Union leader blames brain drain on HE budget cuts

Tunisia is undergoing a severe brain drain partly as a result of budget cuts to the higher education and research sectors, according to Zied Ben Amor, coordinator of IJABA, the Union of Tunisian University Professors and Researchers.

Interviewed by La Presse, Ben Amor said many graduates were leaving to work in other countries and students studying abroad were choosing not to return after they graduate. He said this was due to a drop in the higher education ministry budget from 7% of state spending in 2008 to 4.1% now. The scientific research budget had also been cut by 75% and the ministry’s subscription to scientific journals had been cancelled.

According to Tunisian agency Sigma Conseil, 45% of young medical doctors who were registered in 2017 had already left the country, and about 2,000 engineers had opted to emigrate.

“One has the impression that the state no longer cares about higher education and scientific research, giving the go-ahead to uncontrolled privatisation of the sector,” said Ben Amor. He pointed out that 4,500 Tunisian academics had preferred to leave the country since 2011, 1,600 of them through the state’s Agence Tunisienne de Coopération Technique.

Ben Amor also told La Presse that 90% of doctoral students studying abroad and receiving a state grant did not return to Tunisia.

The total number of Tunisian academics abroad was nearly 30,000, and they contributed to improving the scientific research rankings of the other countries such as Saudi Arabia. Tunisian researchers excelled where they went and proved their incomparable expertise, which was why they were headhunted by active, well-organised companies.

A Tunisian IT engineer working in the Tunis area for a foreign company did not hesitate to cancel his contract and move to France for an attractive salary after he was headhunted, reported La Presse.

A Franco-Tunisian university teacher explained to La Presse that headhunters were in touch with foreign companies installed in Tunisia who were looking for competent professionals.

More than 100 pharmacy and dentistry students were sent each year to France, and each student cost Tunisia at least TND5,000 (US$2,000) a month, she told La Presse. They could work immediately because of the high standard of their practical education in Tunisia. “However, after taking a specialist exam they don’t consider going back to work in their own country. So we lose money and our young specialist doctors.”

Ben Amor said his union had already raised the alarm, and that three measures needed to be taken urgently: scientific research must be revamped, salary scales must be respected and recruitment of postgraduates supported, as there were about 5,000 PhDs currently unemployed, and an estimated 12,000 postgraduates preparing doctoral theses.

“These experts must return to research. It is ridiculous that the state spends millions of dinars to train these specialists, then obliges them to cut their ties and emigrate to the Gulf countries or the European Union countries. Our battle today is to safeguard the public university,” he told La Presse.

It used to be the case that if a university teacher emigrated it was seen as a catastrophe, said Ben Amor. Today the situation was very difficult and the replacement of the teacher was no longer guaranteed, a real threat to the sector. A research unit in the arts faculty at Sousse University was shut because all its teachers had emigrated, he said.

Questioned by La Presse in March Khalil Amiri, ecretary of state for scientific research, said that in spite of the brain drain there were 22,000 teachers for 242,000 students, and the number of those choosing to work abroad through the technical cooperation agency had fallen in the last three years.

In October 2017 the number of academics abroad was 1,464, and those who left during the university year 2014-15 was estimated at 393. This number fell to 162 for the year 2017-18, he said.

Amiri recognised that for the country to retain its experts it should improve the higher education system, and introduce a new model of development to benefit from their expertise and from its highly qualified young people, reported La Presse. – Compiled by Jane Marshall

This article is drawn from local media.
University World News cannot vouch for the accuracy of the original reports.