North Africa, West Asia

Higher education reform in Algeria: reading between the lines

The LMD reforms have tied the fate of the Algerian higher education sector to European intellectual and economic development, reinforcing the neoliberal assault on higher education and on society at large.

Oussama Metatla
16 February 2016

Press Association/AP/Lofti. All rights reserved.The search for new knowledge, its dissemination and application in society have always been at the forefront of intellectual and social development. Today, higher education institutions (HEIs) have – to a large extent – taken on the vital role of nurturing the methodical, critical and innovative thinking that is key to the success of such development. But in a country like Algeria, where HEIs have practically no autonomy, this responsibility falls back on state policies for higher education management. What then is the status of higher education policies in Algeria?

The LMD reform

Broadly speaking, Algeria’s higher education sector has been marked by two major policy reforms since its independence. The most recent of these – the adoption of the three-cycle degree higher-education framework known as the 'LMD system' (License/Bachelor-Master-Doctorate) – has been in place since 2004/2005. Massification was a core part of both reforms, in part motivated by the demographic reality of a large youth population, but also by explicit policy choices undertaken by the government. In 2008, for instance, the General Directorate for Scientific Research and Technological Development (DGRS-DT) declared that there were around 600 researchers per million inhabitants in Algeria, falling fairly short of the global average. In expressing its commitment to increasing this ratio, the DGRS-DT pointed out the LMD system as a key driver for achieving this objective. Previous heads of the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MESRS) also, and often, praised the LMD system for its capacity to produce human capital.

The race to produce greater numbers of university graduates through a system of massification was not unique to Algeria, however. Around the same time (i.e. 2005), members of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (ECOWAS) started to adopt the LMD system too, and similar policies were also introduced in Brazil, India, Indonesia and China. A 2013 review of official strategies for higher education management in 20 economies in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) also highlighted a common trend of introducing reforms based on massification policies. This particular review identified another common trend: massification policies introduced in those economies were not always corroborated by adequate mechanisms for quality assurance. In other words, the application of massification policies in the MENA region led to a trend of favouring quantity over quality.

The application of massification policies in the MENA region led to a trend of favouring quantity over quality.

This is perhaps hardly news to students and faculty in Algeria. One is immediately faced with contradictions when attempting to examine the impact of Algerian higher education policies on the ground. Official sources state major achievements, particularly in terms of improved infrastructure and increased numbers of graduates. On the ground, students, faculty and staff contest this picture of success, as evidenced by increasing levels of tension and friction in Algerian universities.

Today, the reasons behind the diminished quality in the Algerian higher education sector are incontestable. As recently conceded by the new head of MESRS, the introduction of LMD reform was not preceded by adequate evaluations of the state of higher education in the country; it also did not take into account the realities of regional and national contexts; and did not incorporate appropriate consultations and dialogue with those most concerned on the ground. The MESRS has recently initiated a series of consultations to review its reform policies to address shortcomings.

Regardless of what the relative merits of this move were, ten years on we must seriously question the nature of any potential reforms, and do so in light of the wider implications of the LMD system on the intellectual and socio-economic development of society. Some of the most serious of these implications, which I will address here, are the polarisation of the student body, and the redefinition of the higher education experience – in particular the relationship between students, faculty, HEIs and the wider society.

Student polarisation

There were neither clear mechanisms for smoothly transitioning from the “classical” to the LMD system, nor adequate measures for the coexistence of the two systems during a clearly defined transition period. On the ground, this has led to increasing tension and friction between students and graduates from each system and university administrations, particularly with regard to the value of university degrees – and hence career opportunities and prospects.

Graduates from the LMD system continue to campaign for full equivalence, calling for equal pay grades and status when applying for industrial and academic jobs or seeking opportunities to pursue postgraduate studies. Meanwhile, graduates of the classical system – as well as some faculty – still consider “classical degrees” to be far superior to those obtained through the LMD system, and thus contest any grounds for compatibility or equivalence. The official response to these issues was to gradually weed out the classical system by halting enrolments and, in the meantime and in response to pressure from students and faculty, introducing intermediate pay grades, dubious quotas for students progression into postgraduate studies on both sides, and a variety of new faculty titles that altogether amount to a bureaucratic maze.

To make matters worse, those who obtained university degrees abroad and attempted to join the ranks back home during this period often got lost in the maze of degree comparability and equivalences, ultimately leading to a significant loss of talent and intellectual wealth. The result is a fragmented body of students, graduates and faculty, and a higher education sector that engenders conflict, friction and enmity rather than a sense of community, solidarity and purpose.

I have outlined these known issues here to highlight that, ironically, this dire state of affairs resulted from contradicting one of the core objectives of the LMD system: the promise of fluid mobility of students and graduates based on the uniformity of degree awarding procedures. In its original context, the “mobility” afforded by the LMD system refers to facilitating graduates movements and employability across Europe – where the LMD system was conceived. It is difficult to imagine that the LMD system was introduced in Algeria in order to facilitate (read exacerbate) graduate mobility from Algeria to Europe (read brain drain)! But it is less surprising that Algeria continues to sway under internal contradictions that are an inevitable consequence of plucking a system out of its context and applying it almost blindly in another.

The roots and context of the LMD system

The LMD system is part of the Bologna process, which is typically traced back to the signing of the Bologna Declaration by the European ministers of education in 1999, in the context of establishing a harmonised space for higher education across the European Union. The Bologna process refers to the developments that resulted from this declaration. But the Bologna Declaration itself stems from earlier European initiatives, namely the Magna Charta Universitatum, the Lisbon Convention and the Sorbonne Declaration.

National degrees were to be accepted among the member states of the EU as a result of the Lisbon Convention, while the Sorbonne Declaration saw the Ministers of Education of the UK, Italy, Germany and France agreeing to create one area of higher education within Europe “as a key way to promote citizens’ mobility and employability and the continent’s overall development”. European leaders argued that “the European economy needed thorough modernisation in order to compete with the United States and other world players” (European Union 2006).

Notwithstanding the drastic consequences of imposing an Anglo-Saxon model of university accreditation across a set of highly heterogeneous countries, when put in the above context, the Bologna process and its precursors were clearly part of a wider vision for the unification of Europe. In the age of the “knowledge economy”, such vision originates from the fundamental recognition that European higher education systems are key for overcoming common international and external challenges. Taking a step further back, this recognition can very well be positioned within the post-World War II realisation that integration on various levels was critical if Europe was to compete with other poles of hegemony. In doing so, Europe aimed to transcend the nation-state and to create a shared vision that helps sustain a common European identity.

In imitating European policies for higher education, policy makers in Algeria have focused on form and ignored substance.

It is this kind of vision – to construct a shared identity that contribute to cementing the status of peoples and their historical significance – that is completely lost when a set of policies are taken out of their context and copied over as if they were a mere set of procedures. Thus, to the extent that it encapsulates Europe’s vision for the role of the higher education sector in development, the application of the LMD system in the Algerian context, at best, affords further dependency upon European hegemony. At worst, it inhibits the potential to explore and construct alternative visions for the ultimate intellectual and cultural liberation of postcolonial societies.

It is important to emphasise the "postcolonial" qualifier here because our analysis of the situation should not ignore the arguments of hegemony, imperialism and colonialism, since these constitute the historical context that paralleled the developments that led to the articulation of the current model of higher education in Europe. These arguments are also relevant given the wider application of this system across past colonies in the ECOWAS and MENA regions. For if colonialism is the planting of settlements on distant territories to acquire wealth and resources, imperialism – to borrow from Edward Said’s definitions – is continuing to dominate the sovereignty of those territories, directly or indirectly, either through force, or through political cooperation and cultural, social and economic dependency, lingering "where it has always been, in a kind of general cultural sphere as well as in specific ideological, economic, and social practices".

What we can conclude then is that, in imitating European policies for higher education management, policy makers in Algeria have focused on form and ignored substance. Driven by a sort of pragmatic obsession with procedures that is void of any critical awareness of the organic objectives embedded within such procedures, they are effectively reinforcing the path of perpetual dependency and subordination. They have thus failed on more than one level: 1) in choosing to imitate rather than innovate 2) in imitating form rather than substance 3) in the inadequate application of the imitated form 4) in inhibiting visionary forces for alternatives and 5) in perpetuating intellectual, cultural and economic dependency and subordination to a European vision for hegemony and development.

Ideological baggage and materialist conceptions of higher education

The inadequacies of the application of LMD reform in Algeria extend to a more concerning dimension. Massification of higher education across the globe led to increased costs. Examining the modes of financing these policies in the European experience provides insights into an ideological background that is often overlooked or ignored in discussions about the LMD reform in Algeria.

For a start, it is worth noting that plans for creating a common European higher education area were drafted without involving students’ organisations. The implementation of these plans saw a gradual transformation of higher education institutions across Europe, particularly in terms of the increasing application of business principles to the governance of key activities of research and skills development. A number of European countries also saw a gradual increase in tuition fees and higher dependence upon private capital; developments that were often accompanied by fierce student protests. In 2000, for instance, the Campaign for Free Education argued that “in providing this funding, business is assuming more direct and indirect control of our education system [..] students should not be forced to choose on the basis of what [courses] businesses are prepared to make available”. Similar protests took place at the University of Barcelona in 2009, where students denounced the lack of transparency with which they saw their degrees and curricula changing, and across the UK following the rise in tuition fees in 2010.

The LMD system is the ideal framework to restructure higher education so that it is compatible with a market-driven ideology.

It is no secret that policy documents from the Bologna process highlight a number of ideological claims with reference to global economic interdependence rooted in the principles of free-market capitalism. The picture in Algeria is still ambiguous, though there are signs of pushing universities towards more reliance on private funding, and there are plans to introduce private universities in the higher education system (e.g. four proposals being studied by the MESRS at the timing of writing this piece). We are thus making steady steps towards the privatisation of the higher education sector and, with its neoliberal tendencies, the LMD system is actually the ideal framework to restructure the higher education experience so that it is compatible with a market-driven ideology. It also makes the environment ripe for the import of higher education from international providers to further the privatisation of the sector.

Within this model, then, higher education would be dominated by economic motives and treated as a commodity that has to be responsive to clients and to competition amongst providers. But when higher education becomes a commodity, focus is shifted from social to individual benefits, and neoliberal values of management sneak in to look at performance indicators and quantitative measures of success, such as obsessing with increasing the number of graduates rather than the quality of their education and its impact on the intellectual and cultural development of society. Higher education can then be used for the advancement of not only individuals who have paid for their skills and knowledge, but more so for the advancement of an economic power that supplies (and shapes) the educational framework.

This framework will also enforce a contractual form of relationship between students, faculty and HEIs. Students become clients to be treated through business relationships mediated by the consumption and productions of things. It will redefine the notion of the “knowledge economy”, which will no longer be about using scientific knowledge for the advancement of society, but to economise the domain of knowledge production for private profit. The question is therefore critical, and the need for alternative visions for higher education rooted in alternative principles that truly liberate our society from intellectual and economic domination is both lacking and inhibited by Algeria’s centralised policies. Any serious discussions about reforming the higher education sector in Algeria that ignore this dimension of the debate will simply perpetuate the damage that is already done.

Concluding thoughts

There is a global crisis in higher education institutions, which are turning from public institutions that seek and disseminate knowledge, debate and critical thinking, to private businesses in continuous competition for enrolment and research funding; and this is changing the landscape of both education and of research. The Bologna process further deepens the model of university-as-business.

In the midst of this crisis, policy makers in Algeria continue to push the idea that the LMD system will reinvigorate the higher education sector, that it is an inevitable consequence of globalisation that we have no choice but to adopt and adapt to. What the LMD does, in fact, is tie the fate of the Algerian higher education sector in subordination to European intellectual and economic development, thus reinforcing the neoliberal assault on higher education and on society at large. Without a genuine critical discussion of how the state of the Algerian higher education sector relates to this global crisis, alternative visions for the university as a social institution are inhibited from the onset as the government keeps on pushing for reforms.

After ten years of its application, an evaluation of the LMD reform must consider the wider background and implications of this system, if it is to produce adequate means for developing quality higher education in Algeria and autonomous higher education institutions that serve society rather than make it subservient to external powers.

Academic and historical studies of higher education institutions – such as the excellent in depth studies of George Makdisi on the rise of colleges and scholastic traditions of the humanities in the Islamic civilisation, and the influence and differences that these have with the current models of higher education – are key to identifying alternative visions for the university as a means to counter the challenges posed by globalisation and the neoliberal materialist models it imposes on social organisation. The necessity of imitation is therefore no more in the probability and possibility of creative critical change than it is in the eyes and mentality of the imitator, and their political choices. What stands in the way of such alternatives are a lack of audacity and an impoverished appreciation for the history and vocation of peoples. El-Missiri's definition of the ideological model underlying globalisation, which he refers to as a unilinear model of development, is a pertinent one in this case:

"It is the belief that there a single scientific, natural and material law that governs the development of societies and phenomena, and that progress is in effect a continuous process of material rationalism, that is, the redefinition of human reality within the nature/matter framework...thus, reality becomes a simple material utility, and a human becomes a functional, one-dimensional being. We can see from this that globalisation prefers the easy over the beautiful and the moral, prefers adaptation over resistance and transcendence, and instead of speaking about establishing justice on this earth, we prefer to speak about acceptance of the status quo." (author’s translation)

While there are issues – such as the issue of polarisation – that require immediate and urgent remedial measures, there are also deeper issues to consider when reflecting upon models of higher education and their underlying ideological tendencies, which, in my view, are no less than a reflection of the perpetual civilisational crisis plaguing our region and that could be addressed by first addressing the problems of alternatives. We are in dire need, and therefore in an excellent position, to innovate and produce genuine critical reflections that can lead to the construction of alternative visions rooted in intellectual, social and ultimately political liberation of our societies. It is about time we dare to do so.

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