Academics protest about their poor working conditions

Tunisian university professors have participated in protests to demand an improvement in their working conditions, including salary increases.

A video clip of a gathering in front of the headquarters of the Tunisian Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research was posted on 26 Janauary on the Facebook page of the General Federation of Higher Education and Scientific Research (FGESRS), which forms part of the General Labour Union.

The posters focused on the educational and research conditions of public universities, social status of academics, financial demands for professors and teaching staff along with funding of universities and the brain drain.

Speaking to University World News, Professor Nizar Ben Salah, the general secretary of FGESRS, told the Tunisian academic community to “mobilise” to defend the public university system.

Ben Salah also called on Moncef Boukthir, the minister of higher education and scientific research, to take the necessary steps to stop the Tunisian academic brain drain.

“In order to be able to [stop the national bleeding], you [the minister] should recognise that it is a shame that scholars’ salaries, when compared to most Arab countries, are the lowest and that you [Boukthir] should do the necessary lobbying to correct the situation,” Ben Salah added.

“And you [the minister] should be a fervent defender of the university public system by refusing to cut its public financial support,” urged Ben Salah.

He called for withdrawing the correspondence sent by the ministry to university and research institutions’ leaderships for the reduction of 20% of the management budgets of universities and higher education institutions.

“This fund reduction has followed a very dangerous precedent set first in 2017 with a decrease in the budget [for] institutions. It will reduce the funds allocated for basic equipment as well as negatively affect the educational process and the development of scientific research,” he said.

Private universities’ regulations

“Take a look at the reports of Tunisian state organs concerning private higher education institutions and just enforce laws and respect for regulations,” Ben Salah said.

“The Court of Audit, which audits public finances, issued a report in December 2018 which indicated the violation of regulations by several private universities,” Ben Salah pointed out.

“We expected the ministry to freeze new requests to open private universities and higher education institutions …” he said.

“Unfortunately, the ministry continued to deliver new licences. As of this year, at least one private institution was authorised to open in Sousse,” Ben Salah added.

If the ministry of higher education won’t respond to the demands of the academic community, we will escalate our militancy and the government would have to assume the full responsibility for the deterioration of social relations,” he warned.

Legitimate concerns

Professor Sami Hammami, the former vice-president of the University of Sfax in Tunisia, told University World News that the drastic reduction in the budget devoted to higher education and research in 2023 of about 20% explains why academics are unhappy.

“The working conditions at universities are difficult, the teaching tools are obsolete, the connection to the internet network is unstable, the offices for teachers are insufficient and inflation has eroded the already very low salaries of academic teachers,” said Hammami.

According to the latest World Bank statistics the average annual income per capita in Tunisia is about US$3,540. Hammami said the minimum salary for a professor at a Tunisian public university is about US$700 a month, with top pay not exceeding US$1,300 a month.

Efforts by University World News to obtain a comment from the ministry of higher education and scientific research were unsuccessful.

This news report was updated on 26 Janaury.