Most Arab university students are wrapping up their final examinations. But in Algeria and Tunisia, a months-long series of protests and strikes against education policies have completely disrupted the academic year, exams included.
Since last November, medical residents in Algeria, who are in the specialization period of their training, have carried out a comprehensive work and study strike demanding changes in a civil-service system that requires them to work in remote areas of the country after finishing their degrees. Medical professors are also on strike, after beginning a walkout in late April to demand changes in academic law and better pay.
In Tunisia, meanwhile, 32 higher-education institutions are also in a state of tension because of faculty protests. Since January, about 2,000 university professors have gone on strike and refrained from holding exams.
“The situation is bad and dangerous,” said Suad Hishami, one of the protesting resident doctors in Algeria. “Lectures at the faculty have been halted for more than six months, threatening to cancel the entire academic year.”
Medical students need to study for seven years, followed by four or five years of specialization training. The latter period includes compulsory service, with nominal pay, at government hospitals in remote cities.
Medical students receive their specialization certificates only after completing that service, and canceling that requirement is one of the protesters’ demands. They say they are not yet fully qualified to be treating patients on their own and want to work under the supervision of more experienced doctors; few are available in the rural areas where they’re sent.
“Our strike carries legitimate demands for improving the health system and medical training within the frame of the law for the benefit of the Algerian citizen,” said Maryam Hijab, the representative of the resident doctors’ association’s “coordinating committee” in Algeria. But government officials and ministries have not responded to the protesters’ demands so far, Hijab said.
“We started a two-day strike a week for a month and a half, until we got to a final strike to reach a radical solution,” she said, “but there is no response so far.”
The students declined to take the exams twice in a row to express their insistence on their demands.
According to the resident doctors’ association, the Collectif Autonome des Médecins Résidents Algériens, some 15,000 medical students at nine universities have joined the strike. They include 8,000 doctors in training in Algiers, 2,400 in Oran, and 1,000 in Constantine, in the fields of dental surgery, pharmacy and medicine.
“We are students, not employees, and there is nothing that could force us to work as resident doctors because we are in the study phase,” said Hijab. She noted that there are rights for female doctors that they do not currently get, including maternity leave, as is the case for workers in other sectors.
Algeria has a severe shortage of doctors to serve its population of about 40 million people. According to World Health Organization statistics reported by the World Bank, the nation has 1.2 physicians per 1,000 people. That compares to an average of 3.2 physicians per 1,000 people in Europe and a global average of 1.3 per 1,000. Meanwhile, Algeria’s public health-care institutions and clinics cover only 10 percent of the country, according to the Ministry of Health, which is part of the reason that new doctors are required to work in remote regions during their specialization training.
Medical professors in Algeria also took part in a strike that caused 75 percent of medical schools to halt teaching. The professors are demanding better working conditions and retirement benefits.
“The situation of Algeria’s university professors is miserable,” said Wahiba Wahion, president of the National Union of Medical and University Professors, an independent nongovernmental association. “They do not have the rights of university professors, nor they are at the same level with doctors who practice in the Ministry of Health.” (See a related article, “The Economic Struggle of Public-University Professors.”)
What complicates matters further is the Algerian government’s silence on the protesters’ demands. Neither the education ministry nor any government official has issued any response to the demands, not even a statement clarifying their plan to ensure the continuation of the educational process if the strike continues. Al-Fanar Media tried to communicate with the ministry to get a comment on the issue, but it has not yet received a response.
Tunisia’s ‘Brain Drain’
The situation is similar in Tunisia. Since January, hundreds of university professors have been carrying out almost daily protests and strikes asking for reforms to the higher-education system and better salaries to halt the “brain drain” of professors and other highly skilled university graduates to other countries.
“Our strike is aimed at protecting higher education, restoring its value in Tunisia and giving educators fair salaries,” said Zied Ben Amor, a professor at the University of Sousse’s Faculty of Letters and Human Sciences and head of the Syndicate of Tunisian University Professors, an independent group of university professors known by the abbreviation “Ijaba,” which means “answer” in Arabic.
According to Ijaba, there are more than 5,000 people with Ph.D. degrees in Tunisia, besides 12,000 registered doctoral candidates, who do not have the opportunity to work at public universities. Some 4,500 professors have already left the country’s universities in recent years, seeking better pay and working conditions abroad. (See a related article, “Tunisian Professors Flee the Country for Better Salaries.”)
As a result of the strike, students at many Tunisian universities did not take examinations in the current academic year, while some of them took exams in some subjects and are still waiting to take exams in others.
At the beginning of the protests, Tunisia’s Ministry of Higher Education refused to communicate with the striking professors or with Ijaba, because of its unofficial status. But the continuing protests and their expansion to about 15 percent of higher-education institutions have prompted the ministry to change its stance. Recently, it began to communicate with the protesting professors and called on them to resume their work and complete the examinations, with a promise to seek solutions to their problems.
“This year will not go in vain. This is the decision of the university council, the highest higher education authority in Tunisia,” Idris al-Sayeh, the advisor to the minister of higher education, said in a press statement. He pointed out that if the examinations are held later than normal, the Ministry of Higher Education will take exceptional measures regarding the enrollment of students in universities in the next academic year, in registration at university dormitories and in other issues and procedures.
Recently, the ministry pledged to work to increase its annual budget, which would later allow for better working conditions for professors. It also started talks with representatives of Ijaba on ways to reform the higher-education scientific research system. This prompted striking professors to halt their protests earlier this month.
Meanwhile, educators and students in Algeria hope for a similar change in government authorities’ attitude toward their demands.
“Higher education suffers from a low standard in all cases. The continued strikes further exacerbate the situation and threaten to stop education—something we do not want to happen,” said Hamza Bou Taleb, the spokesman for the coordinating committee of the resident doctors’ association. “Still, their indifference to our demands increases our anger and prompts us to continue protesting to change the situation.”