Professors head overseas for better working conditions

A cost-of-living crisis in Tunisia, where annual inflation rose to 9.8% in November, is one of a list of factors that is pushing Tunisian academics to emigrate, with Saudi Arabian universities being a significant draw – offering better salaries and research opportunities.

Tunisia has been suffering from political turmoil and related economic disruption since President Kais Saied dissolved parliament and started ruling by decree in July 2021. Meanwhile, projected GDP growth of 3% is expected to slow to 1.9% in 2023.

Statistics from IJABA (the Arabic acronym for the Union of Tunisian University Professors and Researchers) show that about 4,500 academics have left Tunisia since 2011, the year a popular uprising led to Tunisia transitioning towards democracy.

And, while statistics show this brain drain peaking in 2017, with COVID-19 initially reducing the emigration of academics in 2020 and early 2021, IJABA spokesperson Zied Ben Amor claimed academic migration from Tunisia, both legal and informal, has been surging since 2021, which is expected to show up in later data.

The reason, he said, is that university professors are sinking into debt, with economic problems pushing Tunisian academics to seek jobs overseas. Ben Amor told University World News that “the most common topic of conversation among university staff is about leaving the country. Everyone wants to leave”.

An assistant professor at the faculty of arts and humanities at the University of Sousse, south of Tunis, said: “The situation is not good; we want to stay, and we are all still striving to stay to give students our best. However, academics have their financial obligations to meet.”

Poor working conditions

He explained that Tunisian academic monthly salaries start around €650 (about US$684) (pro-rata): “The highest salaries are €1,300-€1,400,” he said, noting that the country’s higher education budget is now only 3% of total state spending, down from 5% back in 1998, in pre-Arab Spring times, when the country was run by former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Ben Amor argued that salaries were only part of the problem, that university staff are struggling to provide the bare minimum to students: “Literally speaking, the roofs of our classrooms are falling on our heads, many buildings have been locked up because of building issues, many campuses have no Wi-Fi, we have no digital platforms, and we struggle to give knowledge to our students and do research.”

This decline continues, despite the World Bank having made significant loans to Tunisia, including US$70 million under the Tertiary Education for Employability Project (TEEP), which was supposed to modernise and reform Tunisia’s university education system from 2016 to 2023.

Ben Amor also explained that, in 2019, academics, including IJABA members, held one of the largest strikes over pay and working conditions, which was settled short of the professors and lecturers’ demands. They had wanted an overhaul of the entire higher education system, which was not delivered, so Ben Amor does not rule out future protests about pay and conditions.

Dorra Barhoumi, an assistant professor in the faculty of letters at the University of Kairouan, inland west of Sousse, and local secretary general for another and larger union involved in the dispute – the UGTT (Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail or Tunisian General Labor Union) also blames government failures and acknowledges that academics are becoming quite desperate, telling University World News: “The social situation has become very precarious, so Tunisians prefer to leave Tunisia rather than stay.”

However, she opposes IJABA’s more militant approach. “[At] UGTT, we always have to be reasonable. We can’t protest against a government in a country that is already suffering,” although she conceded: “The augmentation of salary is not sufficient.”

Currently, Tunisia is still in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a new refinancing loan – with an informal agreement from IMF staff for an Extended Fund Facility of about US$1.9 billion.

But both unions fear implementation will involve Tunisia having to cut public salary spending. UGTT assent is essential to the IMF giving a final sign-off on the loan, said Barhoumi: “UGTT is playing a difficult role. The situation is very difficult; it depends on international loans.”

Saudi institutions offer better salaries

Data from L’Agence Tunisienne de Coopération Technique (ATCT, the Tunisian Agency for Technical Cooperation), a government agency that promotes international technical and scientific cooperation involving Tunisia, noted that the number of Tunisian academics hired by Saudi universities is increasing: 28 academics were hired in 2021, rising to 65 so far in 2022, recruited via its website.

The overall number of Tunisian academics being recruited overseas through this service has also increased – from 82 in 2021 to 128 to date in 2022.

Wajdi Elhamzi, currently assistant professor in computing at Prince Sattam bin Abdulaziz University, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, is one departing Tunisian academic.

He left his assistant professor’s post in the computer engineering department of the University of Sousse to hold the equivalent post in Saudi Arabia.

After gaining his PhD from the University of Burgundy in France in 2015, he returned home to participate in what he thought would be a reform revolution and to implement the latest technology. However, he said: “I found a very mediocre situation in the Tunisian higher education system, for example, the laboratories were very poor.”

Like Ben Amor, he took part in social protests throughout 2018 and 2019 that preceded President Saied’s assumption of full power – now enshrined in a new constitution – but lost hope and began applying for jobs elsewhere.

He left for Saudi in November 2020 when COVID-19 travel restrictions were lifted. He told University World News that salary was a key factor: “In Tunisia, my salary was Tunisian dinars TND2,000 [about US$600 a month], when I was an assistant professor.

“Now, I’m earning [the equivalent of] 10,000 dinars [more than US$3,000 a month], so it is literally five times the Tunisian salary.”

Elhamzi said better research funding and opportunities are a big draw: “Saudi has budgets for mega projects,” he explained, stressing that there is a larger integration of academia with industry, with research being applied directly into commercial and industrial outcomes.

“There are many companies who were based in Dubai who are now moving to Saudi because it’s becoming a more attractive option, to facilitate the transfer of knowledge,” he noted.

The IT specialist said that Saudi Arabia is making changes to attract international academic talent such as changing various articles of employment law to make working in Saudi, “more equitable and attractive for foreigners”.

“An example is a new ‘Green Card’ system for the elite, who have skills that Saudi needs to develop the country and, last year, the government created a system of naturalisation of citizenship – but, again, it is only for the elite.”

Barhoumi, however, argues that Tunisian university professors should tough things out and not just flee the country in pursuit of their own careers: “We have to be patient and hope that the situation will improve, and we hope for an improvement in the situation. We have to show solidarity and work for our country,” she told University World News.

According to Ben Amor there are 13 public universities, including one providing only distance learning, and 81 private universities in Tunisia. In total the country has 205 higher education institutions. Many are specialist colleges that offer a narrow spectrum of education. In addition, there are around 9,000 university researchers and teachers in the country.