Since its independence in 1956 Tunisia’s education system has undergone a series of reforms. Under former President Habib Bourguiba, the first leader of the Tunisian Republic, the first reforms were introduced to make education free and universal. As a result, the literacy rate rose significantly over the subsequent decades: from 15.3% in 1956, to 68.3% in 1994 and 80.9% in 2018. In 1991 schooling was made compulsory until the age of 16, and by 2019 almost all children were enrolled in an educational institution – 99.4% of those aged between six and 11, and 98.5% between 12 and 18.

Despite high enrolment and rising literacy rates, student performance at both the primary and secondary level remains low. The quality of education needs to be improved so that Tunisians can keep up with an increasingly competitive job market. Moreover, demographic changes pose a challenge to the higher education segment as the number of domestic students has decreased in recent years.

STRUCTURE & OVERSIGHT: The main government body responsible for managing the education system is the Ministry of Education (MoE), alongside the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and the Ministry of Vocational Training and Employment. Basic education is compulsory and is divided into six years of primary school and three years of lower secondary. Students must then pass the diplôme de fin d’études de l’enseignement (leaving certificate) to determine whether they can progress to a four-year secondary school. While the first two years follow a general curriculum, students can specialise in a vocational subject or one of five academic fields in the final two years. When this is completed, they must pass the examen national du baccalaeuréat, or baccalaureate, in order to enrol in a public university.

Tunisia dedicates a large quantity of its budget to education, even during the global economic crisis of 2008-9 when it accounted for 23% of government expenditure. In recent years spending has fallen, however, with TD5.6bn ($1.9bn) allocated to education in 2019. In that year education represented 17.1% of the total state budget, despite the UN advising the government to increase this figure to 20%.

RECENT INDICATORS: Although education spending remains fairly high, the sector’s current condition indicates that there is still room for improvement. In September 2018 the minister of social affairs, Mohammad Al Traboulsi, told local press that literacy rates for adults aged 15 and older had fallen for the first time since 1956, from 81.8% in 2017 to 80.9% in 2018. Al Traboulsi attributed this to a lack of adequate education in rural regions, particularly for women – in 2018, 41% of women in rural areas were illiterate. Other analysts have suggested that the decline in literacy rates may be a result of poor economic conditions and the rising cost of education, as well as political instability and social tension caused by the 2011 Tunisian revolution.

The overall quality of education is also in need of improvement. According to the most recent figures from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), almost 40% of students acquired basic skills in mathematics and science in 2015. This was one of the lowest rates compared to 70 other PISA-rated countries, and considerably below the OECD average of just under 80%.

Therefore, Tunisia faces the challenge of having one of the highest enrolment rates in PISA-assessed countries, yet some of the lowest levels of student achievement. This demonstrates that a large number of students does not necessarily correlate with improved results. However, baccalaureate scores in 2019 indicate a slight improvement in performance compared to the previous year, with 45.6% of students passing the diploma compared to 41.7% in 2018.

Tunisia also faces the challenge of reducing school dropout rates. “The biggest problem for the education sector is addressing the failure rate and reducing school drop-outs,” Naceur Ammar, chairman of ESPRIT Higher Institute of Engineering and Technology, told OBG. “Approximately 100,000 students drop out of secondary school each year,” he added. This also has a financial cost; the minister of education, Hatem Ben Salem, told local media in April 2019 that dropouts cost the government around TD1.2bn ($416.8m), representing 20% of the MoE’s budget. Ben Salem also estimated that more than 75% of students who drop out left school at the primary level.

This challenge is being addressed by a government programme launched in June 2018, in collaboration with UNICEF and France Education International. The project aims to create a system for adolescents aged between 12 and 18 to return to education or training, as well as supporting young people so that they remain in the school system. The first “second-chance school” will be launched in Bab El Khadhra in Tunis in September 2019, targeted at pupils who were not able to find appropriate training after they left school.

PRIMARY & SECONDARY EDUCATION: In the 2017/18 academic year there were 4969 primary schools in Tunisia, 4568 of which were operated by the public sector and 401 by private providers. Across the entire primary level there were 1.2m pupils and 70,630 teachers. In the same academic year Tunisia was home to 1882 secondary schools, with 1508 public and 374 private. The number of children in private education has increased consistently over the past few decades. In 1994/95 private schools received 0.6% of pupils in primary school and in 2017/18 this had grown to 6.5%. In 2009/10 private school students accounted for 2% of total secondary education, rising to 7.7% by 2017/18.

In 2019 the minister of education announced that 23,698 new teachers had been recruited with an investment of TD284m ($98.6m). It is hoped that this investment will improve the quality of teacher training, which is often insufficient.

PRIVATE SCHOOLS: The role of private education has grown steadily in the past two decades. In 2019, 8% of primary schools and 19.8% of secondary schools were run by private providers. Private universities have also been in operation since 2000. “Higher education experienced a period of massification in the 2000s, with private institutions emerging to relieve pressure on the public sector,” Ammar told OBG.

However, the focus for private higher education establishments is increasingly on the quality of teaching rather than the quantity of students. “Private higher education is expected to see slower growth than in previous years. Therefore, the key stake for all players, public and private, is quality,” he added.

UNIVERSITIES & HIGHER EDUCATION: In 2017/18 there were 272,261 students in higher education, with 241,084, or 88%, attending one of the 203 public institutions. In comparison, there were 315,513 students in public higher education in 2012/13. In 2014 five new establishments were opened but no other public institutions have been created since, most likely due to the significant decrease in student numbers. The number of new students entering their first year fell from 65,322 in 2012/13 to 54,007 in 2017/18. Sector players have argued that there is not a need to create new institutions as there are already enough public and private establishments to meet the level of demand. Although demographic transition can partly explain the decrease in enrolment, as the proportion of the population at studying age has fallen in recent years, failure to achieve the baccalaureate and high drop out rates also play a significant role.

Meanwhile, student numbers have remained fairly stable in the private sector, with 31,177 students in 2017/18 compared to 31,304 in 2016/17. The proportion of students has increased steadily, from 6.5% in 2012/13 to 11.5% in 2017/18, and it is likely to continue to grow in the years ahead. “Private students could make up 20% of the higher education segment by 2023,” Imed Hammouda, professor and dean of the Mediterranean Institute of Technology in Tunis, told OBG.

The number of private higher education establishments has also risen. In 2019/20 there were 76 such institutions, up from 72 in 2017/18 and 45 in 2012/13. However, as enrolment rates have fallen, the pressure to cater to growing numbers of students has been reduced, and institutions are able to focus more on providing high-quality teaching and ensuring graduates are able to compete in the job market. Sector players have recognised that the decline in numbers presents an opportunity for public and private higher education establishments to improve their offering, particularly as universities seek to appeal to international students.

FOREIGN STUDENTS: With a decline in the number of domestic students, the biggest stake for higher education is internationalisation. As the middle class in west and central Africa continues to expand there are a growing number of students able to afford the costs of international study. The devaluation of the dinar also presents benefits in terms of cost and quality compared to other destinations, such as Europe. According to local media in July 2019, Tunisia is looking to attract 20,000 African students by 2020/21, a considerable increase on the 6500 students that attended in 2018/19.

However, internationalisation will not be possible without the procedures and mechanisms needed to support these students. “The country has lost many of its international students to other countries since the 2011 revolution,” Hammouda told OBG. “Internationalisation has been a challenge, but it is essential that a framework is set up to encourage students, particularly from sub-Saharan Africa, to study in Tunisia.”

To this end, strategies to encourage foreign students have been introduced in recent years. In October 2017 it was announced that a new university would be created in partnership with the French government. The Franco-Tunisian University of Africa and the Mediterranean (Université Franco-Tunisienne pour l’Afrique et la Mé diterranée, UFTAM) in Tunis aims to address the growing demand for higher education from francophone African students. In February 2019 a protocol of agreement was signed between the French and Tunisian ministers of higher education and research, planning the launch of UFTAM, which is scheduled to open on October 1, 2019 and host around 250 students in its first year.

VOCATIONAL TRAINING: The number of students undertaking technical education remains low and is continuing to fall. Vocational training has failed to attract students as it is considered the default pathway when other educational options have been exhausted. The lack of bridges between technical and higher education has served to strengthen this stereotype. Unlike other countries such as France, there is no framework to promote vocational education and no means to finance apprenticeships through corporate tax.

However, a white paper published in 2016 recommended that the government strengthens the vocational segment in order to encourage graduates to follow technological, technical and scientific career pathways. The government has highlighted professional training as a key axis to improve employability, based on the high rates of employment for graduates from technical programmes. Saida Ounissi, the minister of vocational training and employment, told local media in May 2019 that around 67% of graduates from vocational courses went on to find employment. Ounissi also announced TD500m ($173.7m) would be invested in the modernisation of 126 professional training centres to ensure they are up to date with technological innovations and adapted to job market requirements.

GRADUATE EMPLOYMENT: Unemployment remains high for tertiary education graduates, but it is beginning to ease. In the last quarter of 2018 graduate unemployment stood at 28.8%, while in the first quarter of 2019 it had fallen slightly to 28.2%. This figure is considerably higher for women (38.3%) than for men (16.5%).

There continues to be a mismatch between graduates’ skills and job market needs, resulting in around 250,000 higher education graduates looking for work. Some qualifications are less affected than others; for example, demand for engineering graduates is high. However, Tunisia is affected by a brain drain. The demand for engineers, particularly in the ICT sector, has also soared in developed countries in Europe, North America and Asia, often attracting graduates from Tunisia. The country has a growing need for developers, while the training available remains insufficient. According to the largest majority of respondents (40%) to the OBG Business Barometer, leadership is the skill in greatest need in Tunisia, followed by research and development (19%) and computer technology (7%).

OUTLOOK: As the policy of massification starts to show its limits, Tunisia is becoming increasingly concerned with providing quality education, particularly as the sector’s growth depends on attracting foreign students to make up for a fall in domestic student numbers. As enrolment rates decline due to social and demographic changes, the sector must shift its focus to raising the standard of teaching, ensuring young people remain in education and improving student performance. The demographic transition may also help to ease graduate unemployment rates, acting as a catalyst for changes to education policy. This will prove essential to matching graduate qualifications to the needs of the job market.