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Mauritania’s Medical Students Are Unhappy With Delayed Reforms

Students at Mauritania’s only medical school have boycotted classes in protest of what they say are poor curricula and a lack of teachers and postgraduate specialties.

Established in 2006 as the University of Nouakchott’s Faculty of Medicine, the school still does not have a teaching hospital.

“I have lost my great hopes after four years of study,” Denebja Ahmed, a fourth-year student, said in a phone interview. “We lack many basics in a way limiting our knowledge and skills.”

Its library lacks textbooks and references necessary for students and there is no approved academic methodology for students’ exams, Ahmed said.

“What makes matters worse is that the administration did not respond to our many complaints,” he said.

Sayed Ahmed Al-Dahdi, secretary general of the medical college, acknowledged the problems but said resolving them will take time.

“We are currently studying an expansion plan for the college to accommodate a larger number of students, while reviewing the academic program to keep pace with scientific developments, as well as raising the efficiency of the scientific training of professors,” he said in a phone call.

The school was founded as part of the government’s policy of creating a nationally trained medical force and improving the quality of the country’s health care. Teaching is in Arabic, with a curriculum derived from the French medical system; it takes eight years of study to graduate. (See a related article, “Mauritania’s Only Medical School Graduates Its First Class.”)

Pressure on the Health Sector 

Mauritania faces significant problems from illnesses including malaria, tuberculosis and lung diseases, the country’s main causes of death, according to data from the World Health Organization. (See a related article, “Patterns of Disease Are Changing in the Arab World.”)

Mauritania's Medical Students – Protest
Students at the University of Nouakchott’s Faculty of Medicine have been pressing for reforms that include updating the curricula, increasing their monthly grants, and providing training in more specializations (Photo by Denebja Ahmed).

This means one doctor for every 5,789 citizens, according to the National Corps of Doctors, Pharmacists and Dentists. By comparison, Algeria has one doctor for 547 people and Tunisia one for 798, according to official figures.

Three months ago students organized an open-ended strike to press their demands for reforms. These included updating the curricula, increasing their grant of about $100 per month, and providing specializations for the many Mauritanian students who today are forced to complete their studies abroad.

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The students ended their sit-in after the university pledged to deal with their demands but they say that none have been met so far.

“We have not seen signs of implementing the provisions stipulated in the written agreement with the faculty’s scientific council three months ago,” Mohammed Mahmoud Sayyid Mohammed, the 27-year-old  coordinator of the strike, said in a phone call.

Among teachers who support the demands, Mohammed Mahmoud Al-Hassan, a professor of orthopedic surgery, said “many things must be done to improve the quality of education in the college. Foremost among them is the establishment of a university teaching hospital to ensure the provision of good practical training for students.”

Ambiguity Over Who’s Responsible

In a phone interview, Al-Hassan said the overlap between the powers of the Ministries of Health and Higher Education caused ambiguity about who is responsible for developing the college.

Al-Hassan, who is also Secretary General of the Mauritanian Syndicate of Professors and University Hospital Researchers, said that when the college was founded in 2006, teachers were seconded from Senegal and Algeria but since then, the authorities have only twice shown their willingness to employ Mauritanian staff.

Young doctors have to go abroad to learn specialties like kidney diseases and transplants. “There are no specialized professors to teach these studies to graduates.”

Jamal Yousif
A former leading member of the Resident Doctors Syndicate in Mauritania

So far, eight cohorts of students have graduated, but most have had to travel to neighboring Arab countries such as Tunisia or Algeria to complete their specialization.

One of them, Jamal Yousif, 29, moved to Tunisia to study renal diseases and transplantation in a teaching hospital on a four-year scholarship.

Kidney diseases and transplants are among specialties not taught in Mauritania; others include chest diseases and thoracic surgery, infectious bacterial diseases, diabetes, and orthognathic and aesthetic surgery.

In a phone call, Yousif, a former leading member of the Resident Doctors Syndicate in Mauritania, said “there are no specialized professors to teach these studies to graduates.” He said the state has also failed to provide scholarships for the majority of students willing to do their residency and specialties abroad.

Yousif plans to return to his country after completing his studies at the end of the year but is not optimistic about finding a job in the health sector.

“Despite the scarcity of doctors, the government always prefers to contract doctors of other nationalities to fill the deficit with exorbitant money,” he said. “Their salaries are ten times what a Mauritanian doctor gets, and vacancies are not announced to accommodate graduates.”

Mohammed, the strike coordinator, said students were ready to resume the action. “We have given them enough time to implement our demands,” he said.


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