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New Tunisian Agency to Evaluate Higher Education Institutions Gets Mixed Reception

A new Tunisian agency to evaluate and accredit higher-education institutions is getting mixed reactions from the country’s academics.

The government says it created the agency to improve the international competitiveness of Tunisian higher education and research, but some academics question whether it is needed and others say it must be resourced properly.

Provisions for establishing the new Tunisian Agency for Evaluation and Accreditation in Higher Education and Scientific Research were outlined in a presidential decree published in late June.

Besides assessing public and private universities and research institutions, the new agency will also focus on developing quality assurance procedures and standards in accordance with international standards.

“It aims to strengthen the competitiveness of the country’s universities and develop a research system of international quality,” Abdelkader Hamdouni, a professor of applied mathematics at the University of Carthage, told Al-Fanar Media.

Tunisian Competitiveness by the Numbers

“It aims to strengthen the competitiveness of the country’s universities and develop a research system of international quality.”

Abdelkader Hamdouni Professor of applied mathematics at the University of Carthage

Tunisia has 13 public universities  as well as higher institutes of technological studies, and about  80 private universities and higher-educational institutions. The budget for higher education and scientific research for 2021 amounted to 5.4 percent of the state budget, or 1.87 billion Tunisian dinars (about $600 million).

Only three Tunisian universities, all public, were included in the latest QS World University Rankings of more than 1,400 higher-education institutions around the globe, and they came relatively low down. The University of Sousse was in a band of institutions ranked 751-800, and the University of Tunis and the University of Tunis El Manar were in a group ranked 1201-1400. (See a related article, “80 Arab Universities Are Ranked in the 2023 QS World University Rankings”.)

Tunisia had six universities in the 2022 Times Higher Education World University Rankings, and only one in the latest Shanghai Ranking.

In the 2019 World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, Tunisia was 69th out of 141 countries in research and development, 108th for graduate skills, and  92nd for innovation.

Gaining International Recognition

The new agency will replace two bodies, the Evaluation and Quality Assurance Authority, and the Scientific Research Evaluation Authority.

Hamdouni said it would provide an alternative to foreign agencies in helping Tunisian universities obtain international accreditation. (See a related article, “International Accreditation Is a Factor in Many Arab Students’ University Choices”.)

As a first stage Hamdouni thought the new agency should obtain temporary authorisation to accredit higher-education institutions, so they could obtain international accreditation later.

He said Tunisian academic institutions were still turning to foreign agencies, particularly European ones, to assist them in obtaining international accreditation and recognition, which costs them huge sums of money.

Questions About Transparency and Need

“Many professors see monitoring and evaluation, parts of the quality assurance process, as a restriction of academic freedoms.”

Achraf Nazim An education policy researcher

Professor Zied Ben Amor, the assistant general coordinator and official spokesperson for the Union of Tunisian University Teachers and Researchers (IJABA), told Al-Fanar Media that the government should prioritise other obligations before setting up a new agency, as it had shown  itself incapable of dealing with current research and teaching-related problems in higher education.

He called on the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research to be transparent about the new agency and explain how it would be funded. He also asked what accountability measures would be in place to guard against the waste  of public money and nepotism.

Manal Al-Salmi, coordinator of Groupe National des Docteurs sans Emploi (National Group of Doctors without Jobs), said the new agency’s tasks were too general and incomprehensible. She said the ministry already had sections that could handle the same tasks.

Achraf Nazim, an education policy researcher, said the new agency was needed, but it comes too late. A 2020 study on quality assurance in Tunisian higher education recommended the establishment of an independent body to ensure quality in higher education.

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Nazim believes that the concept of quality assurance is not clear in Tunisian educational institutions.

“Many professors see monitoring and evaluation, parts of the quality assurance process, as a restriction of academic freedoms,” he said. “This calls for the establishment of an independent quality assurance body, which is not affiliated with the Ministry of Higher Education, to supervise the evaluation of public and private universities.”

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