New HE accreditation agency will need enough resources
Despite the agency’s lofty ideals, the Union of Tunisian University Teachers and Researchers has criticised the agency’s establishment as a strategy by the higher education ministry to create a public buzz “without any real willingness to change the actual difficult situation of Tunisian public higher education”, according to the union.
Other commentators have called for the proper resourcing of the agency, both materially and in terms of human resources, to be able to execute its mandate efficiently.
The agency’s establishment and role were outlined in a Presidential Decree (No 46 of 2022) published at the end of June.
Its tasks are the evaluation of universities, public and private higher education institutions, doctoral schools and science institutions, along with their research and innovation programmes and projects, according to the decree.
The new agency will also focus on developing quality assurance procedures and standards in accordance with international standards, taking into account national and sectoral specificities.
Tunisia is a moderate performer in terms of its knowledge infrastructure as it ranks 83rd out of 154 countries in the Global Knowledge Index 2021, which measures knowledge performance worldwide using seven main sectoral indices, including higher education and research, and development and innovation.
Criticism from union
Professor Zied Ben Amor, the assistant general coordinator and official spokesperson for the Union of Tunisian University Teachers and Researchers, or IJABA, (meaning ‘answer’ in Arabic), told University World News the government has to prioritise other obligations ahead of the agency as it has shown “an incredible incapacity to deal with current research- and teaching-related problems [in higher education]”.
“The obligations include increasing the budget allowed for research and higher education, which has decreased by millions of dinars in the past decade, and improving the appalling infrastructural condition at universities, with roofs literally falling on the heads of teachers and students, as well as reviewing the salaries and the financial situation of researchers and academics, all along with the creation of a new status for them that fits with international standards,” said Ben Amor.
In addition, he called on the ministry to be transparent and explain how the agency will be funded, at what cost to taxpayers and what accountability mechanism will be used to stop the wastage of public money as well as nepotism.
However, despite these concerns, experts have welcomed the announcement of the agency as a move in the right direction.
What is the significance of the agency?
Sami Hammami, a professor of economics at the University of Sfax in Tunisia, told University World News that the new agency will improve the ranking of Tunisian universities and the accreditation of diplomas internationally, in particular in Europe.
Similarly, Professor Bechir Allouch of the Virtual University of Tunis, told University World News the creation of the new agency is of “extreme importance”.
“We are not starting from zero, as the new agency integrates and merges the national body for evaluation, quality assurance and accreditation [IEAQA] as well as the national committee for the evaluation of scientific research activities [CNEARS],” Allouch said.
“The creation of the new agency, like the reforms relating to autonomy and incentive financing, has the potential to bring about positive and major changes in terms of governance, quality and relevance to the needs of society,” Allouch added.
“Being supported by the European Union, the new agency takes advantage of good international practices and support for European organisations including Commission des Titres d’Ingénieur (CTI) and Hcéres in France,” he said.
Hcéres is a French public service agency responsible for the periodic evaluation of all state-contracted higher education and research institutions in France.
CTI is the relevant body in charge of carrying out evaluation procedures that lead to the accreditation of the institutions to award the engineering degree titre d’ingénieur diploma.
“Once the new agency is fully operational and, above all, recognised by its peers at the international level, it must facilitate the development of accreditation in the Tunisian university system instead of relying on foreign organisations to accredit engineering curricula and medical faculties,” Allouch pointed out.
“The new agency has been given the status of a non-administrative public institution, but it is placed under the supervision of the ministry of higher education and scientific research,” Allouch said.
“It would have been preferable for the new agency not to be under the supervision of the ministry of higher education and to become independent of the ministry, overseeing universities and higher education establishments which are the targets of the evaluation and accreditation for which the agency is responsible,” Allouch suggested.
“The new agency could have been placed, for example, under the supervision of the presidency of the government. This would have represented an additional guarantee of independence and less risk of suspected conflict of interest,” Allouch said.
“One of the challenges for the new agency is that it fully accomplishes its mission, not only with regard to evaluation but also in parallel with regard to accreditation,” he added.
“So far, there have been achievements relating to evaluation, but the road still to be travelled remains long, in particular because of the need to promote the culture of quality at the level of actors and stakeholders and not only the technical needs relating to adopting an appropriate framework [references, guides, and so on], and mastering quality assurance methodologies and processes,” Allouch said.
“Projects [such as Erasmus+] under way in Tunisian universities promote the strengthening of internal quality assurance in universities, which will make the task easier for the new agency, since external evaluation can only develop rapidly and solidly if it relies on solid internal quality assurance,” Allouch pointed out.
“In addition to assessment and the promotion of the culture of quality, the new agency should attach prime importance to accreditation,” Allouch emphasised.
“Let’s hope that the agency can really be provided with sufficient resources and that it can properly accomplish its mission, unlike the two previous institutions [IEAQA and CNEARS] which operated … with insufficient resources in relation to their respective missions and relation to the needs and challenges in the Tunisian university system,” Allouch concluded.
According to Hammami, the new agency should have the human and material resources to carry out its mission and should also cooperate with academic bodies such as universities and research centres.