Academics are angry about ministry’s ‘indifference’

Tunisian university professors say they are angry because the country’s ministry of higher education and scientific research has not been responding to their concerns, including poor pay, bad working conditions, institutional budgetary shortfalls and violations in recruiting and promoting systems, which they say, creates the impression that the ministry is indifferent to their plight.

This is the message in a statement by Najmuddin Juweidah, the general coordinator of the Union of Tunisian University Teachers and Researchers (IJABA).

The union is dissatisfied with the deteriorating financial position of academic teachers and universities due to budgetary cuts for scientific research and public higher education, which contributed to the brain drain from universities, IJABA said in the statement issued on 15 November.

The state of Tunisian academia

The union’s concerns are supported by official figures and international reports.

Tunisia is a moderate performer in terms of its knowledge infrastructure, as it ranks 75th out of 123 countries in the Global Knowledge Index (GKI) 2021, which measures knowledge performance worldwide, using seven main sectoral indices, including higher education alongside research, development and innovation.

The budget for higher education and scientific research has been decreased from 5.4% of the state budget, representing 1.62% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2021, to 4.2% of the state budget, representing 1.44% of its GDP in 2022, according to bulletins published by the ministry.

Furthermore, Tunisia was ranked first among North African countries in terms of the brain drain of highly educated persons, followed by Algeria and Morocco, as indicated in a 2020 study titled ‘A Global Profile of Emigrants to OECD Countries: Younger and more skilled migrants from more diverse countries’.

Violations of committees’ work processes

Juweidah pointed out that the union was concerned over observed violations of protocol in committees responsible for staff recruitment. However, it did not want to disclose details of the alleged abuses.

In an interview with Tunisian Radio Shems FM Professor Zied Ben Amor, the assistant general coordinator and official spokesperson for IJABA, said this was because legal processes started and the ministry needed time to carry out its investigations.

The union, through Juweidah, did say it was establishing review and follow-up mechanisms to guarantee maximum transparency and eliminate all immoral practices.

Ostrich policy

In interviews with Tunisian Radio SonFm and Mosaïque FM, Juweidah said: “The ministry does not respond to us. It follows the ‘ostrich policy’ and sticks its head in the sand rather than face the problem. It follows the policy of deaf ears and closed doors’.

University World News contacted the Tunisian Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research to get its views about the union’s concerns, but received no response.

Professor Sami Hammami, the former vice-president of the University of Sfax in Tunisia, told University World News that, with regard to problems related to the recruitment of teachers, it is true that some commissions have encountered difficulties and efforts have been made to display the evaluation grids and the rules to achieve as much transparency as possible.

He agreed that all the trade unions have recently mentioned the difficult situation in which university teachers work.

“On the financial level, inflation, which is close to 10% in Tunisia, significantly affects purchasing power and makes it difficult for academics to end their months; on the other hand, the deplorable situation of a number of institutions makes the work of researchers more than difficult,” Hammami added.

According to him, the ministry has agreed to give more autonomy to certain universities, but the reform has not been implemented. Similarly, students and teachers lack motivation.

“All these considerations are pushing more and more teachers to leave the country … contract to teach in the Gulf countries or in Europe,” Hammami said.

“The risk is to see in a few years [whether] the Tunisian university is being emptied of its skills which will have a greater impact on training,” he concluded.