Academics strike over poor conditions, lack of reform

Academics in Tunisia have launched protests against poor pay and working conditions, employment regulations and lack of university reforms since the 2011 revolution, arguing that the Ministry of Higher Education is not responding to their demands.

The Union of Tunisian University Professors and Researchers (IJABA) issued the call for an open strike at all higher education institutions and it began on 5 November.

One protest was staged in front of the ministry. A spokesman for the ministry said in a televised statement that it would file a lawsuit against IJABA over the use of a loudspeaker during the protest.

The IJABA movement is an independent syndicate formed in line with Tunisia’s democratic revolution to unify academics and researchers in defence of their rights, ensure the independence of universities, promote academic freedom, establish democratic practices in universities, and upgrade higher education to international standards

IJABA has issued a list of demands, including at least a 50% rise in salaries, pay increases linked to inflation, a doubling of bonuses and a reduction in weekly teaching hours. It has also called on the ministry to review the grant for postgraduate student supervision, in line with the effort involved.

In addition, IJABA has asked for bonuses for all pedagogical and administrative tasks, a review of transport costs which should be linked to fuel inflation and distances travelled, and a review of career progression and promotion rules as well as of the new baby grant.

IJABA stressed its readiness for dialogue before embarking on action including the strike.

In an 8 November Tunisia TV channel programme, posted on IJABA's Facebook page, Zied Ben Amor, an IJABA representative and senior lecturer in the arts and humanities faculty at Sousse University, said the strike was not only aimed at improving working conditions for academics but also at reforming the higher education and research sectors to interact positively with economic, social and technological transformation.

“The 2011 Tunisian revolution has not passed by Tunisian universities,” Amor said, adding that academics were also calling for a higher education reform strategy.

This roadmap must focus on improving higher education quality and its relevance to the labour market, tackling ‘brain drain’ and graduate unemployment problems, and improving the conditions for research by creating well-equipped laboratories and research units.

Nejimeddine Jouida, general coordinator for IJABA, was quoted as saying that the group had called “for every professor and researcher across the country to participate, and had received a response rate of 90% in Sousse and Gafsa and 70% in Sfax”.

However, the strikers had met a “shy” turnout in Tunis. Jouida attributed the city’s lacklustre turnout to “resistance to the IJABA movement”.

The 8 November demonstration outside the ministry was, IJABA said in a statement on Facebook, to up pressure on the negotiating parties and express rejection of any agreement that did not meet the minimum aspirations of the university.

According to Jouida, by late last week professors had not entered negotiations with the ministry and did not plan to end the strike until the ministry began to address their concerns.

"The open strike is continuing successfully despite the restrictions and malicious smear campaigns,” the statement said, urging institutions and academics to be steadfast as liberal professors struggled to restore Tunisian universities.