Interview: Hatem Ben Salem, Minister of Education
What are the priority areas of reform for the Ministry of Education (MoE) in 2018?
HATEM BEN SALEM: Education has been a priority for the government since Tunisia gained independence as it is a matter that affects the future of the entire population. The sector is, however, in need of reform to meet new educational demands and improve quality. In 2011 the MoE started a series of reforms as a result of the massification of education that accompanied a demographic shift . Now there are more than 2m students in the school system. The state has attempted to follow the trend in rising student numbers, and the school enrolment rate is at 100%, but more needs to be done. Currently, the government allocates 20% of its budget towards education, and while this is a considerable amount, these funds need to be better utilised.
Ensuring everyone’s right to education also means guaranteeing that it is of a high standard. First, educational institutions need to be updated. There are more than 5000 schools across the country, but not all of them are in good condition; in fact, 500 schools are classified as being in urgent need of maintenance. In this regard, financing is needed to update the infrastructure accordingly, so we foresee this programme being completed in the next three to four years. Second, teacher training needs to be improved to ensure that our educators are of a high quality. There are 190,000 teachers in Tunisia, and it is important that they are all held to higher standards. Also, the relationship between teachers and students needs to be reconfigured.
We also need to incorporate more cultural and recreational activities into the education system. Music, art, sports and other recreational activities spur creativity and innovation, and they are greatly lacking in Tunisia. The average student here receives a thorough academic education, but virtually no cultural grounding, and the aim is not to have merely students filled with knowledge, but students who are both useful and well rounded. In order to carry out these reforms, we expect a stronger contribution from the private sector in the public sphere. Public-private partnerships will be increasingly present in education in order to grow the sector and implement the necessary reforms. Our objective is the same throughout the country: to educate a new generation of entrepreneurs and workers that will develop Tunisia to its full potential.
What are the main challenges to digitising the education sector in Tunisia?
BEN SALEM: The digital revolution is changing the nature of education worldwide, and the system here needs to adapt to the winds of change. Innovative technology needs to be integrated into the sector and the curriculum to better enable students’ access to learning. Technology can empower teachers to change the model of learning, and by implementing it teaching can become more collaborative and interactive, and assessments can become more accurate. We need to ensure that students from an early age are being taught how to use various technologies.
Curricula also need to be modified to emphasise the skills of a new economy where technology continues to disrupt the traditional way of doing business and in turn repeatedly changes the demands of the job market. In short, education needs to evolve in accordance with the digital age. We have already started to implement a digital learning solution in Tunisia, but raising the necessary financing and acquiring the software and technology to change the system will be a challenge. Still, only this way will local students be able to stay in the same playing field as other students across the world.
Tunisia’s main strength is in its human resources, and education is therefore essential to ensuring a strong workforce, and in turn a resilient economy.
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