New initiative for conflict-free university launched

Tunisia has launched a new initiative to set up a network for mediation, dispute prevention and conflict management in academia in an effort to strengthen social cohesion in the university environment, which is needed to face the impact of the democratic transition on university life in post-revolution Tunisia.

Called ‘The University, Space Dialogue and Social Cohesion’, the three-year initiative (2019-21) was unveiled at a 5 March launch seminar, according to the website of Tunisia’s ministry of higher education and scientific research.

The new initiative will be conducted by the ministry in partnership with national and international organisations, including Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation, the National Anti-Corruption Authority and the United Nations Development Programme, which is leading a regional project entitled ‘Promoting Social Cohesion in the Arab Region’.

The initiative, which is part of the implementation of university reforms started in January 2017, aims to prevent and manage conflicts in the university space through consolidating the role of the university as a space for dialogue, as well as for learning the concepts of citizenship, equality and anti-discrimination, along with tolerance, learning and participatory governance practice.

To achieve its aims, the initiative will be implemented in three phases. The first phase will carry out in-depth qualitative and quantitative studies of conflicts that have taken place at universities as well as identify the main causes and the actors concerned.

The second phase will include establishing institutional mechanisms and appropriate structures for the framework of dialogue and conflict mediation and management by setting up committees and units for interventions and arbitration at the level of all academic institutions – the ministry, universities, higher education and research institutions.

The third phase will focus on reinforcing the skills for stimulating dialogue, mediation and conflict management among all university stakeholders, including students, teachers, researchers, administrators and support staff, within the framework of participative management and a peaceful social climate.

Experts’ views

“It is a good step on the rocky road towards establishing conflict-free higher education institutions and consolidating the role of the ‘university’ as a social institution that is organised and ordered to support learning and identity formation as well as nation building and cohesive citizen formation,” a higher education consultant, Hilmi Salem, told University World News.

The new initiative must enter into a conversation with non-academic audiences and enable social, economic and political stakeholders to benefit from their scientific research results, according to Salem.

The development of a comprehensive system of higher education for social cohesion, democracy and peace is extremely important as most of the Tunisian youth see "the Arab Spring as a failure in socio-economic terms, but it is also an occasion to re-assert their Tunisian identity", according to a 2019 article entitled "Tunisia's Youth: Awakened identity and challenges post-Arab Spring", available to subscribers on a research portal.

“This is extremely important not only in Tunisia but also in North African countries, especially Egypt and Libya, as the seismic shifts engendered by Arab uprisings that started in late 2010 are still rippling through and weakening societal cohesion, including the university community,” Salem said.

"This proposal for building intercultural communication and conflict resolution into university practices is a positive step that acknowledges the complexities of cross-border and transcultural relationships today," Terri Seddon, research professor in the School of Education at La Trobe University, Australia, told University World News. "But it cannot be realised by standards-based reforms alone."

While accountabilities are important, it is the quality of the relational work by staff and students within universities that makes the difference in education and societies," Seddon said.