Tahar Ben Lakhdar, Co-founder and CEO, Esprit: Interview

Tahar Ben Lakhdar, Co-founder and CEO, Esprit

Interview: Tahar Ben Lakhdar

How can higher education in Tunisia be brought in line with the needs of the labour market?

TAHAR BEN LAKHDAR: Public higher education in Tunisia has largely fallen short of adequately preparing students for the needs of the labour market. It is often rigid and inadequate for a constantly changing labour market. It has traditionally relied on the idea that the acquisition of pre-determined facts will lead to useful skills. Such pedagogy ignores the kind of skills acquired only through an experiential learning process. Encyclopaedic knowledge is not what interests the labour market; companies want students who are able to use what they know in order to overcome unexpected challenges.

For engineering schools, one pedagogy is based on the premise that graduates should be able to conceive, design, implement and operate (CDIO) systems and products. Other types of higher education disciplines in Tunisia can draw on CDIO-based education to better prepare students for real-world labour demands. Higher education institutions in Tunisia should also seek international accreditations, especially in the absence of Tunisian professional benchmarks, to adopt methods that have helped other institutions better equip their students.

What are the prospects for applied research?

BEN LAKHDAR: Tunisia needs more applied research. In particular, higher education institutions in Tunisia should focus their research capacities to better serve current and future business needs. Applied research is essential for companies to remain competitive and sustainable in the world today; however, few research centres in Tunisia invest in this area. With no tangible added value, the lack of applied research discourages students and professionals from becoming researchers themselves. Fostering more applied research will require more partnerships between companies, research centres and higher education institutions.

How can higher education institutions enhance entrepreneurship pathways?

BEN LAKHDAR: undefined Higher education institutions are able to enhance the educational experience of their students by acting as a pre-incubator. Students should see themselves not only as future employees, but also as future entrepreneurs with the potential to innovate and create value.

To foster this way of thinking, incubators have an important role to play. The challenge for incubators is to show that entrepreneurship is not a game, but that it is essential to the learning experience as well as to the development of the economy.

In Tunisia, independent incubators have had difficulty finding enough entrepreneurs with sufficiently good ideas, partially because the entrepreneurs that do present themselves have not had any start-up experience. Pre-incubator environments at higher education institutions provide students with the start-up experience they need, help them refine their ideas and increase the likelihood that their start-ups will succeed once in the real world.

In what ways can Tunisia’s higher education system be reformed and made more efficient?

BEN LAKHDAR: One of the most pressing issues facing the higher education system is the role of the Ministry of Higher Education and Research. Under the current system, the ministry acts as both a player in the higher education system and its regulator for public and private institutions. This has led to conflicts of interests that are unhealthy for the sector.

For example, some regulations discriminate against students who opt for private secondary education when it comes to awarding scholarships for public higher education institutions. Higher education in Tunisia would benefit from a reform that creates a public regulatory body independent from the administration of the country’s public universities.

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