TUNIS, Tunisian — “Labor, Freedom, National Dignity” was the slogan of the Tunisian revolution.
Today, however, it’s clear to many Tunisian officials that the country’s universities aren’t helping to fulfill the first of those goals, and are undercutting progress in achieving the other two.
“Discussions about reforming the higher-education system are very important to solve the dilemma of unemployment and its relationship with Tunisian universities’ disciplines,” Tunisian Minister of Higher Education Chiheb Bouden, told Al-Fanar Media recently.
Boudon said the Higher Education Ministry was launching a pilot program this year with the Ministry of Professional Training and Employment to provide more technical degrees and vocational programs in universities. Traditionally, Tunisians look down on technical and vocational studies, but the unemployment situation demands new approaches, he said.
“I hope that our new higher-education sector reforms will help in finding adequate solutions to this problem,” he said.
University graduates comprise 30 percent of the unemployed in Tunisia, according to the Higher Education Ministry. But other government statistics have reported that as many as 40 percent of Tunisia’s 605,000 jobless hold degrees, with the highest jobless rates among female graduates.
Those numbers are likely to grow. The Tunisian economy generates around 30,000 new job opportunities annually for those who have bachelor’s degrees, but the 12 public and virtual universities and 25 technical institutes in the North African country produce around 70,000 graduates per year, a recent Ministry of Higher Education study found.
The gap between education and work reflects how universities have not fulfilled their promise to young Tunisians. Bachelor’s degree holders in Tunisia represented around 13 percent of the total population last year, compared to about 8 percent a decade earlier, the study found.
Throughout the country, bitter and unemployed well-educated individuals are common.
“I didn’t find a professional job for more than 12 years, during which time I worked as a waiter in a café, a builder and a farmer,” said Salem Ayari, 39, secretary-general of the Union of Unemployed Graduates. “I had to find a job to sustain myself after I realized my certificate in Arabic was worthless and wouldn’t qualify me for a decent job after all the effort I had exerted during the past years.”
He says he wouldn’t encourage Tunisian youth to attend local universities.
“I have always asked myself why I have not torn up this diploma,” he said. “It hasn’t brought me anything or opened any new avenues. It is risky for youth today who are deciding whether to study or not. There are no career options anyway.”
Many graduates accept that they won’t have professional careers.
“I work as a waiter at a café,” said Miloud Alawam, 45, who holds a geography degree from the University of Tunis. “Many others sell clothes. Others work in trade. I exceeded the legal age for getting a government job, and I gave up on teaching. I graduated more than 11 years ago.”
Alawam is among 15,000 graduates in Medenine in southern Tunisia who can’t find a job that suits their educational levels, according to government statistics.
Others make do in professions that fulfill them but don’t reflect their academic studies.
“I work at a children’s daycare,” said Tyseer Ajala, who holds an English degree from the University of Ibn Charaf in Tunis. “We are usually carried away by our ambitions to study a certain discipline, but job opportunities are different from what universities offer.”
University graduates in every field are facing uphill job searches, but languages and humanities students have a tough time, and Tunisia offers nothing to archaeology, sociology, and history majors, or specialties like law, said unemployed students.
A study conducted by the National Institute for Statistics found that studying medicine, engineering and pharmacy yielded jobs. The same study found that agriculture and fishing jobs were among the most available for non-university graduates.
Around 18 percent of youth do not practice any career readiness activity—training, internships, work or study—and 38 percent have been looking for jobs for more than two years, according to a study by the Ministry of Professional Training and Employment and the National Institute for Statistics. Most of those unemployed failed to sit for a single interview in the past 12 months.
Mohamed Al-Gewainy, a sociologist who directs the National Observatory for Youth, a government agency, said the fault lies not in what youth study in universities but in the expectations of students and the lack of innovation in the broader economy.
“The spread of unemployment among certain university disciplines is ascribed to the attitude of the graduates, who remain shackled by their certificates without trying to be creative and dynamic and think outside the box away from their specialties,” he said.
But Al-Gewainy also believed universities could do more to help graduates find jobs.
“There are some university disciplines, such as social studies and languages, which are not required by the local market,” Al-Gewainy said, adding that those programs are particularly popular among women, who represent a larger share of unemployed graduates. “But it is important to reconsider giving new roles for these disciplines and to change the higher-education system to keep up with the needs of the labor market.”
Too few Tunisian universities have partnerships with the private sector or government agencies, he added. “Traditional teaching methods can no longer fulfill job market needs,” he said.
The minister of employment and professional training, Zied Ladhari, recently said he is working with education officials to steer students to professional training in media, electronics and communications, because they are industries that are bound to grow in the future.
But Tawfik Jelassi, the former minister of higher education, was skeptical, noting that even graduates with degrees in telecommunications and multimedia computing, or doctorates in biology, have trouble finding jobs. Many students in the hard sciences often cannot pass the teaching certification exam, barring them from that profession when there are few if any opportunities in research, too, he said.
“Higher education and scientific research have become a machine to produce the unemployed,” said Jelassi at a recent academic conference.