning institutes.

Mauritania already suffers from high drop-out and unemployment figures – 57% of youth aged 15-24 have not completed primary school and only 2% have finished post-secondary education – according to a 2014 Education Policy and Data Center study, while unemployment stands at around 39%, said another report.

Government accommodating certain students

On 11 October, Minister of National Education Eslamou Ould Sayed El-Mokhtar said the government could accommodate baccalaureate students at higher and technical education institutions. Data relating to some of the applicants was not listed on their website, which had been updated for student orientation for the 2018-19 academic year.

The minister added that the ministry gave priority to high school graduates who had passed their exams at their first attempt. Some institutions, including the University of Islamic Sciences in Laayoune and some higher technical training institutions and vocational schools, had places for students who had not been accommodated, he said.

A Sahar Media report said the unions rejected his statement.

In solidarity with the protesters, Mohamed Yeslem Elbagher, a member of the Islamic Development Bank Alumni and Science Development Network, and a former Mauritanian researcher at the University of Nouakchott, told University World News: “No age limit should be placed on university education. This decision will decrease the knowledge level and hinder sustainable development in Mauritania.”

Heidi Gilchrist, assistant professor of legal writing at the United States-based Brooklyn Law School, and author of a 2018 report, Higher Education as a Human Right, told University World News: “Higher education … should be equally accessible to all who have the capacity. Any restrictions as to age are artificial and can harm poorer students who may have to delay their education for economic reasons.”