Repairing Tunisia’s Education System Is Key to Tackling Its Economic Woes
(Editor’s Note: This first piece of a three-part series discusses Tunisia’s economic problems and relates them to the erosion under former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of a once superior education system. The second article in the series will discuss the uniqueness of the Tunisian postcolonial education system and how it prepared Tunisians for a more evolved, democratic society. The third part will address recent and current attempts to revive that education system and to reverse many of the ills that have contributed to a worsening economic environment.)
Tunisia has, once again, been thrust onto the world stage. However, this time, it is not in celebration of the lone “Arab Spring” success story, whose Jasmine Revolution ousted despotic ruler Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and ushered in the only democracy in the Arab world. Instead, the international media has focused its attention instead on persistent protests over worsening economic conditions, particularly in the country’s marginalized interior regions.
Economic hardship and unrest have delegitimized the Arab Spring in the eyes of many Tunisians. Yet it’s important to note that regional discrepancies and hardships are not a new phenomenon in Tunisia. The economic gap between the interior regions and the coast is a longstanding, persistent problem. And many of the socioeconomic problems plaguing Tunisia today can be traced back to an education system that, over the past 30 years, has failed to prepare Tunisia’s youth for the demands of the marketplace.
Much of the current crisis is the result of Ben Ali’s corrupt rule and populist policies, and of the failure of international donor organizations to support true reforms rather than superficial metrics. Under Ben Ali, universities were turned into factories of unemployment. They admitted underqualified students and taught them poorly.
The situation today has become increasingly challenging, for both the governed and the governing. Since the 2011 revolution, the Tunisian dinar has lost approximately 80 percent of its value against the euro and depreciated almost 100 percent against the dollar. Inflation has reached nearly 8 percent, while subsidies on fuel have been removed and new taxes have been imposed.
Economic hardships have been exacerbated by structural adjustments that have been recently mandated by a $2.9 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.
The IMF-negotiated economic reform plan that is underway, which will ostensibly address the country’s public debt and budget deficit problems, seeks to cut the public sector wage bill from 15.5 percent of GDP, or about half of the national budget, to 12.5 percent. In order to achieve that, the government raised the retirement age for government workers from 60 to 62 and announced that it would freeze the wages of roughly 700,000 public servants.
The influential General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) has pushed back against those measures, and it has succeeded in making some gains, at least for government employees, who had not seen a wage increase in years. The government recently agreed to an average $55 monthly wage increase.
Although concessions by the government have had a somewhat tempering effect on the mood of the Tunisian street, anger over rising prices and lack of employment opportunities continues to simmer, causing many to question whether the revolution has yielded any gains for the average Tunisian.
An incessant feeling of marginalization is especially present among young people, particularly those who live in the interior and south of the country. While the official national rate of unemployment is around 15 percent, youth unemployment is at roughly 36 percent, up from 29 percent in 2010. Across all employment age groups, almost one in every three Tunisians who live in the interior is out of a job. And while poverty rates have decreased from 20.5 percent just before the revolution to around 15 percent in 2015, poverty among those living in the interior continues to hover at around double the national average
It is not surprising then that there has been a disproportionately heavy concentration of protests in the interior of the country and that despair has led many to acts of self-immolation in public defiance of the status quo.
When Abderazzak Zorgui, a 32-year-old photojournalist, took his own life in the western city of Kasserine in late December, his frustrations, detailed in a video that he had posted online resonated with millions of Tunisians. Describing his anger at high unemployment rates and his disappointment that, eight years on from the Jasmine Revolution, not much had changed, Zorgui underscored the enduring disparity between the country’s interior and its coast.
Every major protest movement in Tunisia’s modern history has emanated from the south and interior of the country. In 1864—long before Mohammed Bouazizi’s 2011 act of self-immolation in the interior city of Sidi Bouzid set off the protests that inspired the Arab Spring—a tribal leader from Kasserine named Ali Ben Ghedhahem led an insurgency in response to both the doubling of the majba (or personal tax) by the government to pay off its debts and inflated prices in local markets because of increased exports. A century later, the bread riots of 1983 and 1984, in protest over the withdrawal of food subsidies, erupted in the southwest of Tunisia and quickly spread from cities in the south to Tunis.
This regional disparity is rooted in the coastal north and east of the country having been favored during Ottoman rule over Tunisia. With the end of piracy in the early nineteenth century, trade and economic exchange opened up between the coastal region and southern Europe. The geographically privileged status of the coast was further reinforced under the French protectorate, starting in 1881. Since independence in 1956, the disenfranchised interior regions have consistently been at odds with the Tunisian coast, which has disproportionately benefited from tourism and foreign investment.
Under Ben Ali, the situation grew worse. Whatever economic gains were made during his 23 years of autocratic rule were not evenly distributed across classes, regions, or age groups. Those who felt the greatest benefits were the upper-middle and upper classes of Tunis and the coastal region, whose standards of living equaled those in eastern and southern Europe. Business activity on the coast dwarfed that of the interior. It is estimated that, while GDP growth averaged 5 percent between 1990 and 2008, 80 percent of that growth was concentrated in the coastal region.
Current economic hardships are often blamed on the revolution, and many Tunisians have expressed nostalgia for the rule of Ben Ali. Such sentiments lack the important historical perspective that much of Tunisia’s current economic problems are the consequence of Ben Ali’s rule and the failure of international donor organizations. In particular, the IMF and the World Bank paid little heed to the lopsidedness of Tunisia’s nominal economic progress or the corruption and nepotism that benefited Ben Ali and his clan during much of his reign.
Under Ben Ali’s economic policies of patronage and coercion, 21 percent of private sector profits accrued to companies owned by his extended family. Ben Ali and his relatives and in-laws amassed assets worth approximately $13 billion—equivalent to more than 25 percent of Tunisia’s gross domestic product in 2011—during his tenure, according to the World Bank. Public and private monopolies and oligopolies, largely controlled by Ben Ali’s family, dominated most Tunisian industries. Tunisia was nonetheless brandished by the likes of the World Bank and the IMF as a middle-class economic miracle and a model of social liberalism and developing-world prosperity. Biased statistical inferences and data manipulations helped preserve this fictional narrative. Unemployment for university graduates, for example, was manipulated into an official figure of 22.5 percent in 2009 — half the actual number, which stood at 45 percent.
Likewise, Ben Ali bears responsibility for the persistent problem of unemployment for university graduates. One-third of those who are currently unemployed hold a university degree, a direct result of a structural problem that started under his rule.
Obsessed with the image that he presented of himself to his own people, and more importantly to the West and to donor organizations, Ben Ali pursued populist reforms to an education system that under his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, had set Tunisia apart for the quality and selectivity of its citizens’ education.
Bourguiba’s education system mandated a national exam at the end of primary school that determined eligibility for admission to secondary school. Only about 50 percent of those who sat for the test passed it. Most of those who did not pass enrolled in terminal vocational schools, collèges moyens, designed to match graduates’ skills with the needs of employers. Among those who did enrolled in secondary school, around 50 percent pursued a technical track.
Wanting to boost enrollment data, satisfy counterproductive metrics imposed by donor organizations, and appeal to popular demand for greater school access, Ben Ali, through a 1991 reform, annulled the secondary-school entrance exam and made school compulsory until the age of 16. He also closed the collèges moyens and de-emphasized technical education, such that only 12 percent of secondary-school students pursued the technical track in 1998.
Ben Ali’s reforms also made it easier for secondary-school graduates to enter universities. Until the mid-1980s, only 6 percent of university-age Tunisians enrolled in institutes of higher education. But under Ben Ali, universities saw a sevenfold increase in enrollment. Spending on higher education did not grow at a rate nearly commensurate with this burgeoning enrollment.
Ben Ali’s populist approach also meant that political pressure for regional expansion resulted in a number of universities opening in rural areas without much attention paid to quality. Underqualified teachers and thousands of contract and part-time personnel were hired.
Contributing to the rise in university enrollment of underqualified students was a 2002 reform that made it easier for students to pass the baccalaureate exam at the end of secondary school. This change made it possible to base 25 percent of a student’s baccalaureate score on the average score of three less challenging exams that were administered during the final year of secondary school. It is estimated that without this change, an entire one-fifth of students who sat for the baccalaureate exam in 2010 would not have passed and would not have qualified for admission to a university.
Universities became suppliers of degrees that no longer signified the accomplishment they once had. University graduates were thus ill-equipped for the labor force, and their skills were mismatched with the needs of the marketplace. The youth felt cheated. They had been told to go to school, work hard, and that they would be guaranteed a future.
It is thus relevant that wide-scale demonstrations by Tunisian educators across all levels have coincided with protests against austerity measures and unemployment.
Early last year, around 2,000 university professors went on strike and refused to hold exams. Their demands included that the higher education system be reformed and that the government make a serious effort to confront the problem of a brain drain that has resulted in unprecedented numbers of professors and highly skilled university graduates leaving for better-paying jobs in Europe. (See a related article, “Protests Disrupt Universities in Algeria and Tunisia.”)
Schoolteachers have also been protesting for better salaries, a lower retirement age, and reforms to the education system. When secondary-school teachers refused to oversee examinations in early December, an estimated 90 percent of teachers joined the boycott.
There is no question that the Tunisian government faces a daunting challenge in steering the country out of its economic malaise. But this requires an overhaul of the education system: a return to quality and selectivity, while preserving the ethos and curricular underpinnings that have made it possible for Tunisians to participate in a democratic transformation of their society.
It is also imperative that any economic or education reform strategy take into account regional disparities. Serious investments in building a modern infrastructure and in creating employment opportunities in the interior of the country are crucial to bring about distributive justice and to reverse policies that have for too long weighed down the country and compromised its prospects for a thriving democracy.
Safwan M. Masri is a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and executive vice president for global centers and global development at Columbia. He is the author of Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly (Columbia University Press, 2017), which examines why Tunisia was the only country to emerge from the Arab Spring as a democracy.