Tunisia's wide-ranging reforms in health and education boost education outcomes

In the decades following French colonial rule, Tunisia devoted a significant share of its budget to education. This enabled the North African country to introduce important legal changes, such as compulsory basic education, which has led to high enrolment and literacy rates. Between 1958 and 1991 the state also prescribed major reforms to give all citizens access to education regardless of socio-economic status, and to prepare the labour force for broader development. Currently, the government is implementing additional changes to boost results, including providing universal access to a year of preschool education, giving universities increased levels of autonomy, improving the public image of vocational training institutions and revamping infrastructure.

The Basics

The main governmental body in charge of matters relating to education is the Ministry of Education (MoE). After secondary school, the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (Ministère de l’Enseignement Supérieur et de la Recherche Scientifique, MESRS) is responsible for maintaining standards at institutions of higher education, while the Ministry of Vocational Training and Employment (Ministère de la Formation Professionnelle et de l’ Emploi, MFPE) works closely with the other ministries to ensure the employability of Tunisians after graduation.

The basic education system is compulsory and consists of nine years of schooling starting at age six and is divided into two stages: primary school, which lasts six years, and lower-secondary school, lasting three. At the end of the nine-year cycle, students must pass the diplôme de fin d’études de l’enseignement to move on to a four-year secondary school.

The first two years focus on a general curriculum, while the second half is spent specialising in either a vocational area or in one of five academic specialisations. At the end of post-secondary school, students must pass the examen national du baccalauréat, or baccalaureate, in order to enrol at a public university. Those that fail are awarded a certificate of completion, which they can use to access private higher education or vocational training.

Of the estimated 125,000 students to take the baccalaureate exam in June 2017, around 30%, or 37,100, passed. According to Selim Khalbous, the former interim minster of education, this compared with respective pass rates of 30% and 25% for 2016 and 2015, when calculated in accordance with 2017 rules.

Key Indicators

According to the National Statistics Institute (Institut National de la Statistique, INS), there were 1.1m children attending the first level of primary school during the 2015/16 academic year, of which 94.7% attended state schools and the remaining 5.3% private institutions. With 64,000 teachers employed in primary education, there were approximately 17 pupils per teacher in the primary system as of 2016, a figure that had fallen from just under 20 a decade earlier. In that same year, the number of pupils enrolled in lower-secondary was 884,347, with 74,250 teachers, representing around 12 students per teacher. Around 964,400 attended secondary schools, with the ratio of public versus private school enrolment at 94.4% and 5.6%, respectively. Government spending on school education stood at around TD1300 (€499) per year on primary school pupils and TD2400 (€922) on secondary school students in 2016.

According to the most recent data from UNESCO, in 2015 Tunisia’s literacy rate stood at 96.6% among 15-24-year-olds. While the literacy rate for adults aged 15 and older increased from 79.6% in 2006 to 81.8% in 2015, according to the latest UN figures. This was above both Maghreb peers Algeria and Morocco with 80.8% and 72.4%, respectively.


The Tunisian education system was traditionally based on the French model with French language instruction. However, after gaining independence from colonial rule, a number of efforts were focused on promoting Arabic in the basic education and university curricula. In the 1970s Mohamed Mzali, the then minister of education, enacted two reforms that paved the way for so-called Arabisation efforts, and removing the French language proficiency requirement at the baccalaureate level.

However, the Arabisation movement, which aimed to replace French in the school system with Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), has created a series of difficulties. Unlike French, MSA is rarely spoken in Tunisia, with Tunisians instead preferring their own local dialect in everyday life and in the teaching of certain disciplines. There is also a lack of MSA teachers in the country, and considering that there is a significant amount of French-speaking nationals, policymakers now maintain French as the primary language of study in certain domains. While the majority of classes are still taught in MSA, especially within the humanities and social sciences, some hard science and technical subjects are once again taught in French, following the introduction of the language from the age of eight onwards. Whether or not authorities decide to retain French as the language of study or continue promoting MSA will shape the direction the education system takes in the years to come.

State Universities

Tunisia’s higher education system has grown substantially since its early days. In 1960 the government passed a higher education law that led to the establishment of the University of Tunis, created initially to oversee all existing institutes, faculties and schools in the country. The university was subsequently separated into three institutions in 1988, all under the same name. The country is home to 13 public universities, which enrolled 250,900 students in the 2016/17 academic year, according to MESRS data. This was down from 263,8181 in 2015/16 and 292,291 in 2014/15. The largest public institution is the University of Sfax, with a student body of 32,986 in 2016/17, followed closely by the University of Carthage (32,088), the University of Tunis – El Manar (31,426) and the University of Sousse (26,822).

Private Universities

Students who complete secondary education but do not pass the baccalaureate exam are still eligible to enter private universities and vocational education institutions.

The private university segment is growing rapidly, with a combined 72 private higher education schools operating in the 2017/18 academic year, up from 44 in 2011/12, according to the MESRS. While student numbers are declining at state-run universities, their private counterparts are gaining in popularity. The number of students nearly doubled from 17,773 in the 2011/12 academic year to 31,304 in 2016/17, with most of the growth taking place between 2011/12 and 2014/15. As a percentage, the number of students enrolled at private universities increased from 5% in 2011/12 to 11.1% in 2016/17.

Founded in 2002 as the country’s only English-speaking university, Mediterranean School of Business is one of the oldest private universities. The school provides the only Executive MBA delivered by a Tunisian university and is internationally accredited by the London-based authority the Association of MBAs.

Another major player in the sector since its establishment in 2003 is private engineering school Ecole Supérieure Privée d’Ingénierie et de Technologies (ESPRIT). According to the institution, 15% of Tunisian engineers and 20% of ICT professionals are ESPRIT graduates. The schools is known for its dual-degree programmes with French scientific and technical universities, including Paris-Dauphine, Polytech Nice Sophia, Télécom Lille 1 and Télécom Montpellier.

Among the newer private institutions in the country are the American University in Tunis, which opened in 2015. The university is a partnership between the local private Université Montplaisir Tunis and three US universities: Clayton State University, the University of Michigan and Savannah State University.

While these school are privately run, they still fall under state regulation. The MESRS has the right to withdraw the licence of any private university that fails to meet the necessary requirements; however, institutions receive a warning before this step in taken.

Reform Plans

In May 2016 the MoE published a white paper detailing its overhaul of national education. The paper was the product of a nationwide consultation process involving government, civil society organisations and trade unions, and is informing the current five-year plan for the sector. The overall cost of the reforms has been estimated at TD4.1bn (€1.6bn) and will include making a pre-primary preparatory year of schooling compulsory; raising enrolment levels to 100%; improving access and infrastructure for students with special needs; boosting governance in the sector by, for example, delegating more to regional educational committees and improving the skills of head teachers; renovating school buildings and facilities with support from international donors; and improving and expanding training for teachers.

The university system will also see its fair share of change. The MESRS launched the National Dialogue On Education Reform in 2015, an initiative that is bringing together the concerned ministries, universities, teachers’ unions and students to address four key issues: governance, university life, curriculum development and scientific research.

The national dialogue followed the announcement of the Strategic Plan for the Reform of Higher Education and Scientific Research 2015-25. The 10-year development plan has a number of goals including boosting the relevance of study programmes, bolstering the regulatory framework for private institutions and increasing the autonomy of higher educational institutions. The last of these measures is of particular importance to some in the sector.

“Universities currently lack autonomy, which affects researchers in particular, obliging them to seek approval for much of their work from the government. Increasing such autonomy will help to boost both the visibility of Tunisian universities and their position in international rankings,” Lassaad El Asmi, president of the University of Carthage, told OBG.

EU Exchange

Tertiary education is also expected to get a boost from global funding. There is a long history of collaboration between the EU and Tunisia in education. One such example is Erasmus+, a European funding programme that offers students the chance to study abroad. Over the 2017/18 academic year the programme will see the EU provide €400m in aid to Tunisia, an increase of €10m on the previous year.

The grant is expected to enable 1200 students and higher education staff in Europe and Tunisia to study, train or teach abroad. This is on top of the 640 students and staff already receiving support from the Erasmus+ annual budget for Southern Mediterranean countries, which supports Tunisia and nine other nations. The additional funding will also be used to step up cooperation between Tunisian and EU universities beyond France, Italy, Germany and Spain, with Tunisian universities targeting tertiary institutions in Poland, Finland and other Scandinavian countries.

The EU funds are also being directed towards meeting tangible needs by modernising and upgrading 25% of Tunisian higher education institutions. The work will mainly focus on maintenance, heating and lighting. Other goals include boosting cooperation between Tunisian and European youth organisations by supporting informal education activities, culture and creativity in Tunisia. One such programme is Creative Europe, which promotes cross-border cooperation, networking and literary translation.

Vocational Training

The government is once again prioritising development in the vocational and professional training segment, viewing it as the most efficient way to match labour demand and supply. The 1980s and 1990s had been something of a golden age for the segment, but authorities at the time subsequently changed educational strategy to focus more on academic schooling and university education, according to Saida Ounissi, the secretary of state for vocational training. This change in policy resulted in the decrease in quality of affiliated schools.

“While the quality of professional training is still excellent in places, it suffered following the change in strategy, and the sector is associated in popular culture with a notion of failure,” she told OBG.

Planned measures to achieve improvements include closer coordination between the public and private sector to help training better match the needs of the job market. Some industry stakeholders are looking at creating a public body in charge of liaising with private enterprise to help develop effective curricula.

“We are working on putting in place more efficient mechanisms to respond to the needs of the private sector, so that we can, for example, ramp up training in areas that large companies are in particular need of at a given time,” Ounissi told OBG.

The authorities are also taking measures to improve the sector’s public image, including investing in renovating training centres and boosting the number of reception staff. Interest in the segment appears to have increased in recent years: while overall student numbers were down, enrolment in initial professional training stood at 63,225 in 2015, up from 57,731 in 2012, according to the latest data from the MFPE.

Harnessing Technology

Investing in education through technology in particular, has always been an important component of Tunisia’s national development. Since 2002 the country has been home to an online university, the Virtual University of Tunisia, which is fully equipped to aid students in distance learning in five languages: Arabic, French, Spanish, English and Italian. Since its creation, the university has grown into a massive open online course (MOOC) provider, both for its own departments in social sciences and arts, as well as for other Tunisian universities, which can use the platform to design their own MOOCs. For the 2017-18 academic year, 750 students were enrolled in undergraduate and masters-level degree programmes.

Increased ICT usage is a key goal of the current reform effort. The MoE signed an agreement with the Francophone University Association with a view towards opening a national e-learning institute to train certified teachers in remote teaching and ICT tools. Moreover, the Tunisian National ICT Federation has also begun working on the Digital Talent Programme, a joint initiative with the International Finance Corporation aimed at developing an ICT Capabilities Observatory to monitor employability criteria, as well as an ICT academy to ensure adequate training. Industry figures say that technology is likely to be adopted by other institutions. “It’s clear that blended learning and e-learning will play an important role in the sector’s future,” El Asmi told OBG. “Using such methods can help to boost student numbers, while the increased use of digital technology is expected to reduce costs and improve the quality of teaching.”

Improved Employability

Youth unemployment has been an issue in the country for quite some time. The start of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution was led in part by the young jobless locals demanding work. At the time, youth unemployment stood at 30%, with university graduates accounting for a large portion of this. The direct response from the government was to recruit a large number of people into public jobs, leaving the country with a substantial public sector wage bill, totalling TD14.3bn (€5.5bn), or 16.3% of GDP in 2017, and expected to rise to TD14.8bn (€5.7bn), according to the 2018 budget figures.

Coming under pressure from the IMF to create more private sector jobs, current state policy will be aimed at ensuring university graduates are receiving an education that is in line with private sector demands. Mehdi Ayadi, the country manager for employment agency Adecco in Tunisia, told OBG that one possible solution could be mandatory quotas for both private companies and universities to work together on internship programmes designed to give students real world experience, while at the same time highlighting the skill needs of businesses. Further commenting on the situation, Inès Bouharb, executive manager at Excellia Human Capital, a strategy consulting company, told OBG, “All studies analysing the employability of young people show negative results. Although university graduates have technical skills, they often lack soft skills. This inflexibility inherited from the French system leaves graduates with specific skills that are not easily transferable, making it difficult to find a job.”

Given that the deficit is coming under considerable strain, in part due to Tunisia’s substantial public sector wage bill, aligning educational outcomes with the private sector is necessary to ensure the employability of graduates in the years to come.


Reforms being implemented in each major sector of education should help boost educational outcomes. In particular, a renewed focus on the vocational and professional segment is expected to narrow the gap between graduates’ skills and the needs of the economy, with positive implications for private sector growth and reduced youth unemployment.

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The Report: Tunisia 2018

Health & Education chapter from The Report: Tunisia 2018

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