ALGIERS—As Algerian university students and professors continue boycotting classes in support of a protest movement that seeks to topple the existing government, some are raising concerns that their actions may have the effect of wiping out the current academic year.
Students played a pivotal role in widespread protests that began in February after the nation’s former long-serving president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, announced that he would seek re-election. (See a related article, “Algerian Students Thwart President Bouteflika’s Bid for a Fifth Term.”) Despite Bouteflika’s subsequent decision to step down, the popular movement has continued, with protesters calling for the departure of interim President Abdelkader Bensalah and other heads of the former regime, along with improvements in education and other social services.
Earlier this week, students announced a national strike that halted classes at several universities, including the University of Algiers, the University of El Oued, and universities in the cities of Blida and Bab-ezzouar.
But some students and professors say that even though they support the goals of the protest movement, they’re also worried that shutting down classes and failing to hold exams could nullify their academic progress this year.
“The only loser of this strike is the students,” said Hisham Bourouri, a student of communication and public relations at Mohamed Lamine Debaghine–Sétif 2 University, which declared an open strike on April 14. “I am with the popular movement and its demands, but I find no reason to disrupt studies,” he added.
Fears of a ‘White Year’
Tasnim Mbarki, a third-year architecture student at the University of the Frères Mentouri–Constantine 1, is also concerned about the disruption of universities and its impact on her future.
“The continuation of the strike means a ‘white year’ in universities and the loss of a full academic year for us,” she said. “This would be very costly. We need to finish our studies and get involved in work.”
The term “white year,” or “blank year,” refers to an academic year that does not include any exams and therefore students are not evaluated and are required to take all of their courses again.
At the governmental level, Ali Ghamaz, an inspector at the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, criticized the students’ continuing involvement in the political movement, saying it disrupts their university track.
“We know very well the attitude of professors and students, and their demands for change and improving the status of higher education has been delivered,” he said. He added, however, that it’s important to separate what is happening on streets and what is happening on campuses.
Professors are also concerned about the impact of the protests on the educational process at universities.
“I am with the movement and the people’s demands, but on the other hand, this must be reflected in our love for work and knowledge,” said Sakina Ben Thamer, a computer-science professor at Badji Mokhtar University–Annaba, in eastern Algeria. “The white year, if happens, will remain a stain on Algerian universities’ forehead and will greatly affect the students about to graduate,” she added.
Others, however, are convinced that continuing to disrupt classes will pay off in the end.
“The strikes professors and students participate in to support the legitimate demands of the people are a positive thing, and their results will positively affect the future of education in the country once the movement succeeds in achieving its demands,” said Saif al-Din Ouchan, a master’s degree student in mass communication and new media at Sétif 2 University, 170 miles east of the capital.
‘Part of the University’s Mission’
Yamin Boudhan, a professor of media and public relations at Setif 2, agrees. Teachers’ and students’ participation in the movement reflects their belief in the importance of change and reforms that will affect education first of all, he said.
“From the very first moment, Algerian universities have opened their doors not only to sit-ins, but to discussions and dialogue so that they can get the country out of the crisis it is experiencing,” Boudhan said. “This is an essential part of the university’s mission.”
To date, 98 percent of Algeria’s 105 universities have responded to the strike call, according to Abdelmalek Ezzi, the national coordinator of the Association of Higher Education Teachers.
“The universities were the major victims of the policies of the former regime, which was concerned only with increasing the number of universities without taking into consideration the conditions of quality in the curricula and examinations,” Ezzi said. Failed education policies, he suggested, contribute to the high rate of unemployment among graduates of Algerian universities and other young Algerians. The unemployment rate for people under 30, who represent more than two-thirds of the country’s 41 million people, rose to 29.1 percent in the third quarter of 2018, according to figures from the Office of National Statistics cited by the website Trading Economics.
Despite the mounting protests, the resumption of university studies soon seems possible. Boudhan expects the general strike to stop within days and to be replaced with days of protests and sit-ins, in conjunction with the resumption of studies. That’s what a majority of professors and students want, he said, especially as the current academic year approaches its end.
“I do not think there will be a white year,” Boudhan said. “Professors have a great deal of enthusiasm to compensate for what they missed before the summer vacation starts.”