A confrontation between medical students and the authorities in Morocco shows no signs of abating, despite heightened government threats of legal action against the students and anyone supporting their campaign.
Students from the faculties of medicine, pharmacy and dental studies began protesting and boycotting their classes in March of this year. On June 10, they boycotted their end-of-year exams. The boycott was reportedly total—photos on social media showed empty classrooms.
Now students say they are being pressured by the authorities to end the boycott and sit for exams (which run through June 25). Local officials have visited students and their families and advised the students to sit for their exams. Students have also reportedly been threatened with the loss of student housing next year if they continue their boycott.
At its basis, the confrontation between students and authorities revolves around two broad areas of concern: the lack of resources for practical training and residencies in public hospitals and clinics, and tensions surrounding the rise of private schools of medicine, dentistry and pharmacy, which were first allowed to be established just five years ago and have proliferated since.
A List of Demands
Students have put forth a series of demands, including greater human resources devoted to educational and medical facilities in rural areas and an increase in the compensation students receive during their residencies.
The government has promised to address some of these issues. But there has been no agreement on two fundamental points, one regarding dental education and the other regarding competition for medical residencies.
Public university students are calling on the authorities to reverse a reform that would add a sixth year to dental studies (in line with international norms). Students say that there are not enough internship sites for fourth- and fifth-year students right now, so adding a sixth year without solving this problem is senseless.
Students are also up in arms about a change that would allow students from the private medical universities to do their practical training at public hospitals and clinics. The protesting students say that already there are not enough residencies available at public hospitals and clinics for public university students, and that private universities should provide facilities for their students. There is also a debate over whether graduates of private universities should be allowed to enter the contests for public posts.
“Public universities are already terribly over-burdened,” says Hamza Karmane, a student at the Faculty of Pharmacy at Rabat’s Mohamed V University and a member of the National Committee of Medical Students. This change in policy “will affect the quality of our education,” Karmane said. He is worried that the over-burdening of public universities will lead, in the long run, to “dominance of the private sector.”
Retaliation and Retribution
Karmane says that unfortunately the authorities “are adopting an approach of fear and threats toward student strikers. They are trying to break the strike/boycott.”
Three professors have been suspended for allegedly encouraging students to strike. The three professors are also reportedly members of the Islamist organization Al Adl wa Al Ihsane (Justice and Spirituality), which the authorities are now blaming for fomenting the boycott. In response to the professors’ suspension, the national union of higher education in Marrakech has now called on professors of medicine at the city’s university to strike as well.
There have also been disturbing reports of retaliation against the relatives of members of the student committee that organized the boycott. The father of one student was informed that his pharmacy would have to close because of an irregularity in his contract with the hospital hosting it; the father of another had his medical license suspended for allegedly working in the private sector without authorization.
The shortage of residencies for medical students and the poor conditions under which they study and work are all the more troubling as the country is in dire need of more medical professionals working in the public sector. Morocco already suffers from a low number of doctors per inhabitants (0.6 per 1,000 inhabitants, according to data cited by the World Bank) and from great geographical disparities in access to public health facilities. The World Health Organization deems it one of the countries worldwide that suffer from a lack of vital health services.
The minister of education, Saaid Amzazi, had said that students who boycotted their exams will have to make them up or repeat the year. In a recent communiqué, the government stated that it will respond to “legitimate and reasonable demands” of students but that it “will not hesitate to take legal measures against anyone who has tried to disrupt the holding of exams.”