In the decades following independence from French colonialism, Tunisia was among the countries with the highest investment in education in the region. This enabled the North African country to introduce important legal changes, such as compulsory basic education, which led to high enrolment and literacy rates. Indeed, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, in 2015 Tunisia’s literacy rate stood at 96.6% among 15-24 year olds. However, facing deteriorating quality standards and high unemployment rates among young graduates, authorities are now looking to overhaul the education and vocational training system with a series of upcoming reform measures that could significantly change the face of Tunisia’s education system in the coming years.
The basic education system consists of nine years of schooling divided into two stages: primary school, which lasts six years, and preparatory or lower-secondary school, which lasts an additional three years. At the end of the nine-year cycle, students must pass a national exam to obtain a certificate. The successful candidates then move on to four years of upper-secondary school, of which the first half focuses on a general curriculum and the second half is spent specialising in an academic or vocational area.
In the early 1990s the Tunisian government enacted new education legislation, which among other things made basic education free and compulsory from ages 6 to 16. This enabled the country to make significant progress in terms of enrolment rates. According to UNESCO data, in 2015 gross enrolment rates surpassed 100% at the primary level and 88% at the secondary level.
Since the 1970s classes have been taught in Modern Standard Arabic. However, some science and technical subjects are taught in French, following the introduction of the language from the age of eight onwards.
At the end of post-secondary school, students must pass the examen national du baccalauréat in order to access public universities. Those that fail are awarded a certificate of completion, which they can use to access private higher education institutions or vocational training.
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. According to a 2014 report by the British Council entitled “Education in North Africa”, Tunisia has about 198 public higher education institutions, 63 private high education institutions, 24 technical institutions and six higher institutes for teacher training.
By 2015 the higher education system had grown to accommodate over 500,000 students, an increase from 17,000 in 1975. Higher education is overseen by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (Ministère de l’Enseignement Supérieur et de la Recherche Scientifique, MESRS), and since 2006 mirrors the French and European model of licence-master-doctorate, also known as bachelors-master-doctorate. Meanwhile, vocational training is overseen by the Ministry of Vocational Training and Employment via the Tunisian Agency for Vocational Training, which manages 136 vocational training centres offering specialties in 244 areas. According to a 2014 OECD report, between 2001 and 2011 the number of students in public vocational training centres more than tripled from 29,000 to 94,000.
As a result of the nationalisation of education after independence from France, public institutions continue to serve the vast majority of Tunisian students. Nonetheless, private education has experienced significant growth over the past two decades. According to Kamel Braham, programme leader at the World Bank, “Private primary education has been around for a while and is very much in demand. However, private secondary education only truly exists to give a second chance to those who might not have made it to the final diploma.”
At the higher education level, the private system has seen significant development since the 2000s with the introduction of Law No. 2000-73, whereby the MESRS recognises diplomas awarded by secondary-level private institutions. According to MESRS, the private higher education system expanded to reach 63 institutions in 2016, serving some 30,000 students – roughly 8% of the student population. About half of private institutions are geared towards engineering programmes. “Private universities are flourishing as public sector universities face quality and governance issues,” Leila Triki, dean of the Mediterranean School of Business (MSB), told OBG.
That said, the government did not start recognising nor regulating the private higher education sector until the 1990s. “Still today, government regulations regarding the private sector are imperfect, and it remains difficult for private universities to be fully accredited and in control of their curriculum,” Braham told OBG. “The private sector has to face government opposition on the basis of the principle of free education for all.”
Among the private institutions recently established is the American University in Tunis, inaugurated 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.
Founded in 2002 as the country’s only English-speaking university, MSB is one of the oldest private universities in the sector. The school provides the only Executive MBA delivered by a Tunisian university and is internationally accredited by the London-based Association of MBAs. “Private higher education in North Africa remains a huge opportunity for those who are willing to invest in it,” Triki told OBG.
Additionally, MSB focuses on soft skills development – a recurring gap in the higher education system – through teamwork, initiative, entrepreneurship, communication and leadership skills development. According to MSB’s dean, 90% of the school’s graduates are able to find a job within six months of graduation.
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. ESPRIT is also known for its dual-degree programmes with French scientific and technical universities, including Paris-Dauphine, Polytech Nice Sophia, Télécom Lille 1 and Télécom Montpellier.
In the aftermath of the 2011 revolution, Tunisian authorities are working to introduce a series of reforms as part of the Strategic Plan for the Education Sector 2016-20. The five-year plan aims to improve quality standards through improved teacher training, upgraded curricula and infrastructure, as well as an enhanced framework for private sector partnerships. According to local media reports, the reform measures will cost an estimated TD4.1bn (€1.7bn). “Due to the way the current system is, our students have to ask for a local accreditation in order for their degree to be recognised,” Triki told OBG.
The upcoming measures include the introduction of a preparatory year prior to the first year of primary schooling, according to local media reports. The school calendar is also set to be overhauled, with Neji Jalloul, then-minister of education, announcing in August 2016 that the academic schedule would be reorganised from a trimester to a semester system, a measure set to extend the number of teaching days from 130 to 193.
The comprehensive reform package is also expected to respond to the most pressing challenges currently facing the country at both the basic and secondary levels, in particular high dropout rates, a lack of infrastructure and low quality standards. Indeed, Ministry of Education statistics suggest that as many as 100,000 students stop their studies prematurely on an annual basis. Moreover, Tunisia performed poorly in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment 2015, ranking 64th out of 69 countries in science and reading, and in 66th place in maths.
At the higher education level, 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 follows the announcement of a 10-year tertiary educational development plan, known as the Strategic Plan for the Reform of Higher Education and Scientific Research 2015-25.
The plan is based on five main objectives: improving the quality of teaching and thus the employability of new graduates; promoting research and innovation; fostering good governance and optimising resource management; reviewing university planning to ensure regional balance; and developing teachers’ training.
As part of the 10-year reform strategy, the government is looking to increase programme relevance, improve the regulatory framework for the private sector and increase university autonomy. “Beyond these reforms, the government should look into developing public-private partnerships,” Braham told OBG. “Doing so would improve the private sector’s ability to grow and would benefit the public sector in terms of quality of education and variety of educational offerings.”
To help support Tunisia’s reforms to improve its education and vocational training system, the country is receiving financial assistance from the World Bank, which pledged $70m for the Tertiary Education for Employability Project in February 2016. The project aims to help facilitate the development of employer-sponsored internships and career guidance, in an attempt to help lower youth unemployment rates.
Addressing the growing disconnect between educational outcomes and labour market needs is a priority. While, according to UNESCO – labour market conditions have deteriorated since 2011. The unemployment rate among young people with a higher-education qualification is particularly high, reaching 19.4% and 40.4% for men and women, respectively, in the third quarter of 2016, according to the National Institute of Statistics (Institut National de la Statistique, INS).
In its 2015 report entitled “Investing in Youth, Tunisia”, the OECD noted that, “There is a clear hierarchy in the different tracks of education in Tunisia, with the prevailing logic of selection, manifested in rigid tracking in secondary education and high-stakes examinations […].” According to the organisation, this “sends a message that vocational education and training should only cater for a minority of students who have been unsuccessful academically … [and] also perpetuates the widespread preference for academic programmes.”
English-language skills are increasingly recognised as a key tool to increase Tunisian youth employability, not only in Tunisia but also abroad. In early 2016 the authorities began launching a major drive to boost English-language skills. To that end, the MESRS and the British Council signed an agreement in January of the same year to reinforce English-language teaching in public universities by providing students with internationally recognised training and certifications.
In addition to MSB, which teaches exclusively in English, Tunisian students can access English-language teaching through Tunis Business School, a public university opened in 2010; the British Council; and Amideast, a US-based private non-profit organisation. Moreover, classes at the British School of Tunis, the International School of Carthage and the American Cooperative School of Tunis are taught in English, and are an option for parents wishing to immerse their children in an English-speaking environment.
The Graduate School of Aeronautics and Technology (École Supérieure de l’Aéronautique et des Technologies, ESAT), an engineering and pilot training institute, has also been working on improving its students’ English level through some English teaching, short training sessions in Malta, the TOEIC/TOEFL exams and the opportunity to spend a year in the US under the Fulbright Scholar programme. “Not all students come to our institute with a good level of English,” Abderrazek Ben Amara, president and founder of ESAT, told OBG. “However, we provide opportunities for them to improve it and are now looking at spreading this opportunity beyond our institute to other institutes in Tunis.”
To improve the quality of teaching and research, Tunisia is investing in digital technology to support higher education. Already in 2002, the country launched the Virtual University of Tunis, whose initial mandate extended to integrating information and communications technologies into the higher education sector. Since its creation, the Virtual University of Tunis 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, who can use the platform to design their own MOOCs.
Increased ICT usage is a key goal of the current reform effort. The Ministry of Education recently 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.
Though Tunisia’s education policies since independence have led to high enrolment rates at the basic education level and a sharp increase in literacy rates, almost six decades after independence the need for reform is undeniable. With unemployment among Tunisia’s youth on the rise, aligning educational outcomes with labour market needs is now key to ensuring not only improved labour market conditions, but also increased social stability during the country’s democratic transition. In this context, improved career guidance and greater emphasis on both hard and soft skills training, including English-language skills, will be vital to raise employability levels among Tunisia’s youth.