The Algerian University: a recipe for disaster

Albert-Einstein-007I was once invited to attend the inaugural ceremony for starting the academic year at one of Algeria’s universities, where the minister for higher education was the guest of honor. The ceremony was held in a big auditorium and, I must confess, the organization of the whole event was impeccable, well except with the minister arriving two hours late. But that was not a surprise. The first two rows were occupied by the local dignitaries: the Wali, his secretary general, the Mouhafidh of the FLN, the chief of the Daira, the chief of the Gendarmerie, the commander of military district, the head of the Police, the chief of the local Zaouia, a couple of members of the parliament representing the Wilaya, and other dignitaries whom, it was hard for me to situate in the local power hierarchy. I did find it, at the time, a bit ironic that all these people who have little or nothing to do with academia and science be seated in the first rows, while all the professors and the academic staff, who some of them are renown scholars, were actually relegated to the back seats. I don’t know what is the ministry protocol in these situations, but I found the overhead generated by this visit is just too much. But this experience definitely educated me on the foggy vision that the Algerian government has — if at all — about the role of the Algerian University and its real mission in the society.

University Ranking

The problem with our University is that it has not caught up with the basic educational standards that are adhered to by the rest of the world. Simply put the Algerian University needs to be reinvented from scratch. Despite the multiple warnings, and wake-up calls launched by the various players and stakeholders, all consecutive ministers in charge of higher education, just turned a blind eye to the accumulating issues. Fortunately there this international university rankings which are released every year to remind us with the extent of the disaster. Our universities are nowhere visible in honorable places, not even among their Arab, African or even Maghreban sisters. In 2010, Harraoubia, the current minister for higher education,  came out as surprised and went contesting the ranking on the pretext that the criteria included the enlisting of Nobel laureates. The minister knows very well that this is only one of many criteria, and that our universities are performing badly even outside this criteria. Furthermore, there is nothing that should prevent us from attracting Nobel laureates or renown scholars to our universities. But I doubt that this will ever come close to consideration with the ill-visioned governance that we continue to be inflicted with. This year’s ranking confirmed again the shameful performance of our universities, even by a relatively easy ranking, Webometrics, which is based mainly on web visibility. This time Harraoubia’s groundless argument was that the ranking does not reflect the real level of our universities. As always, the minister tried fruitlessly to downplay the universities’ multiple deficiencies and the incompetence of his office, by puling up the usual useless numbers and statistics that show how great our universities were during his office.

Reversing the brain drain

I have been hearing about the brain drain for ever now. Everybody knows  how this calamity affects our economy and the quality of running the affairs of the country. The number of graduates from the Algerian University leaving the country is horrifying. The last 20 years or so have seen an increasing number of engineers, doctors and skilled people seeking better future abroad. As I remember, 28 out of 32 of my classmates left Algeria in their first year of graduation either to pursue further their studies or seeking better professional opportunities. As far as I know none of them returned. I would not be surprised to learn that every university in Europe and North America would most likely have a least one Algerian national among their staff. In France, every university, every company private or public, every government agency, every hospital or medical facility including Val-de-grace and the Invalides, is most certainly employing an Algerian national, and the trend does not seem to stop there. In recent years, Algerian expats have turned their attention to new destinations like the Gulf countries where they are sought after for positions in academia, media outlets, sports clubs and the oil industry.

Regardless of the very high cost incurred by the large scale departure of the the country’s most valuable talents, it is morally unacceptable to see these talents employed otherwise than at the service of their country. But when I look at the attitude of the Algerian officials towards this problem, I don’t have the impression that they really care. Sometimes I even wonder whether all this is not tolerated by design, or even premeditated.

Take the example of the thousands of academics and scientists who have expressed their wish to return home and join the national universities. There was absolutely no measures that have been taken by the government to accommodate them. On the contrary, all sort of obstacles and hurdles have been instituted to discourage their comeback. These obstacles include: lengthy degree equivalency, unfavorable promotion path, no incentives, loss of academic freedom, bureaucracy overhead, lack of adequate research environment, …etc. Some of them are even banned from re-joining their national universities for breach of contract. Basically they are accused of having benefited from a government scholarship without re-integrating their universities directly upon finishing their studies abroad. Isn’t it ironic that all sort of forfeiters, bad borrowers, fraudsters, cheaters, and  swindlers in the country have been amnestied — often for the wrong reason, while the government could not find a way for these scientists to either pay off their debts or simply have their records cleared off .

How much an Oxford University degree is worth in Algeria?

It is still a paradox to me that hiring for university positions in Algeria is solely based on bureaucratic criteria, not on the qualifications and experience of the candidate. If you have the right degree with the right appellation and the exact amount of paperwork you’ll be hired. However if your degree is from Oxford University or Technische Universität Darmstadt then you have a problem. Some people may find it hard to grasp the extent of the ridicule here. Imagine a oulid el houma who graduated with a Masters and a PhD from Stanford University (California, US) with 20 years of academic experience as professor in Purdue University (Indiana, US). Imagine that this professor has contributed enormously to his field of research to become a worldwide renown scientist, and that reaching his 50s, he decided that it is time for him to return back to his houma and put the fruit of his experience and knowledge to the service of his country. What do you think will happen. First he’ll be asked to provide evidence that his Stanford degree is equivalent to an existing degree in Algeria. Then he’ll have to scratch out his 20 years of experience from his resume anyway and start again from scratch. The rationale is that any experience abroad is worthless and of no use in the Bled. In the best case, our guy from Stanford will be demoted to the rank of Assistant Professor with a promise to be promoted again according to homegrown criteria. In Algeria, we simply don’t trust people who went out of our sight for too long.

UGTA and the fear to loose ground

May be not many people will agree with me, but I think that the UGTA (Union Générale des Travailleurs Algériens)  is probably the biggest obstacle to the efforts of reversing the brain drain in Algeria. Recently there has been an outcry of the university coordination branch in the UGTA, which expressed a strong opposition to offer their colleagues abroad any preferential treatment or incentive more than what it is being offered to their local colleagues. I can understand that the fairness factor is important especially in the light of the poor conditions the university professors and staff in Algeria have been living in all these years. But I think it should be reasonable to all to recognize that it is in the national interest to incite our expatriated colleagues to joint our universities. It is to the benefit of our universities to have among their teachers and scientists many of those associated with the world top universities. Unfortunately, the reasoning of the UGTA guys is politically biased and, as it seems, fueled with fears of loosing ground to more skilled and more knowledgeable colleagues. Clearly, they are not familiar with the concepts of competition and academic excellence. As it appears from their rhetoric and discourse, the UGTA is there not to serve the development of highly efficient university, but is, like any other institution in the country, as a tool in the hand of the regime to keep the academics and the scientists on a tight leach. Successive governments have made no efforts to stop the brain drain, let alone to reverse it.

Epilog

There have been a continuous debate on this issues, but no one has really touched on the real reasons why nothing have been done to fix this problem. The Algerian University has lost the purpose of its existence. I may consider myself lucky to be among those who graduated before a systematic deterioration attained the Algerian universities, but I am certainly out of luck to see,  helpless and disarmed, my children and grand children pay inevitably the cost of the incompetence of those in charge of our national education. My only hope is that this blogpost serves as another wake up call to those who are in a position to impact the course of our university.

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