Observatory to monitor higher education progress

Tunisia has inaugurated an observatory for monitoring progress in higher education, science, technology and innovation, as part of wider efforts to promote the development of a knowledge-based economy through higher education and research reform.

The Tunisian Observatory for Higher Education and Scientific Research, or TOHESR, was launched on 8 October, as indicated in a press report published by a digital Tunisian website.

TOHESR will be based temporarily at the faculty of law, economics and management of the University of Jendouba.

Weak global status

Several international reports have highlighted the weak status of Tunisia's higher education and scientific research performance indicators.

Tunisian universities do not rate highly in either international or regional rankings. At the regional level, according to the 2016-17 University Ranking by Academic Performance, or URAP, only six Tunisian universities rank among Africa's top universities: Sfax (15), Tunis-El Manar (16), Monastir (27), Carthage (35), La Manouba (43) and Tunis (53).

In the World Economic Forum's 2016-17 Global Competitiveness Report published on 28 September, out of 138 countries Tunisia was ranked 48 for availability of scientists and engineers, 57 for quality of maths and science education, 104 for innovation, 107 for quality of the education system, 93 for higher education and training, 111 for quality of scientific research institutions, and 107 for university-industry collaboration in research.

New observatory

The new observatory will work to build higher education for the liberation of human thoughts, advancement of society and the consecration of national sovereignty as well as promoting the values of freedom, democracy and citizenship.

It will work on fighting corruption in the sector of higher education and scientific research.

To achieve that, the Tunisian observatory will review the higher education as well as science and technology sectors and collect, manage, analyse and publish information on the sector.

TOHESR will measure research, development and innovation activities within universities using indicators such as R&D expenditure, number of researchers, patents and published research papers in order to evaluate the performance of research centres associated with universities.

TOHESR will act as a repository for data on university education, science, technology and innovation and a source of policy analysis, to support evidence-based policy-making in Tunisia.

"The observatory has prepared a comprehensive short and medium term programme of activities, which are mainly aimed at monitoring breaches of the problems experienced by the higher education sector along with considering the career path for the teaching staff and listening to their views on the real situation of higher education and ways to reform its current system," TOHESR board chairman Nageh Salim was quoted as saying by the Egypt 24 website.

Fight against academic cheating

Salim indicated that TOHESR, in cooperation with the national authority for corruption, will launch an awareness campaign aimed at fighting cheating at universities, which is considered a form of corruption, and will look at ways to tackle it.

Up to 70% of Tunisian students have cheated at least once during their university studies as indicated by a 2013 report entitled The Exam Cheating among Tunisian Students of the Higher Institute of Sport and Physical Education of Sfax.

A quick search on Retraction Watch, an independent website that tracks academic papers that have been officially declared false, indicated that several studies carried out at Arab universities and research centres, including Tunisian universities, were retracted after discoveries of plagiarism.

EU project

The inauguration of the observatory comes alongside the announcement on 11 October of the launch of a two-year, €10 million (US$10.9 million) European initiative under the EU-funded Erasmus+ programme that will enable 1,200 students and higher education staff in Europe and Tunisia to study, train or teach abroad, and the recently launched World Bank project, Tertiary Education for Employability.

This comes on top of the yearly average of 640 students and staff who have already received support from the Erasmus+ annual budget for Southern Mediterranean countries, which supports Tunisia and nine other countries in the region.

The new European initiative will also step up cooperation between universities in the EU and Tunisia through projects designed to help modernise higher education institutions and promote direct contact between individuals.

The World Bank project is intended to support ongoing reforms to improve the management of universities and the quality of teaching as well as ensuring that students are graduating with the skills demanded by the labour market.