Why Tunisia’s Once Superior Education System Needs to Reform Again

/ 29 Apr 2020

Why Tunisia’s Once Superior Education System Needs to Reform Again

(Editor’s note: This is the second article in a three-part series. The first piece discussed Tunisia’s economic problems and related them to the erosion under former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of a once superior education system. This article 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.)

For most of the second half of the 20th century, Tunisia’s education system shone as a beacon of light in the otherwise intellectually murky Arab World.

But it eroded under dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.  Between 1987 and 2011, when his was the first government to be overthrown in what would become known as the Arab Spring, Ben Ali transformed the nation’s lauded universities into “factories of unemployment.” His misguided economic policies, compounded by changing demographic trends and the evisceration of a regionally unrivaled vocational education system, have contributed to Tunisia’s current unemployment rates of 16 percent nationally and 36 percent among youth.

Almost a decade after Ben Ali’s ouster and the nation’s transition to democratic rule, it is tempting to posit that Tunisia’s education system—still woefully underfunded and underperforming—may not fulfill its promise. But if historical precedent can be said to predict future prospects, Tunisia’s education system—and, importantly, Tunisians themselves—have proved fiercely resilient and adaptive to change.

A Pioneering Educational System

To fully understand how education has shaped modern Tunisia, our gaze should be cast not at the beginning of the postcolonial era in 1957, but more than a century before that. The nation’s ambitious postcolonial education agenda was facilitated by a long history of progressive reform, the inculcation of critical thinking skills, and a tradition of robust debate.

Bardo Military Academy, founded in 1840 under Ottoman rule to train officers based on the model of the Eski saray (Old Palace) military school in Istanbul, is where the Tunisian education story begins. Bardo was the first school in Tunisia—and indeed in the Arab world—to operate independently of religious authorities. As a result, the academy played an important role in establishing Tunisia’s political class and helped to promote engagement with Europe and the rest of the world.

To fully understand how education has shaped modern Tunisia, our gaze should be cast not at the beginning of the postcolonial era in 1957, but more than a century before that.

In 1875, Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi, who would later become Ottoman Grand Vizier, established Sadiqi College. Although the curriculum sought to preserve Arab Islamic culture, it was also secular, emphasizing the rational sciences, or al-’ulum al-’aqliyya. Students at Sadiqi College were recruited solely on the basis of merit and represented all backgrounds—Tunisian Jews constituted as much as a third of the student body in the 1950s. Tuition, room and board were provided at no cost. A sense of national belonging was cultivated and the college quickly became Tunisia’s most prestigious learning institution.

Tunisian educational progress continued to evolve under French colonists, who managed the country from 1881 to 1956, with the formation of new schools and civil society organizations. One such group, the Jeunes Tunisiens, initially advocated for reform within the system of French occupation before turning against the French to become an anti-colonial political party. By 1896, the Jeunes Tunisiens had established al-Jami’iyya al-Khalduniyya and the Association des Anciens Élèves du College Sadiqi, associations which were dedicated to the teaching of Western sciences through modern pedagogical methods.

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By the early twentieth century, women’s rights became a major focus, further enabling the tolerant, liberal, and progressive variety of Islam that has had a strong presence in modern Tunisia.

Indeed, after Habib Bourguiba assumed power as the newly independent country’s first president in 1957, Tunisia continued to fortify its standing as the region’s premier educator. In 1950, the national budgetary allocation for education under the French protectorate was already considerable at 14 percent; by the early 1970s, Bourguiba had increased education funding to nearly 36 percent of the government’s budget, and held it at about 30 percent until the reins were passed to his successor, Ben Ali, in 1987.

Habib Bourguiba, the first president of Tunisia, shown here being interviewed in Paris in 1955, increased education funding to nearly 36 percent of the nation’s budget by the early 1970s (Photo: Alamy/Keystone Pictures).
Habib Bourguiba, the first president of Tunisia, shown here being interviewed in Paris in 1955, increased education funding to nearly 36 percent of the nation’s budget by the early 1970s (Photo: Alamy/Keystone Pictures).

To be sure, Bourguiba was an autocrat whose firm grip on the affairs of the country often meant violations of human rights, from suppression of freedoms to a tyrannical police and security apparatus. Nonetheless, his education policies remain unparalleled in the Arab world.

Bourguiba, a product of the best academic institutions in Tunisia and France, drew his inspiration both from intellectual reformers at home and from the great figures of the European Renaissance. After Tunisia gained independence from France, Bourguiba declared the eradication of poverty to be the country’s “second battle” and prioritized the cultivation of the people’s matière grise (gray matter). The agenda that Bourguiba introduced in 1958 sought to build the necessary workforce within the country to support the struggling economy of the new nation and to eliminate the void left by the departure of Europeans.

Strong Vocational Options

While Bourguiba deserves much of the credit for his program, it was also the work of the playwright, poet and academic Mahmoud Messaadi, Bourguiba’s minister of education from 1958 to 1968, and later his minister of culture from 1973 to 1976, who converted the government’s ideas into action. The duo’s innovations included a ten-year plan for primary school education, which contributed to nation building and helped galvanize public support for Bourguiba’s modernization program. Secondary and higher education, which was highly selective but not elitist, served the economic interests of the state. Students took a national exam at the end of elementary school, and a student’s results helped determine the future schooling trajectory. During Messaadi’s time, less than 40 percent of elementary school students were admitted into secondary school.

At the secular Sadiqi College, established in 1875, students came from all religious backgrounds and it quickly became Tunisia’s most prestigious learning institution (Photo: Wikipedia).
At the secular Sadiqi College, established in 1875, students came from all religious backgrounds and it quickly became Tunisia’s most prestigious learning institution (Photo: Wikipedia).

Those who did not go onto more traditional secondary schools had the option of enrolling in collèges moyens, which offered technical training. Graduates of the collèges could then enroll in training programs at vocational training centers, designed to meet the needs for middle- and higher-level skilled workers in industrial, construction, agricultural and administrative skills.

Students who passed the national exam were admitted into secondary schools, resembling French lycées and modeled on the French baccalauréat system of preparation for university. Students would all undergo the same curricular requirements during their first lycée year. Upon its completion, they would take an exam that would determine—along with current economic needs—the track that they would follow for the remaining years of their secondary school education: section générale (which allowed one to pursue higher education) or section technique (which prepared one for the workforce).

Bourguiba’s education system was marked by its focus on quality over quantity. To graduate from a lycée having passed the baccalauréat was to be equipped for a top university education and for participation in leadership positions in any number of professions. University enrollments were small. But this was not to the exclusion of the rest, who received quality technical and vocational training that qualified them to participate economically.

Co-Educational, Secular, Bilingual Education

Another crucial innovation: Under Bourguiba’s rule, co-education became the norm, and attention to girls’ education and enrollment were priorities at the outset. Primary school textbooks made the case for Bourguiba’s social reforms, including in the sphere of women’s suffrage.

While it took decades for enrollment figures of girls to equal those of boys in Tunisian schools and universities, co-education policies meant that girls and boys have sat side by side at classroom desks since the 1950s and learn early on to respect one another as equals. The only other Arab countries where co-education occurs at all levels are also former French colonies: Morocco, Algeria and Lebanon.

When education is used primarily as a tool to solidify nationalist loyalty and political legitimacy where there was none, it is unsurprising that hyper-nationalist propaganda, exclusionary rhetoric and dogmatic religious discourse are now the defining features of contemporary Arab education systems.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Bourguiba’s education agenda was the emphasis on secularism in the Tunisian curriculum. The goal of limiting the influence of Islamist ideology through an enlightened education was explicit. In the words of Mahmoud Messaadi, the former education minister: “Nobody who has ever read Voltaire can become an Islamist.”

Elementary school students received one to two hours per week of instruction in the study of Islam and the Qur’an. Religion courses explicitly focused on the history of Islamic thought and were sometimes even taught in French. Emphasis was given to discussing subjects within their historical and sociological contexts, and students were encouraged to form their own opinions.

This stands in stark difference to religious education elsewhere in the region. In other Arab countries, the Qur’an was the primary teaching resource for the Arabic language. As a result, religious ideology permeated all subjects, including those that would otherwise be modern and secular, thereby further promoting discipline, control, and acceptance of absolute truths. Rigid pedagogy, based in traditional Islamic education at Qur’anic schools, emphasized passive learning through rote memorization. Debate and criticism of those in power was discouraged.

Further, while other countries in the region sought to “Arabize” their curricula, Bourguiba maintained bilingualism in education to “Tunisify” his teaching force. His incentive to do so stemmed largely from a practical matter: Arabization would have required the replacement of French textbooks with suitable Arabic texts and of French teachers with qualified Tunisians, neither of which could be found immediately. Bilingual education also ensured that students were exposed to Western thought and thus better prepared to engage with the outside world.

Bourguiba’s education system also stressed liberal arts, a culture of debate, and philosophy,  subjects which are absent from curricula elsewhere in the Arab world. During the final year of secondary school, Tunisian students learned from a three-volume collection of philosophical essays in French that induced them to think about issues of religion, cultural relativism and intercultural encounter and dialogue. The elementary school curriculum consisted of Arabic, French, mathematics, history, geography, civics, drawing, singing and physical education.

By contrast, in Jordan, despite a 1994 education law reform that explicitly articulated an educational objective to give students a taste of aesthetics and different aspects of life in the arts, this topic comprises only 1 percent of the curriculum. Arts, especially theatre and music, are often banned in schools that consider them haram, or forbidden, in Islam, ostensibly leading those who consume them to be “incited by lust and pleasures.” Indeed, elsewhere in the Arab world, education systems have evolved—or, rather, devolved—through decades of deliberate attempts to suppress the Arab mind, resulting in generations of poorly educated, narrow-minded, intolerant individuals ill-equipped for participation in a globalized world. When education is used primarily as a tool to solidify nationalist loyalty and political legitimacy where there was none, it is unsurprising that hyper-nationalist propaganda, exclusionary rhetoric and dogmatic religious discourse are now the defining features of contemporary Arab education systems.

Groundwork for Democracy

Unfortunately, during his years in power, Bourguiba’s successor, Ben Ali, not only shortchanged his nation’s blue-collar workforce, but an emergent professional class as well. In a vainglorious attempt to cement Tunisia’s academic standing in the region, his universities simultaneously lowered academic standards and inflated graduates’ credentials, thus flooding the employment market with candidates for jobs that didn’t—and still don’t—exist. The result: Tunisian college graduates today have a harder time finding a job than those without a degree. Currently, only one in four degree-holders can secure work.  Too many of Tunisia’s brightest young people have emigrated in search of better prospects elsewhere.

But while Ben Ali may have undermined much of what his predecessor built, the core curricular underpinnings of the Tunisian education system remain progressive, modern, largely secular, and far better than average—by regional standards, at least.

The more than 20 percent of total government expenditure that Ben Ali continued to direct towards education still outpaced his Arab neighbors. And, perhaps unintentionally, it helped lay the groundwork for the Arab Spring that ultimately ousted him.

In an educational system that for decades provided for students a broad liberal arts education—which taught religious tolerance and philosophy and encouraged debate—it was a younger generation of emboldened anti-authoritarians who spurred the revolution. And it was an older, Bourguiba-educated elite that led the country during the transitional phase to 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.



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  1. The educational system is an area where innovations and reforms are always present. The main thing is sufficient funding and proper organization of this process. I work in the field of education, doing reviews for writing companies on this resource https://www.writingjudge.com/ With the changes in the educational system, the requirements for work, and, accordingly, for the services that make them change. Therefore, the criteria for checking companies are constantly changing. In any case, this is for the better, as everything is done in order to make the educational process more effective.


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