A Conversation With Tunisia’s New Higher-Education Minister

Tawfik Jelassi was named to be Tunisia’s minister of higher education, scientific research, information and communication technologies, at the end of January as part of a caretaker government of self-proclaimed apolitical technocrats chosen to end the country’s political crisis and pave the way for general elections planned for the end of the year. Mr. Jelassi earned his Ph.D. in information systems from New York University’s business school. He has had a 35-year career as an information technology professor specializing in e-business, mainly at the University of Indiana and at INSEAD—a leading business school in Paris.

There are some 350,000 students enrolled in approximately 200 public higher education institutions in Tunisia. An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 students are enrolled in more than 50 private institutions.

Reportedly only half of the graduates of Tunisian higher education find jobs. What do you intend to do to make higher education more relevant to the needs of the job market?

Up to now there has been a disconnect between the universities and the economic eco-system. We need to create links and synergies between the two. One way is to encourage more vocational training. Also, we must foster English-language training, because our graduates have job opportunities abroad—mainly in the Gulf region—but they do not speak good English.

We have started creating in each university a career-development office. [See a related story A Step Toward Development: Career Centers.] In the past we never paid attention to that, to the point that our students did not know how to prepare a resume, how to prepare for a job interview, how to market themselves. And we need to take a hard look at the different fields we have at the universities, and maybe take some bold actions. If there are some fields that mainly create jobless graduates, we should rethink the offerings and maybe we should close down some programs.

A relatively longer-term step is what I call “education for self-employment,” in contrast to what we have in Tunisia today, which is just education for employment. We should provide graduates with business incubators and accelerators, and also include in the curriculum such topics as innovation, technology, entrepreneurship, business-plan-development. The country needs at least a certain percentage of graduates to become entrepreneurs.

Tunisia has a $95-million World Bank loan to improve higher education. What has been accomplished with that assistance?

It is being used first of all to assess the quality of Tunisia’s higher education and to promote quality assurance. It is also helping in the creation of the career centers. Of course to improve quality we have to rethink the teaching methods, and use technology wherever it makes sense. We believe in blended learning: A mix of face-to-face education and distance education enabled by technology makes sense for disciplines that don’t need a hands-on approach, like management.

The World Bank support is also being used in other areas of reform of higher education. One area is governance and how to make our universities more autonomous—in decision-making at least. Today our system is highly centralized. Most decisions have to be made at the ministry, and sometimes by the minister himself! I would like to empower university presidents and deans of schools to make these decisions—to hold them accountable obviously, but to trust the system and maybe carry out random checks to see that there is no abuse of this power.

What is the state of the controversy over the wearing the niqab, or veil, at the universities?

The previous government [led by the Islamist Ennahda party] allowed the niqab to be worn in classrooms, but not in exams. I have formally announced new rules. I think people should be free to wear whatever they want on campus. But when it comes to classrooms, lecture halls, or examination rooms, the niqab should not be allowed. In exams, the professor or examiner should be able to clearly see the faces of the students to check the identity of each. Why in lecture halls and classrooms? Because many of our courses are assessed in part by classroom participation. I’m not talking about Islam or politics. I’m talking about how an academic institution can best perform its duties.

Have disruptions or acts of violence continued on campuses recently?

Yes, for example at Kairouan University, in the center of the country, last month, when a group of students—some of whom were not enrolled at the university but came from elsewhere—tried to hold a political rally on the campus, complete with loudspeakers. Students from Kairouan University tried to chase them off. The two groups fought with stones and knives and many students were injured, some quite severely, and the police had to intervene with tear gas.

That’s why I am against political activities on campuses. In the past there was no freedom; that is why students used the universities to express themselves. But today any party or association can hold a meeting anywhere. So having political meetings on university campuses, disrupting the university’s functioning, cannot be allowed.

 Are Tunisian universities doing much research, and how can you promote research?

No, they haven’t been doing much, for two reasons. First, there are no faculty incentives to do research: We have to rethink the incentive system. And second, because of a lack of financial means. I want to push for more applied research; I want to work more with companies. Maybe they would be willing to make research contracts with some universities and pay for some of the costs. That’s another area that requires a hard look.

In terms of internationalization, are you trying to get Tunisian universities to cooperate more with the outside world?

Yes, definitely. I believe that international cooperation is key. Since I took office two months ago, I have met with a dozen ambassadors—at their request—to discuss ways of boosting relations between their country and Tunisia in higher education. That means more than one ambassador per week: from France, the U.S.A., U.K., Qatar, China, the European Union, etc. Maybe the political evolution in our country [the agreement among Tunisia’s main political parties to resolve the political crisis by having the former, Islamist Ennahda government step down in favor of the current care-taker government] is one of the reasons that encourages this type of cooperation.

We have an agreement with Japan to set up a Mediterranean campus with Tsukuba University, opening in September 2015. We are looking at programs in applied technology, environmental sciences, and bio-technology. The United States has offered Tunisia $10-million in scholarships for study at American universities for three years, starting last September. I was in Saudi Arabia two weeks ago. At the end of my visit my counterpart there decided to double the number of scholarships for Tunisian students to 120.

Is there anything that we haven’t covered?

We’ve had some tough times in Tunisia but that’s behind us now. What matters today is to take a hard look at the different academic paths, think about how to best foster the most needed programs, and to maybe be courageous and end some programs that are not relevant anymore. Our approach is optimism and hard work, because we know that nothing will fall from the sky; we have to earn it. This government is unique: None of its members belongs to a political party. We’re technocrats. So we’re free to act.

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.


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