ALGIERS, ALGERIA—The falling price of oil, a chief source of Algerian national revenues, is already making unpleasant echoes in the nation’s classrooms.
The Ministry of Education plans to increase the working hours of school teachers as one step in new government austerity policies.
The announcement, however, has met with opposition from the teachers, who have already been on strike since last year demanding better working conditions and wages.
“We totally refuse to be held hostage by government’s austerity policy,” said Meziane Marian, head of the National Syndicate of Secondary and Technical Education Teachers “Snapest” , one of three education unions in the country.
Algerian schools are facing a shortage of about 60,000 teachers, , especially in physics, mathematics and foreign languages. There are also around 16,000 teachers at retirement age, according to ministry statistics.
To ease this crisis,, the government relies on temporary contracts and wants to raise secondary-school teachers’ working hours from 18 to 24 hours per week and primary-school teachers’ hours from 22 to 26.
“We will never agree on this procedure, the ministry should face the problem not circumvent it,” Marian said.
Teachers working conditions remain very difficult with nearly 9 million pupils in school and wages that range from $450 to $550 per month. The low wages and large classes have lead to years of protests by teachers about their working conditions.
So the new plan to increase teachers’ working hours without increasing their wages is not going over well with them.
“For many years, we have waited for the ministry to improve our working conditions and enable us to play our educational role in better circumstances,” said Messoud Boudiba, the spokesman of the Autonomous National Council of Secondary and Technical Education Teachers, “CNAPEST”, another education union.
Boudiba believes that the ministry is trying to twist teachers’ arms with such decisions. “They are pushing us to leave our jobs as teachers with such steps, which will increase the teacher shortage and make the situation worse,” he said.
The ministry has refused to make any changes so far in the austerity policy. The government has already introduced ten measures to save money, including a public-sector hiring freeze and the postponement of financing large construction projects, such as railways. Last year, the deficit reached 18 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) for the first time in 15 years.
In Algeria, oil is 97 percent of the country’s total exports and 58 percent of its total revenues, according to the International Monetary Fund. Oil prices dipped below $50 a barrel in January, but Algeria needs the country’s main crude grade of oil to trade at $121 a barrel in order to avoid a budget deficit.
That fiscal problem makes teachers’ demands look as if they can’t be achieved. Nevertheless, it is difficult to persuade them to accept the status quo.
“This is not fair, we are actually working more than 44 hours including preparation, teaching and monitoring examinations and this increases the working hours for any other profession,” Boudiba said.
Boudiba argues that the increase in working hours will not be in the interest of students. “Teaching hours are based on scientific and pedagogical foundations,” he said, “it can’t be increased in such way as teachers will lose their efficiency.”
No solution is on the horizon. Teachers are continuing their strike and the ministry keeps turning a deaf ear. “Nothing can be solved without giving teachers the prestige they deserve. Once they are given their rights, education will move forward,” Boudiba said