Protest over lack of transparency in scholarships process

A group of students who staged a protest sit-in in front of the Mauritanian Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research on 14 August about the lack of transparency in the awarding of foreign scholarships was dispersed by the riot police, leading to the hospitalisation of three students and the arrest of another two.

Photos, posted on the official Facebook page of the National Union of Mauritanian Students, or UNEM, shows the injuries to students following the intervention of the police.

According to the local news organisation, Alakhbar, the police confiscated its news reporter’s phone and prevented him from covering the protest via live broadcast on the agency’s Facebook page.

The protest follows an earlier outcry by 10 Mauritanian student unions and associations that criticised the country’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research over the distribution of foreign scholarships.

Following the announcement of the names of those who received scholarships offered by the Moroccan Agency for International Cooperation, the student organisations reacted angrily, saying the process was not transparent, according to an earlier statement.

Mohamed Hammadi Sidi Hel, the assistant secretary general for external relations of UNEM, told University World News via WhatsApp that the ministry, in response to the protest, did not respond in a meaningful way, which he described as an “unconvincing justification for the distribution of the scholarships”.

Earlier, Hel suggested that an online scholarship system should be established whereby students can submit and track the status of applications along with monitoring the overall process of selection and awarding of scholarships.

“Such an online system is a practical, applicable and straightforward solution for enhancing transparency and to increase trust,” Hel stressed.

“Besides ensuring an effective, accurate and fair scholarship distribution and limiting the possibility of subjectivity in awarding scholarships, an online scholarship management system will also cut down large-scale administrative expenditure required in a manual system,” said Hel.

The student organisations that have objected to the process include UNEM, the Union of Mauritanian Students in Turkey, the Union of Mauritanian Students and Trainees in Morocco and Algeria, the Association of Mauritanian Students and Trainees in Tunisia, southern Tunisia and the Tunisian coast, the Association of Mauritanian Students Batis – Senegal, the Association of Mauritanian Students at the Faculty of Science and Technology, Cheikh Anta Diop University, Dakar, and the Dakar Medical Students Association.

Lack of transparency

According to the student organisations, the selection of students for the available places was a “blatant violation” of the transparency the ministry had agreed to two years ago.

“For the first time in years, the competent authorities in the ministry excluded a wide range of students. [This was done] by blocking the seats of doctors who wished to register in Morocco, withholding seats for baccalaureate students with outstanding grades along with retaining 90 scholarships without any right,” the aggrieved students noted.

In response to the exclusion of medical and baccalaureate students, the student organisations have called on the ministry to retract the steps leading to the seat allocation and to be transparent.

Similarly, it questioned the withholding of 90 out of 200 scholarships offered by the Moroccan Agency for International Cooperation.

“Where are the 90 seats that were not used, and to whom did they go and by what criteria?” the students asked.

Education malpractices

Samir Khalaf Abd-El-Aal, a research professor at the National Research Centre in Cairo, Egypt, told University World News that the lack of transparency and clarity, along with complaints of injustice and inequalities in scholarships allocations in Mauritania are no exception to Africa’s common higher education malpractices and corruption problems.

“An oversight committee must be formed with the membership of student representatives and higher education-focused civil society organisations to follow up on various governance processes related to the distribution of scholarships and stand on the method of selection,” Abd-El-Aal suggested.

Abd-El-Aal’s view is supported by a 2022 report, Corruption and Merit in the African Higher Education System: Legal, policy and sociological reflections, which found that nepotism was one of the main forms of corruption in higher education in several African countries because the extended family remains the cornerstone of many African cultures.

For instance, on 8 August, members of the General Syndicate of University Teaching Staff Members in Libya demonstrated in front of the government headquarters in Tripoli to demand the outcome of an investigation into offering scholarships to the children and relatives of officials and those related to them in the form of gifts. A list of the names of families of beneficiaries was published.

Mauritania’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research did not respond to questions from University World News about the claims by and demands of the student unions.