Before independence in 1960, Mauritania had only few French educational institutions. What dominated were traditional Mauritanian institutions of Islamic education. Such institutions could range from buildings with libraries to single men who moved around large regions. Compare to other African countries, Mauritania at the time had comparatively good structures. In 1955 the Institute of Islamic Studies was founded at Boutilimit. Other important centres of Islamic education were at Chinguetti, Kaedi, Mederdra, Oualata and Tidjikdja.
The path ahead towards a modern educational system has proven long, and even in the 2000's the nation comes short compared with other North African countries.
Preserving the Islamic core to education has had great priority. This element has been defined as necessary to preserve culture and tradition and to promote national unity. Arabic has been forced upon the many non-Arabic speakers, only as late as in the 1980's was the instruction in the other national languages Pulaar, Soninke and Wolof introduced into the primary school curriculum (see Languages and Peoples. Still, Arabic was emphasized at all levels. For long French was used in many schools as the primary language of instruction, there was effectively two parallel educational systems. A major reform was introduced in 1999, when the two systems merged.
Expenditure on education was estimated at 2.9% of GDP in 2006, which is a very low figure internationally, and even more som considering how very low GDP per capita is in itself.
The literacy rate of Mauritania remains poor, right above 50%. In 1985 the adult literacy rate was estimated at between 17 and 25%. There are no general programs to educate adults.
Practically all boys and girls between ages 4 and 6 attend Koranic school. Some instruction in writing Arabic is given here, but the main focus is on memorizing the Koran.
School is by law compulsory for all children and free for all. But there are many obstacles, for poor family, the cost of material and food may be forces many kids out of school. Equally detrimental are problems with transportation to and from school, a major challenge in many rural areas. Participation is not clear, figures from different sources vary immensely, suggesting that 61 and 83% attend primary education. Many children never start school, and a percentage drops out every year.
Primary school last 6 years, beginning at the age of 6. With the 1999 reform, Arabic is the teaching language in the 1st year. French is introduced in the 2nd school year, and used as instruction language in Mathematics and Natural Sciences.
Primary education is concluded in a national exam, where pupils are tested in 7 subjects (4 in Arabic and 3 in French). Those succeeding are awarded the Certificat d'Etudes Primaires Elémentaires (CEPE).
Attendance to secondary schools is low, general figures given are 21%. It is divided into two stages, the first in the "College" has a duration of 4 years, the second in the "Lycée" is 3 years.
Continuation from the College to the Lycée either is from a satisfactory report from the school without exam, or by a general exam. The diploma from the College is called "Brevet d'Etudes du Premier Cycle" (BEPC).
At the Lycée, pupils follow one of 4 specialized programs: Arabic and Islam; Modern languages; Natural sciences; and Mathematics. The difference between Natural Sciences and Mathematics is the wider focus in Natural Sciences.
Upon completion of the Lycée, students pass a national exam to obtain the Baccalaureat, by which entry to university is permitted.
The country's only university, the University of Nouakchott was opened in 1981 and has about 10,000 students and 250 teachers (2004). It is divided into 3 faculties: Arts and Social Sciences; Economy and Law; and Technical Sciences. Studies are divided into a lower degree obtained after 2 years, the "Diplome du Premier Cycle d'Etudes Universitaires", short "DEUG"; and the higher degree, another 2 years of studies, leading to a diploma of "Maitrise".
At university level, programs to promote local language have been introduced by the establishment of a research department.
Higher institutions besides the university include National School of Administration (ENA); National Teachers School (ENI); Normal Higher School (ENS); Scientifical Institute for Islamic Studies and Research (ISERI); National School of Public Health (ENSP); Higher Institute of Medical Specialization (ISSM); Higher Centre of Techinical Education (CSET).
Many study at technical schools, where two they may pass three stages of 2 years each. By the completion of each stage a degree relevant for work life is obtained. It is considered attractive to continue to higher stages, the highest degree is the "Brevet de Technicien Supérieur" (BTS) after 6 years. It is considered the equivalent of a university diploma.