Opportunities for Progress in Higher Education
The capacity gaps in the Tunisian higher education system are not unique to Tunisia. Graduates with limited applied training, curricula that are out of date with the modern economy, and a lack of appropriate evaluation methods are continuing challenges that education policy planners in many countries must address.
Yet some of the failings of the Tunisian system were likely driven by conscious decisions of the previous government. Fortunately, whether these deficiencies are endemic to the education system or the result of deliberate political choices, they may be readily addressed in the coming years through appropriate commitments of attention and resources. In addition to direct investment, progress can also be stimulated by expanding many existing programs and social patterns through careful, targeted interventions.
Tunisia benefits from several underlying factors that can support the continued improvement of its higher education system.
First, and foremost, there is immense demand for education among Tunisian young people. In part as a result of previous government use of education as an economic planning tool, the average young person has been conditioned to perceive higher education as a viable path towards economic advancement. While student trust in the “product” of university education can certainly be improved, there is a definite willingness to actively engage with new programs or initiatives. MoHESR therefore needs not spend its effort or resources on this demand side; rather, it can focus its improvements on the supply side by improving infrastructure and curriculum.
Second, while educational resources are largely concentrated in areas that enjoyed greater privilege under Ben Ali, there is still some educational infrastructure that is broadly distributed across the country. Many of these institutions lack necessary resources but they still provide a core educational platform that can be built upon. The value of a robust physical footprint should not be understated.
Third, Tunisian political leaders recognize the value of these existing resources, and conversations have begun to try and leverage them to improve the sector. For example, during a one-year anniversary commemoration of the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi, President Moncef Marzouki announced investments in educational institutions in the marginalized town of Sidi Bouzid.
Only time will reveal whether these plans become reality, but the public message of investing in education in communities with the most need is a positive sign. There is also an active, organized academic community at many universities committed to making progress toward these goals, and who can serve as partners in strategic investments.
Finally, the existing collaboration between Tunisan technoparks and institutes of specialized higher education provides a robust model for continued progress in high-tech education. In their current mode, these collaborations are as much about co-location as they are about robust programming and training. There exists demand for further integration, and quick progress may be attained by investing in these potential centers of technical excellence.
Expanding on What Works
There are numerous areas of academic achievement evident throughout Tunisia. Where possible, these areas can be nurtured and improved through smart policies, strategic partnerships, and well-invested resources.
Learning from the Private Sector
Now, the same Tunisians who were active participants in these shifts are wrestling with how to wield their increased connections. Their goal is to build a society that is more responsive to the needs of citizens, and more capable of effectively addressing the economic, political, and technological complexities of the modern world.
The opportunities and setbacks that Tunisians face, and their success in addressing them, will tell us much about the future governance of a world that increases in complexity every day.
Economically speaking, the Tunisian business community is keenly aware of the cost of an underperforming higher education system: graduates that lack applied knowledge require costly additional training in order to be employment-ready. Similarly, research and development centers that employ ill-equipped research teams produce results that are not internationally competitive.
These are serious threats to the success of a business, and unsurprisingly, some organizations have begun addressing these shortcomings through their own programs. Most notably, Tunisian subsidiaries of well-resourced multinational corporations have been steadily moving into the education and training of Tunisian graduates.
Cisco and Microsoft have both begun training programs that provide graduates with critical job skills. Cisco Networking Academy trains university graduates in network engineering as well as in soft skills, such as giving presentations and facilitating meetings. These classes can often last as long as a year, and are seen as necessary by local executives to make their human capital competitive in the regional market.
To address the number of graduates who are unprepared to launch their own companies after graduating from Tunisian universities, the Microsoft Innovation Center (MIC) is focused on developing entrepreneurial skills to create a healthy information technology value chain. Through competitions, classes, and a public computer lab, the MIC invests significant resources in training high-tech graduates of the Tunisian education system.
Expanding Applied Training Programs
Students, faculty, and business leaders are unanimous in their demand for an increase in applied education, and would like to see more opportunities for university and graduate students to work directly with businesses in their chosen career field.
Students see this as a necessary step to gain the skills they will need to be successful once they secure a job, while business leaders recognize these programs as a critical way to screen potential talent, as well as an opportunity to deliver training to potential hires before they take a salaried position.
Students and businesses alike acknowledge that existing programs fall far short of demand. One group of Tunisian university students was observed going door-to-door at different offices in a leading technopark. These students reported that knocking on doors was the only way they knew how to connect with organizations for a potential internship. Such students could be helped through the expansion of formal internship and training programs between institutions of higher education and the business community.
Technology and Self-Learning
Numerous examples from diverse contexts have shown that technology can greatly encourage self-learning among students. This behavior is already present among Tunisian students who have eagerly organized into self-learning communities around several specialized technical fields.
Graphic design students are forming visual arts clubs and teaching each other the Adobe Creative Suite software, with lessons and training materials downloaded from the Internet. Would-be programmers and developers are forming software clubs around technologies such as the Microsoft .NET framework, Google Android OS, and Ubuntu Linux.
All of these activities speak to how new technologies can enable students to manage their own learning, as well as access resources online that might not otherwise be available in their classrooms. These programs could be greatly improved if formally adopted on campus and staffed with willing administrators and faculty.
More broadly, an increase in the availability of broadband connections and modern information technology infrastructure at all campuses will also encourage these informal educational activities by giving more students access to digital resources that encourage self-learning. Formal programming on campuses, such as student groups and after-hours training, could incentivize more students to take part.
While capitalizing on these opportunities is not a given—policymakers at MoHESR will need to embrace these new ideas, for instance—there are Tunisian voices pressing for the types of change outlined above. Leading policymakers remain adamant about building meaningful partnerships with the international community. The Tunisian business community is also eager to support investments in the education system. And, among students, there is a sense of possibility and hope in education for a new future.
With broad public consensus around the importance of education, a deficient but extensive existing infrastructure, and promising programs, the higher education system in Tunisia is well-positioned to support future economic growth.