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A Peek Inside Mauritanian Higher Education

Mauritania is a country that is rarely heard from in international education forums. Although it is of a comparable size to Egypt, this largely desert nation has a population of 3.5 million, a fraction of the population of Cairo.

Sidi Ould Salem, the minister of higher education for two years, visited the conference on
“Paradigm Shifts on Tertiary Education” in Algeria, Mauritania’s neighbor, last month (See related article, “In Algiers Reflecting on Universities and Jobs.”) He provided a chance to learn about the latest developments in higher education in Mauritania.

A former political activist and a professor of physics at Nouakchott University, Salem has introduced several new projects and reforms since taking office. His focus, he says, is on collecting reliable data and developing higher education policies that make sense for the Mauritanian economy.

Mauritania shares a colonial context with its Arab neighbors, said Mr. Salem, in a conference presentation. “Our educational systems were imposed on us, we inherited them,” he said. “We have continued with a mimetic approach. We haven’t studied our own needs.”

Universities in the region are constantly exhorted to better prepare students for the job market, but they cannot solve the unemployment problem on their own, noted the minister. “Even countries with great universities have unemployment. France has high unemployment.”

Educational policies need to be based on a clear vision for the entire economy, he argued.

“The student is the product, and we want our product to enter the market,” he said. “But then we need to study the market. Are we educating for the public administration, for the private sector, for the local, regional or international market?”

Even if students receive the best educations, if they cannot find good jobs they will emigrate, he said.  “If we set up an excellent university, like Harvard University [in Mauritania] today, its graduates would leave our country,” argued Mr. Salem. “Our best cadres will leave us, we need to be realistic.”

Al-Fanar Media caught up with the minister after his presentation to learn more about his background and his plans for Mauritanian higher education. The minister himself travelled to France to pursue his graduate studies in the 1980s. He could have stayed there, he said, but he came back to Mauritania and taught physics at the University of Nouakchott.

The decision to return to one’s home is “a question of the debt you owe and the service you offer your country and its development,” he said. In his case it was “a matter of political engagement.”

Mr. Salem was born in 1963, three years after Mauritania gained its independence from France. He became involved in politics at the age of 14, as a member of the Rassemblement des forces democratiques, the country’s main opposition party.

“My generation was very militant,” he said, “very marked by colonialism.” At the time, all Mauritanian students travelled abroad to pursue graduate degrees. Salem went to France to study physics and spent eleven years there—a time he says “matured” him, complicating his views of the West.

Mauritania’s modern history has been marked by wars with its neighbors and a succession of coups and authoritarian leaders. However, despite instability, its human-rights situation and political openness have gradually improved. Mr. Salem became finance minister in 2009 and minister of higher education in 2014.

Today Mauritania has about 20,000 university students (11 percent of the young people of university age, approximately), most of whom are enrolled at the University of Nouakchott or at the capital’s Higher Institute for Islamic Studies. Fishing is an important sector of Mauritania’s economy; the country also has iron and some oil and natural gas. But a significant portion of the population depends on subsistence farming and lives below the poverty line.

“Higher education poses a problem to countries with few resources,” said Mr. Salem. “In the absolute it’s a good thing for young people to be educated, to be aware—but each country needs to adapt to its economic reality.”

“We need technicians,” said the minister, noting that he wants students to use scholarships from neighboring countries to pursue technical degrees as electricians, architects and accountants. “It would be a waste to train nuclear or aeronautical engineers—it’s not useless but it’s not a priority.”

The minister is creating a new engineering school (which will train students in civil engineering, mining, petroleum and gas, among other specialties). Ideally, he says, teaching engineering should go hand in hand with supporting manufacturing. “We can’t achieve higher education quality without economic and industrial growth. We have an economy of consumption but not of production. Everything in our countries is made in China.”

“Making cups, napkins, tables,” he said, gesturing around the hotel lobby where he sat, “it would all add to our knowledge and experience.”

The minister also wants to ensure young Mauritanians—whose education is in Arabic and French—are connected to the broader world. He has established a translation institute and an English-language institute, where he plans on taking courses himself to improve his language skills.

He has increased professors’ teaching hours from six to eight hours a week—a move that was not popular among Mauritanian professors. The six hours of lectures was based on France, said Mr. Salem, but academics there also spend much more time conducting research.

He is creating a high council for research, whose members will include ministries with research agendas and needs, and is introducing research funding. Until now, he says, “professors just continued to work on their thesis topics.”

As a former finance minister, he says, “I’m very conscious of public spending, I’m very interested in optimization.” He has gathered data on students, faculty and departments according to nearly 100 categories. Now, “we have a mine of statistics that allows us to bring solutions and changes.”

As Mauritania puts those solutions and changes into effect, the country’s voice may be more frequently heard.


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