Interview: Houbeb Ajmi

What steps can be taken to strengthen private higher education in Tunisia?

HOUBEB AJMI: Private Tunisian universities are mostly managed by former academics who have chosen to create their own institutions. As demand for private higher education grows, it is necessary to improve their performance. Students are increasingly turning to private schools in the hope of finding higher-quality education that will make a difference in the job market. Particular focus is needed on the quality of teaching, infrastructure and training programmes. Improving these areas requires the investment of significant financial resources, so it is essential that these institutions manage their available resources as private companies would.

Moreover, it is important to strengthen collaboration so that different opinions are taken into consideration and reforms respond to the needs of all stakeholders. Until now, these universities have not been managed like companies, which has proven to be counterproductive. Although regulations enacted in 2018 have given more autonomy to private higher education, these institutions are still largely dependent on the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. To implement programmes that match the new needs of the job market, private universities need to be more participative, and we have recently requested to join regulatory boards to contribute to drafting future laws.

To what extent could corporate partnerships help to foster professional integration?

AJMI: The performance of companies depends largely on the quality of the human resources available to them, and it is essential that graduates’ skills be line with the needs of the economy. However, a mismatch has developed in recent years: the academic world has turned towards basic research, whereas local firms need applied research. Overall, Tunisia’s fundamental research has not made any major breakthroughs, and the economy has suffered from the lack of applied research. To remedy this situation, collaboration between companies and universities must be two-fold.

First, students must have the opportunity to explore various aspects of the professional world during their studies. Internships introduce students to real work situations and enable them to develop the soft skills needed to address them. Graduates who participate in several internships before completing their studies will be more fit for the professional world than those who have not. To this end, forging partnership agreements between universities and companies can facilitate the integration of students into internship opportunities.

Second, initial training programmes must correspond to company needs. Without giving companies a complete hold on the content of studies, it can be helpful to take into account the issues that companies face. Practically, applied research projects addressing corporate concerns can be assigned to students during their classes, which would allow students to apply theoretical knowledge from their courses to strategic work issues.

If these programmes are successfully implemented, companies will be interested in finding solutions to challenges related to governance, talent management, resource management and supply chain improvement.

How can universities increase the frequency and reach of international student exchanges?

AJMI: The variety of profiles and cultures within exchanges is an asset, and it is essential that Tunisian universities continue to develop these partnerships at the regional and international levels and offer these opportunities to their students. However, establishing a high quality of service for local students is a prerequisite to building trusted international educational partnerships. Indeed, foreign universities will only be willing to partner with the best-performing domestic schools. Lastly, teacher mobility is also key to improving the quality of education in Tunisia, and it could be worth extending exchange programmes to include them.