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Language and Jobs Are Key Issues in Algeria’s Education Debate 60 Years After Independence

Since Algeria won its independence in 1962, the country’s higher education system has witnessed significant expansion and development. A panel of academics and policy makers recently reflected on the sector’s progress and the opportunities and challenges ahead on issues of administration, innovation, language and jobs.

The discussion took place in a webinar organised by the London School of Economics and Political Sciences’ Middle East Centre and its Society for Algerian Studies under the theme “60 Years of Higher Education in Algeria: Achievements, Challenges and Opportunities”.

Despite the challenges, speakers agreed that Algeria has made tremendous strides in education at all levels in the past 60 years. Before independence, only 30 percent of students in the secondary schools and 10 percent of those at universities were native Algerians. Today, the Algerian higher education system has over 1.7 million students and over 130 higher-education institutions, which include universities, institutes of higher studies and national schools.

Mounir Khaled Berrah, a professor of engineering at the Ecole Nationale Polytechnique, in Algiers, and a former secretary-general of the Algerian Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, noted that at independence, Algeria had only three higher-education institutions and fewer than 2,000 students, only 1 percent of whom were women.

“Since the 1960s, we have produced 5.6 million graduates and we are currently producing 370,000 graduates per year,” he said. “By gender, 64 percent of our students are women.”

A Complex Language Map

Two-thirds of Algeria’s higher-education students are in humanities and social sciences disciplines, and one-third are in science, technology, and medical sciences, Berrah said.

But the question of which language they are taught in is a matter of academic and political debate.

Hayat Messekher, a professor of English at the Ecole Normale Supérieure of Bouzaréah (Algiers), explained that Algeria has complex language map.

Algerian Arabic (Darja) is the everyday language of a majority of Algerians, she said, but other forms of Arabic are also spoken, as well as regional varieties of Tamazight, the languages of the Amazigh people. Modern Standard Arabic, however, has been the language of instruction in schools since 1963, she said.

“For three decades, I have been asking about the cost of Arabisation of all schools and not universities. There, students find that they have to ‘re-Francisise’ themselves again.”

Khaoula Taleb-Ibrahimi
A professor of linguistics at the University of Algiers II

“Tamazight was given the status of a national and then an official language in 2002 and 2016,” she added. “Throughout school, Arabic is the language of instruction. French is introduced since grade three, English from grade six, and Tamazight is a subject taught in different cities.”

In universities, French remained the primary language of instruction in medicine and the sciences, but there have been moves in recent years to switch to English. (See a related article, “Algeria Moves Closer to Dropping French in Higher Education”.)

Politicised Language Debates 

Khaoula Taleb-Ibrahimi, a professor of linguistics and director of the Linguistics, Sociolinguistics and Didactics of Languages Research Laboratory at the University of Algiers II, noted that Algeria is observing a reactive rather than a real language or educational policy.

“The lack of democracy and the authoritarian state has produced a top-down policy without any place for real debate with the citizens,” she said.

Taleb-Ibrahimi thinks that the policy adopted in the 1960s to restore Arabic as the official language succeeded on some levels. “Now, Arabic is the first national language in all the institutions and the first language in all levels of education,” she said. “However, in terms of language policy, which is the conscious intervention to change the use of language in a society, I can say that Algeria has failed.”

She calls for reform in teaching Arabic. “We are not teaching Arabic as a modern or living language. We teach a very powerful language that made students unable to master Arabic after graduation,” she said. “We need to reform our methods to teach Arabic and increase the proficiency of teachers.” (See a related article, “Why the Split Between Classical and Everyday Arabic Endures”.)

Moreover, she noted that after studying in Arabic at schools, students of science and medicine face a shock that French is the language of instruction at scientific faculties. “For three decades, I have been asking about the cost of Arabisation of all schools and not universities,” she said. “There, students find that they have to ‘re-Francisise’ themselves again.”

Taleb-Ibrahimi also wants to depoliticise the question of teaching Tamazight and French. French is still represented as the language of the former colonial power, she said, but “the young generation does not feel French the way our parents view it.”

English Shift Opportunities

Hayat Messekher, a former consultant for the British Council in Algeria, advocates strengthening the teaching of English. Many academics and higher-education policy makers believe that English is the language of development and a strategic choice for higher education, she said.

She noted that there was an attempt to introduce English into primary schools in 1993 when parents had to choose between French or English. However, the effort failed, as most parents chose French.

“Parents wanted to make sure they can follow and support their kids,” she wrote to Al-Fanar Media. “Also, they knew that there was no proper planning, no textbooks, and no teacher training for teaching young learners” In English.

“English can also increase our institutions’ international visibility and enhance graduates’ employability.”

Hayat Messekher
A professor of English at the Ecole Normale Supérieure of Bouzaréah (Algiers)

Now, Messekher sees an increasing demand for English from students, the faculty, and non-academic staff. This is reflected in high registration rates at private English-language centres and intensive courses at universities to meet mobility and academic publishing needs.

“English can also increase our institutions’ international visibility and enhance graduates’ employability if they master it as an additional skill,” she said. “In the long run, the ministry is really looking to strengthen English in higher education to increase international intake and enhance attractiveness and competitiveness.”

This shift, however, cannot happen overnight. “Motivation is there, but it needs strategic planning to prioritise sectors that need English, and budgeting because this will have a cost,” said Messekher.

She added that in master’s committees, she sometimes was amazed by students’ proficiency in defending their theses in English. They know they need it for scholarships, research, development, innovation, and to go overseas. “However, a tiny minority can do that because we need faculty that master English,” she added.

Messekher supports an inclusive multilingualism. “We have to depoliticise the language aspect; it is not to choose one language at the expense of another language, or adding English and subtracting other languages,” she said.

But achieving that will require resources that are not in place yet, she added: “The environment for developing English is very favorable but the ecosystem is not ready yet.”

Education Reforms and Innovation 

Mohamed Miliani, a professor of English at the University of Oran 2, brought up other issues facing higher education, including outdated teaching content, traditional evaluating techniques, and a system that produces too many graduates who cannot find jobs(See a related article, “In Algiers, Reflecting on Universities and Unemployment”.)

Miliani said policy makers should focus on quality and forget about mass education. “When you do massification, you lose quality,” he said, “When you centralise [higher education], you literally lose creativity.”

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Berrah sees support for entrepreneurship programmes as part of the answer. He mentioned the cooperation between the Entrepreneurship House initiative at universities and the National Agency for Entrepreneurship Support and Development.

Berrah added that universities are starting incubators that support students in research project ideas through partnerships between higher education and the marketplace.

As examples of such research contributions to economic development, he cited the achievements of the ministry’s Renewable Energy Development Center, and partnerships with companies on projects to design wind and solar energy plants, and develop innovative ways to deal with food waste.

Algeria has set a target of allocating 1 percent of GDP to support innovation, Berrah said. But it is not solely a matter of budget, he said. “We need to do things gradually and arrange our research landscape.”

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One Comment

  1. Excellent article. Algeria made tremendous progress in Education. The Algerian Language map should not be seen as a negative or complex issue., should not be politicized. No language (Arabic,French, English,amazigh) should exclude another language.languages should be reinforced and the government should invest for teacher training to keep the four languages.

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