New Tunisia-US higher education initiatives announced

The United States is to expand a scholarship programme for Tunisian students and has agreed to create a centre for technological innovation and establish a Tunisian-American permanent committee for bilateral cooperation in the field of higher education and research.

The initiatives were announced by Tawfik Jlassi, Tunisia's minister of higher education, scientific research and information and communication technology, following a four-day visit to the United States from 1-4 April.

Joint cooperation committee

The Tunisia-US cooperation committee in higher education and scientific research was formed under the first-ever US-Tunisia Strategic Dialogue launched on 3 April.

The joint committee will be in charge of assessing joint proposals for higher education and research initiatives, selecting projects and following up on cooperation activities.

It will also be responsible for complementary actions such as the organisation of scientific conferences, seminars and meetings as well as summer schools at universities to foster English learning, especially for graduates.

Universities and development

Tunisian universities do not rate highly in rankings. At the regional level, according to the 2013-14 University Ranking by Academic Performance, or URAP, only five Tunisian universities rank among Africa's top universities: Sfax (25), Tunis-El Manar (35), Monastir (44), Carthage (58) and Tunis (61).

In the World Economic Forum's 2013-14 Global Competitiveness Report, out of 148 countries Tunisia was ranked 22 for availability of scientists and engineers, 31 for quality of maths and science education, 71 for quality of the education system, 73 for higher education and training, 94 for quality of research institutions, and 113 for university-industry collaboration in research.

However, Tunisia tops Maghreb countries in scientific publication, producing 22,264 articles in 2012-13, according to a report published last year by the Arab Scientific Community Organization.

The new centre for technological innovation will focus on identifying and analysing scientific breakthroughs from universities and research centres, and helping to translate them into products and services.

It will also develop and disseminate best practices in innovation-based technology to stakeholders, brief policy-makers on actions needed to improve innovation, and advance public and media understanding of innovation.

US scholarship programme

According to a 4 April joint statement: "In keeping with the importance of people-to-people ties between Tunisia and the United States and of education for advancing long-term development, the United States has provided US$10 million through the Thomas Jefferson Scholarship programme to support Tunisian students."

It said Congress had been asked for an additional US$10 million to expand opportunities to other deserving Tunisians. "This effort builds on the long history of educational exchange under the US-Tunisia Fulbright Programme and other educational and cultural exchanges."

The Tunisian and American leaders "committed to strengthening ties and increasing mutual understanding between Tunisian and American youth and expanding the existing university linkage programmes", the statement concluded.

The way forward

Building on the success of university partnerships facilitated by grants from the US Embassy in Tunis, the US plans to establish eight additional linkages with Tunisian higher education institutions.

Two will focus on business and entrepreneurship skills and will include joint degree programmes, while another will introduce an investigative journalism masters degree programme at the Tunisian Press Institute.

Progress made by the three Tunisia-US initiatives in higher education and research will be evaluated at the next US-Tunisia Strategic Dialogue to be held in Tunis in 2015.