Colonial rule: French as de facto unique language of higher education in Algeria (1830—1962)

At the time of French occupation, Arabic language illiteracy rate in Algeria was as low as 14 per cent, which rose to over 90 per cent by 1901 due to suppressive French educational policies, which confiscated endowments allowing operation and closed existing local, Islamic institutions (Ladjal & Bensaid, 2014). Up until the first World War period, the rate of school age Muslim children in primary school was less than 10 per cent of an age cohort (Kadri, 2007).7 The concept of French higher education in colonies8 was to establish institutes of tertiary education covering specific needs of the European settler society, the écoles supérieures, rather than implant the system present in Paris at the time. As early as 1832, in Algiers, the École de médecine was established — although it was only operational four years before reopening in 1858 — requiring an authorisation by the French Minister de la Guerre (War) for all non-French students, i.e., Maures, Turks,

and Jews (République Française, 1960). In that ‘Elle devrait contribuer à la conquête des indigènes et à leur soumission,’9 it had a clear cut ideological as well as missionary function of colonial supremacy (Guerid, 2010).

Medersas10 were established as Franco-Muslim secondary cum tertiary education institutions in Tlemcen, Medea (transferred to Blida and then Algiers shortly after) and Constantine by decree in 1850. They were aimed at dispensing instruction of a professional nature11 by training assistants or midlevel civil servants for the colonial administration only, which is shown by the fact that they were put under military authority (Kateb, 2014). They were integrated in the Academy of Algiers as the French public instruction system in 1876 and underwent reforms in 1895, reinforcing French language instruction in addition to Arabic, at the detriment of theology education.

The first Algerian teachers were therefore trained at the Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Bouzareah, Algiers - which exists to this day - from 1883 until 1939. This further illustrates the fact that the objective of divide between French and Algerians was achieved in a double manner; Algerians not quite like the Europeans but - admitted to their institutions — the elite among the locals (Colonna, 1975). Consequently, there were few bilingual Algerian intellectuals. In general, only two languages were used for instruction. The French adopted a ‘split-to-rule’ policy by the promotion of Tamazight, reinforcing an artificial separation, justified by a mistranslation of Ibn Khaldoun’s work, widespread in the 1850s, claiming an Arab-Berber race divide, in a form of racialised Islam to disenfranchise the local Algerian Muslim population, thus benefiting French settlers (Rouighi, 2019b). The foundation for Algerian colonial higher education was then laid by a law in December 1877, separating theory focussed institutions and those with a more practical orientation (République Française, 1960).

Modern day higher education, including its postgraduate training and research mandate, in colonial Algeria thus begins with the founding of the University of Algiers as well as its two annexes in the west of the country, Oran, and in the east, Constantine, in 1909. By this act, the former écoles were transformed into faculties of the new institution. In its early times, only law and medicine continued to be proposed for higher learning (Mélia, 1950). In line with its ideological outset of promoting, and sustaining colonialism, the university was mainly aimed at educating settlers of European origin (Ronze, 1930). Therefore, Algerian students only made up as little as approximately 5 per cent between 1882 - then in the écoles — and at the single university until the end of the First World War. In contrast, both Morocco and Tunisia had private, i.e., non-French but local administered institutions, with religious and Arabic instruction as central elements. Those - El Azhar University in Cairo, Karaouyne University in Fes and Zitouna University in Tunis - continued to be frequented by so-called ‘indigenous’/mwsK/man (Muslim) Algerians in the first half of the 20th Century (Kateb, 2014).

Overall, Arabic was the language of the heart and the spirit, whereas French was made the language of education by and of force, accessible to European settlers almost exclusively with regards to education.

Colonialism implies structural violence by aggressive francophonie culture, achieved by Algeria being conceptualised as a settlement colony par excellence. More than 130 years of French occupation thus marked a backwards turn for education and science in Algeria. Local culture and structures were not only overturned by colonisation but indeed destroyed by the French. They consciously did not take on existing education infrastructure to build on, but in arrogant superiority ideology, created inferior, separate pathways for the so-called ‘indigenous/ffidywii’’ status — while primary education was made mandatory already in the late 19th Century, this only applied to European male children (Colonna, 1972).

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