A series of new measures to reverse the sharp decline in numbers of Sub-Saharan African students in Tunisia over the next three years has been unveiled.
Numbers of Sub-Saharan students in Tunisia have fallen from 12,000 in 2010 to 4,000 for the 2016-17 academic year, according to figures presented at the first meeting of the Tunisian African Empowerment Forum held at the Palais des Congrès in Tunis, Tunisia from 22-23 August.
The forum was organised by the Tunisia-Africa Business Council, or TABC, in partnership with the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, the Ministry of Vocational Training and Employment, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Association of African Students and Trainees in Tunisia.
The new measures, aimed at growing the number of Sub-Saharan students to 20,000 by 2020, were outlined at the forum. They include a greater focus on the internationalisation of Tunisian higher education, promotion of Tunisia as a desirable destination for students from Sub-Saharan Africa and the development of mutual trust between Tunisia and the Sub-Saharan region.
A web-based platform has also been developed to encourage greater interest from and support for African students.
The above measures are geared towards the implementation of the Tunisian-African higher education cooperation strategy, which was discussed at the forum. The strategy is based on two axes: the sharing of Tunisian expertise and bringing more students from all countries on the continent to Tunisia. Against this backdrop, cooperation agreements have been initiated by Tunisia with Mauritania, Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso and South Africa.
Official figures presented at the forum indicated that foreign students make up 2.5% of the total student population. Among this proportion, 74% are African students from 40 countries, 29% being from Sub-Saharan Africa. As many as 98% of foreign students in Tunisian private universities are Africans.
Besides having 13 public universities which serve approximately 260,000 students including 6,000 foreigners, Tunisia has 72 private institutions of higher education that serve 32,000 students including 4,000 foreign students.
Last month’s forum identified several factors hindering the intake of African students into Tunisian higher education. According to the Association of African Students and Trainees in Tunisia, established in 1993 to advocate on behalf of Tunisia’s Sub-Saharan community and promote Sub-Saharan culture, over 60% of requests for permission to study in the country by African students are not granted.
A TABC study also highlighted the problem of racism towards Sub-Saharan students in Tunisia, which has manifested recently in the form of physical and verbal violence targeting Sub-Saharan Africans. These attacks have been covered in local news reports and the vulnerability of students from Sub-Saharan Africa in Tunisia was highlighted in a video report available on YouTube.
At present, the Tunisian government is considering a draft law against racism and discrimination.
Mack Arthur Deongane Yopasho, president of the Association of African Students and Trainees in Tunisia, described the racism against the students as a “situation that ruins the lives of Sub-Saharan students [who are] often forced to desert Tunisia to continue their studies in Morocco".
Reports indicate that about 18,000 postgraduate students from Sub-Saharan Africa study at Moroccan universities.
Manar Sabry, Middle East and North Africa region editor for the Comparative and International Education Society newsletter and a higher education expert at Binghamton University, State University of New York, told University World News that an important first step in combating racism is raising awareness of Sub-Saharan cultural traditions on Tunisian campuses.
"Teaching courses in schools and universities on racism and multi-cultural education will help Tunisians recognise their implicit biases. Implementing programmes that bring both student groups together for celebrations of African holidays will increase appreciation of national differences and spread a message of inclusive diversity," she said.
"It is vital that administrators provide institutional support for African students in the development of their own co-curricular clubs and activities.”
She said faculty should also undertake proactive actions to recruit more African students to Tunisian universities. “It is essential to cultivate an image that appeals to international students and remove the financial boundaries that prevent highly qualified students from applying," she said.
"This step is essential in creating a minority African population on campus that is large enough to form interpersonal social networks that will reduce feelings of alienation," she said.
Samir Khalaf Abd-El-Aal, professor of genetics and molecular biology at the National Research Centre in Egypt, welcomed the launch of a Tunisian-African higher education cooperation strategy.
"This strategy is a good start to enhance North Africa-Sub-Saharan Africa cooperation in higher education in order to promote student and staff exchange as well as facilitating knowledge and best practices transfer among universities across the African continent", Abd-El-Aal said.
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