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Education-Reform Dialogue in Tunisia Holds Promise and Uncertainty

TUNIS– Five years after the Tunisian revolution that toppled the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia may be on the threshold of a new revolution: in education.

The country, which has been held up as an Arab Spring success story, has organized a series of official meetings to discuss the need for educational reform. The meetings started last June and have included participants from concerned ministries, universities, and teacher unions, as well as students. They have focused on four main issues: governance, university life, curriculum development, and support of scientific research.

“At the ministry, we are waving a red flag, because the educational system at schools and universities is experiencing a continuous decline,” said Minister of Education Neji Djelloul.

The challenges are significant. Tunisia’s dropout rate is high—about 130,000 students annually, according to UNICEF. And Tunisia ranks in the bottom five among 65 countries assessed for the quality of their education systems and students’ academic competencies. Unemployment in Tunisia stood at 15 percent during the second half of 2015, and 32 percent of those without jobs hold post-graduate certificates, according to a national survey on population and employment conducted by the Tunisian National Institute of Statistics (See related article: Without Jobs, Dignity Eludes Many Tunisian Youth).

The survey also reports that the accredited educational system under which Tunisian universities operate does not prepare students with the skills required by the labor market. Since 2006, Tunisian universities have operated under the Licence-Master-Doctorate, or “LMD,” system, which is accredited by the French government and designates that bachelor’s degrees require three years of study, master’s degrees require two, and a doctoral degree requires more than three.

Some participants are enthusiastic about the prospects for change. “We have finally achieved what we were calling for during the outgoing authoritarian regime, which refused reform and harnessed education and universities for its own interests,” said Hussein Boujarra, secretary general of the Public Institutes of Higher Education and Scientific Research and a geography professor at the Faculté des Sciences Humaines et Sociales de Tunis. What’s special about this dialogue, he added, is that it is a horizontal discussion between students and their professors, not a just a high-level dialogue for senior officials.

This is the first time that students have been included in these kinds of formal meetings. “I am glad to be able to participate with my colleagues in this debate,” said Arwa Al- Barakaty, a master’s degree student in biology who is participating in the meetings. “We can express our point of view on the reform system freely, as we are the ones who suffer from these problems and have to face them on a daily basis.”

Still, Wael Nawar, secretary general of the Tunisian Students’ Union, believes that the dialogue is incomplete because organizations like his are not included.  He says student participation has been limited to individuals.

“The dialogue was fake, aimed only at securing support for a ready-made ministerial project for educational reform, and students’ participation was only for the purpose of ensuring its adoption,” said Nawar, noting that reform proposals from students have not been very well received, and that proposed solutions are not addressing crucial issues. “The unemployment rate among graduates is increasing, so what is the real value of a poor educational system which does not meet the demands of the labour market?” he says. “We know full well that the current educational system was adopted as a result of agreements and international loans taken during the outgoing Ben Ali regime,” without a thorough review of the effectiveness of the system.

Referring to the LMD system, Nawar says he does not believe three years is enough to obtain a university certificate, especially “with the absence of adequate teaching tools and amidst the weakness of the educational infrastructure and the low calibre of teachers.”

Boujarra, of the Public Institutes of Higher Education and Scientific Research, agrees, saying: “The current educational system needs radical reform, from the curriculum, the training of professors and the implementation of good governance, to the adoption of the LMD system.”

“Identifying problems is the first step toward solving them,” said Abdel Satar Al-Sahbany, the director of the of the social observatory of the Forum Tunisien pour les Droits Economiques et Sociaux , an independent organization that monitors social movements. “School education requires most of our attention.”

Further meetings to discuss the education system have been postponed in the wake of recent terrorist attacks in Tunis, and a date for resuming them has not been set, so their outcome remains to be seen. But there is optimism that progress will be made. “The winds of change are blowing,” said Boujarra, “and nothing will be able to stop them, even if they are deterred for a while.”


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