Tunisia: Reforming the system
In a bid to improve employment rates, Tunisia has begun a comprehensive review of its education sector to determine what reforms need to be made and what challenges it faces in terms of ensuring a sustainable stream of qualified graduates for the job market.
The review process, which is particularly urgent given the challenges of unemployment in rural and inland areas, began in late March at a national conference entitled “Methodology for the Reform of the Education System”, organised by the Ministry of Education.
Indeed, according to a recent MoE report drawing together the conference’s findings, there is much room for improvement. The report showed some of the sector’s major existing problems include the lack of an efficient teacher training programme and an increase in the number of students failing to meet the required academic grades. Other issues concern the gap in the quality of education on offer between the major regions of the country.
A lack of coordination was also identified as a key challenge. One possible solution delegates at the conference discussed was the creation of a supreme educational council. This body would act as a national regulator and arbitrator between competing government and private sector organisations, as well as set general educational standards. The MoE currently has responsibility for the sector as regulator and over specific bodies such as all regional education institutions and higher education bodies.
While the country’s schools still suffer from various bottlenecks, both structural and cyclical, Tunisia’s education system has long been one of the best in the region, churning out thousands of university graduates. Tunisia has 13 universities and one virtual university, as well as 24 higher education institutes specialised in technology. Accession rates have expanded almost exponentially and between 1975 and 2007 the student body increased almost 2000%, from 17,000 to 336,000, a trend that continues. In 2010/11, some 360,000 students enrolled in higher education, a number expected to reach 500,000 by this year.
State spending on the sector has also risen steadily over the years. The MoE’s budget rose by 112% from TD1.41bn (€699m) in 2001 to TD3bn (€1.5bn) by 2011, 4.3% of GDP.
State schools still dominate the education sector. In the public sphere, a total of 1.99m students in primary and secondary schools was recorded over 2010/11, according to the MoE. A total of 134,979 teachers were accounted for in both types of school over the same period.
First authorised in 2000, the private sector plays a limited role and is primarily focused in the university segment. In the primary and secondary segments, the private sector only had 79,867 students and 11,139 teachers, according to the MoE’s 2010/11 report. However, private institutions have a more influential presence at the university level, with roughly 32 private higher education establishments operating nationwide, most notably in specialised fields including business and management.
Currently, due to a drop in overall revenues in 2011 and the broader economic stagnation, the country’s education sector has turned to international financing to help bridge gaps and provide funds for new initiatives. The EU has already been particularly active in providing financial and technical support to the sector. In February, for example, an EU delegation presented the results of a support programme that focuses on modernising secondary education and another on upgrading vocational training. Some €30m was spent on reforming secondary education between 2006 and 2009 and another €30m went towards vocational training over the 2007-10 period.
As the national conference on educational reform made clear, the Arab Spring has re-engaged the population, which is now demanding that the new government meet its expectations of high-quality education for primary and secondary schools and higher-education institutions.