Editor’s note: This article is part of a package based on research by Al-Fanar Media into job benefits and protections for professors at universities in the Arab world. For an overview of the findings, see “Lacking Job Security and Benefits, Many Arab Professors Lose Interest in Academia.”
Academics in Tunisia are increasingly organizing sit-ins and other forms of protest against private universities, which they accuse of giving them dodgy contracts and dismissing them after a few months. They say the universities refuse to disclose the reasons for their dismissals, but they suspect that the contracts are designed to meet the licensing conditions stipulated by the law.
Salma El Saadi, who recently lost her job teaching Communication and Information Sciences, had gone without work for four years after obtaining her Ph.D. until she was hired by a private university. “I was appointed, but I did not receive a copy of the contract, because the university claimed it needed to complete some procedures. Later, I was terminated without a prior warning,” she said.
Tunisian law requires educational institutions to hire teachers in proportion to the number of students, and to submit a list of permanent and temporary appointments to the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research as a condition for obtaining a license that enables them to award certificates to students.
Academics say private institutions often use unauthenticated temporary contract appointments to secure the license. (See a related article, “Monitoring Quality in Arab Higher Education: Tunisia.”) Many instructors agree to work under these conditions because of the lack of job opportunities, particularly in public universities.
“Many of my colleagues have faced the experience of having private universities terminate their services, as well as working under oppressive conditions that require them to work 40 hours a week for a low wage of no more than 300 U.S. dollars.”Nazem Kassabi
Holds a Ph.D. in geoscience
The number of private universities in Tunisia has increased since the 2011 revolution from about 45 to 76, according to the ministry. There are 13 public universities, but faculty appointments slowed significantly after 2011 and have almost dried up in the past four years.
“Many of my colleagues have faced the experience of having private universities terminate their services, as well as working under oppressive conditions that require them to work 40 hours a week for a low wage of no more than 300 U.S. dollars,” said Nazem Kassabi, who holds a Ph.D. in geosciences. The average monthly wage for a government employee in Tunisia is about 1,875 Tunisian dinars (about $670), according to the National Institute of Statistics.
Lack of Government Oversight
Most Tunisian private universities also fail to provide health coverage or social insurance, and have the right to dismiss employees at any time.
A report by the Government Accountability Department in December 2018 revealed that many universities do not provide stable teaching contracts and that in some cases 85 percent of the staff are on temporary contracts.
The report said the higher-education ministry did not verify the quality or validity of these contracts due to poor follow-up. It also stated that universities failed to pay the social security dues of more than 57 percent of permanent professors, while exceeding the maximum number of teaching hours for temporary professors.
Salma El Saadi filed a complaint with the ministry in late 2019 but has not received a response. Lawyers said she cannot go to court because she does not have a copy of her work contract. Meanwhile, she joins sit-ins in front of the ministry to demand “a permanent monitoring mechanism on educational institutions to limit their tampering with our rights,” she said.
Abdul Majeed Khamis, director general of the ministry, said legal measures would be taken against institutions that manipulate the procedures. “We investigate all complaints submitted to us against private universities,” he said. (See a related article, “A Regional Survey: How Arab Countries Regulate Quality in Higher Education.”)
Some professors believe that in addition to the lack of employment opportunities in public universities, the absence of oversight and supporting bodies for their rights allow some private university administrations to exploit them.
“We resorted to the national unions, but their role was limited to a position of support and solidarity. … We do not have a union because unions are labor organizations concerned with employees and workers … and the majority of professors are looking for work,” said Kassabi.
He added that most public universities are also hiring instructors on temporary contracts as part of what he described as “a kind of escape-forward policy to partially solve the problem of unemployment for graduate degree holders.” He said that teachers with temporary contracts do not receive any health or social insurance, “nor do they have an opportunity for professional development or career advancement.”
“We reject any solutions that do not fully guarantee our rights and solve the problem once and for all.”Manel Selmi
A coordinator with the Union of Unemployed Graduates in Tunisia
Olfa Benouda, the minister of higher education and scientific research, said in remarks to lawmakers in April that Tunisian universities are no longer able to absorb the number of new Ph.D. holders seeking jobs, but that there are steps to solve the crisis by partially opening the door for new appointments.
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Since June 2020, Tunisia has witnessed numerous protests and sit-ins organized by Ph.D. holders to demand the opening of appointments to government universities and research centers and more transparency in the qualifying exams for such jobs. The government has so far not responded to the protests.
“We reject any solutions that do not fully guarantee our rights and solve the problem once and for all,” said Manel Selmi, a coordinator with the Union of Unemployed Graduates in Tunisia and Ph.D. holder in chemistry.