Tunisian Agency for International Students to be established

Tunisia is to establish an agency to support international students during their entire period of study.

The setting up of the Tunisian Agency for International Students (AIS) was announced by Moncef Boukthir, the Tunisian minister of higher education and scientific research, at the 3rd edition of the World Scientific Francophonie Week (SMFS-2023) held in Quebec, Canada, recently, according to the ministry’s Facebook page.

“AIS will contribute to make Tunisia a preferred higher education destination for students from French-speaking countries,” Boukthir said. He noted that Tunisia had increased the number of university places allocated to students from Sub-Saharan African by 25% during the academic year 2023-24.

Tunisia has, for a number of years, been introducing measures to increase student numbers from Sub-Saharan Africa. The announcement also comes a few months after students, in particular black Africans, many of them from countries in the Sub-Saharan region, have been targeted in racial discrimination and violence against migrants.

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, under its early warning and urgent action procedure, at the time, voiced its concern about reports that a “campaign”, focusing on those who are illegally in Tunisia, was allegedly leading to arbitrary arrests of migrants, including students.

Enhanced communication

Dr Kaïs Mabrouk, a Tunisian university professor and edupreneur, welcomed the establishment of the agency as a “strategic” project.

“The role of Tunisia is crucial for the African continent and, as a destination of excellence, it has to be promoted,” Mabrouk, who is also a member of RAMSESS, or the Network for the Scientific Mobility of South-South Students, told University World News. According to him, the agency could support aspects such as student enrolment, scholarship allocation and visa processing.

Béchir Allouch, a technology professor at the Virtual University of Tunis, told University World News the aim of the AIS project is to position Tunisia as an international academic, scientific and technological destination, targeting students from the Arab Maghreb and French-speaking Africa.

Allouch highlighted the importance of the availability of information and quality services for target audiences in the international student market.

The new agency, he added, will provide information from a reliable and professional source that has been authorised to act as an intermediary between the public university and the prospective student.

He said that, whereas important steps have been taken to facilitate the registration of internatonal students at Tunisian universities, there is still room for improvement to facilitate the reception and stay of foreign students and to monitor them throughout their schooling in Tunisia.

“Active communication, with targeted and regular campaigns on the ground in the target countries and via selected media, will be paramount,” said Allouch, who is also the former president of the Tunisian Association of e-Learning.

Tackling racism and xenophobia?

Asked whether the new agency is a response to the racism and xenophobia, Allouch said he believed it was “a false problem or, at least, it is an over-hyped incident”.

“This is confirmed by the trend in the number of foreign students, particularly from Sub-Saharan Africa, enrolled in Tunisian private or public universities.

“There has been an increase in the number of students, which proves that, beyond a few marginal and exceptional incidents, students are not targeted,” he said.

The number of African students at Tunisian universities increased from 7,193 students in 2021-22 to 7,563 in 2022-23, according to figures published by the ministry of higher education and scientific research.

Fellow academic Mabrouk said that, while the new agency may not solve racism, it can address xenophobia by fostering inclusivity, cultural exchange programmes, and promoting a welcoming environment for Sub-Saharan students.

Joining forces

The role of the higher education sector and other government structures has also been highlighted by the experts.

“The Tunisian Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research should also be aware that the desired positioning in the education market in Africa and internationally is far from being the business of the universities and the new agency alone,” Allouch pointed out.

He said public universities will also have to play a role in adapting their offerings to a more diverse student population.

“It is very important work that universities are already doing through their quality improvement initiatives and action plans that have led to the improvement of their international rankings, for example.

“Achieving the ambition [to attract international students] also depends on the ability to make it a major strategic priority at the national level and to obtain the strong buy-in and active participation of other ministries [foreign affairs, interior, finance, economy and planning] to achieve it,” said Allouch.

Tunisia has 13 public universities and 206 higher education institutions with 260,647 students and 80 private higher education institutions with 44,988 students.