New higher education initiatives planned

Tunisia plans to establish a higher education council and a university ‘pole of excellence’ in the Tunisian-Algerian border zone, in an effort to come up with policies and strategies to tackle higher education challenges, stem the brain drain and boost regional cooperation.

The initiatives were announced during an official ceremony marking Knowledge Day last month.

The higher education council will prepare an action plan and strategies for reform, and will help to establish a space for consultation between senior executives of stakeholder ministries and groups, including academics from universities and technology institutes.

The consultation will focus on how to strengthen research capacity in Tunisian institutions, and core issues of higher education reform.

The new council is in line with renewed interest in investing in and supporting Tunisian higher education, following the 2011 revolution that ended decades of dictatorship and was sparked by unemployment, including among youth and university graduates.

Ongoing problems

However, two-and-a-half years after the revolution, there has been little change. Joblessness, especially among graduates, remains a major concern, according to a 6 August report in The Tunis Times titled “Economy: How unemployment led to violence”.

On average, 60,000 new graduates join the labour market every year. However, the public and private sectors are only able to hire half of them. The latest figures from the national statistics agency indicate that unemployment stood at 16.7% in the final quarter of 2012 and among university graduates it rose to 33.2%, up from 27% in the second quarter.

During the Knowledge Day ceremony Moncef Marzouki, caretaker Tunisian president, outlined some of the problems facing the higher education sector.

They included the regression of moral values, the adoption of thoughtless reforms, the absence of clear strategy and the predominance of political considerations, brain drain, and deteriorating education quality due to the adoption of policies aimed at high success rates.

These factors made universities “factories to train jobless people”, Marzouki was quoted as saying.

The brain drain and regional cooperation

Official figures have highlighted the worrying scale of the brain drain among Tunisian graduates who study abroad.

They indicate that the rate of student return after studies in foreign universities has been around 7% during the past five years, and that only 40 Tunisian scholarship holders studied abroad this year against 65 previously.

In an effort to counter the brain drain and boost higher education cooperation with Algeria, Tunisia’s Higher Education and Scientific Research Minister Moncef Ben Salem announced an initiative to create a university ‘pole of excellence’ along the Tunisian-Algerian border.

The project will aim to persuade Tunisian and Algerian students to pursue higher education locally rather than in France or Germany, by providing improved university education locally.

According to Ben Salem, growing corruption and mismanagement are behind the brain drain; and legislation is needed to guarantee the reintegration into the country of skilled Tunisians abroad, and to restore confidence between them and the state.