Because of the introduction of compulsory education in the 1970s, 90 percent of Algerians have been enrolled in school. This has resulted in a sharp decline of illiteracy: from a mere 21 percent in 1970, about 75 percent of the population can now read and write. Women, though, still lag behind, because, in the past, most had no chance to attend school. Nowadays, girls are better performers than boys, as they make up the majority of pupils in higher education. In 2008 the number of women in institutions of higher education was almost 1.5 times that of men, up from about one-quarter in 1970.
The educational system still bears traces of the colonial past. It strongly resembles the French system – a nine-year primary school, followed by vocational training or a lycée in preparation for university. Academic education is entirely subsidized, and the government has invested heavily in the creation of 25 universities across the country. Together with dozens of other establishments for higher education, they attract more than one million students. The social sciences are most popular (40 percent of students), almost twice the rate for natural sciences and engineering. Third are education and humanities (16 percent), followed by medicine (7 percent).
French has remained an important language of instruction, despite the state’s early attempt at the Arabization of the educational system. Soon after its formal introduction, this planned conversion of the entire curriculum proved unrealistic. Not the least of problems was that many graduates educated exclusively in Arabic had more difficulties finding employment in the government or in state-run industries, where a mastery of French and other foreign languages was an advantage. The frustration of these arabisants later became a factor in the rise of the Islamist movement. In the neighbouring countries that have recently undergone political revolutions, especially Tunisia, the connection between higher levels of education and higher unemployment has been an important factor in the rise of Islamism. In Algeria, the rate of unemployment among youth is twice the overall figure and is even higher among university graduates.
The ideological connotations of the language issue have led the state to follow a cautious course. As a compromise, Arabic is taught exclusively until the third year, when children also begin to learn French. The teaching of other European languages (English, Spanish, Italian) is encouraged in order to de-emphasize the ‘culture war’. At the universities, French is dominant, especially in the natural sciences. Since the recognition of the Berber language, there are more opportunities for learning Tamazight.
Although the state aims to provide universal access to education, many parents resort to private schools. The latter are not formally permitted, but, in practice, they are crowded with children from affluent and influential families who have good relations with those in power.
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