Joint university to reframe Tunisia as regional study hub

France and Tunisia have agreed to establish the first joint university in the Tunisian capital Tunis next year, aimed at attracting Sub-Saharan and Mediterranean students and enhancing the country’s higher education status and its potential for research collaborations.

According to Campus France, the French national agency for the promotion of higher education, international student services and international mobility, the French ministry of higher education and research said the new university, to be known as the Franco-Tunisian University of Africa and the Mediterranean, will complement existing higher education offerings in Tunisia and aims to address youth unemployment as well as the country’s socio-economic needs.

The cooperation agreement was signed in Paris at the second meeting of the Franco-Tunisian High Council for Co-operation co-chaired by Tunisian Head of Government Youssef Chahed and French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on 14 February.

The US$37 million joint university will grant French diplomas and offer courses in the humanities and social sciences, as well as new communication technologies. Access to the joint university will be free for Tunisian students through the offering of scholarships.

North African French campuses

The new Franco-Tunisian University of Africa and the Mediterranean is the second Arab-French university to be announced in Africa after the unveiling of the 2014 plan to establish an Arab-French University in the Egyptian capital Cairo.

Besides the Arab-French University in Egypt, there are two Tunisian-based French campuses, including ESMOD (École supérieure des arts et techniques de la mode) and Paris Dauphine University, and three Moroccan-based French campuses, including Ecole de Sciences de l’ingénieur et technologie en Génie des Systèmes Industriels Casablanca, Toulouse Business School Casablanca, and Ecole de Management de Lyon, according to the web-based hub for cross-border education C-BERT.

The new Franco-Tunisian university is in line with recommendations of an August 2017 report entitled A new strategy for France in a new Arab world, published by the Montaigne Institute – a platform dedicated to reflection, proposals and experimentations related to public policies in France.

The institute’s report argued that France should enhance its soft power through the diffusion of language and culture in countries of the Maghreb, namely, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.

In 2018 France ranked fifth worldwide on the Soft Power 30 education sub-index, which takes into account the number of universities a country has in global rankings, the number of international students it hosts and the number of science journal articles published.

Decline in soft power

However, in North Africa, France’s soft power is decreasing in favour of the English-speaking world and Germany, the Montaigne Institute’s report indicated.

This is despite the fact that 6 million people living in France have an identity link with the Arab region and 1.2 million French citizens live in the North African region and most of them are dual citizens.

“Despite these deep bonds, our [French] influence decreases every year,” the Montaigne Institute’s report stated.

France is the top destination for Arab students, receiving 29% of them, particularly from North African countries such as Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, according to the Global Flow of Tertiary-Level Students, an interactive map published by the Canada-based UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

Cultural diplomacy

Professor Samir Khalaf Abd-El-Aal, based at the National Research Center in Cairo, Egypt, welcomed the new joint university.

“This new planned university, along with other Africa-based French campuses, will enhance the university’s role as a cultural diplomacy tool to build French-African countries’ regional alliances and partnerships to achieve its national agenda,” he told University World News.

“It will also enhance the emergence of Tunisia as a study destination for Sub-Saharan students,” Abd-El-Aal said.

“Also, the new university will help Tunisia in the implementation of the Tunisian-African higher education cooperation strategy, which is based on two axes: the sharing of Tunisian expertise and bringing more students from countries on the African continent to Tunisia,” Abd-El-Aal said.