Interview: Chiheb Bouden
How is the role of private universities evolving?
CHIHEB BOUDEN: Private universities are fairly new in Tunisia, as they were only authorised by law starting in 2000. However, since then we have seen a drastic increase in the number of private institutions to roughly 63.
The calibre of these varies noticeably. Some of them have achieved a great deal in terms of self-sufficiency and teaching quality, but others require support from the government to upgrade their operations, particularly in terms of human resources, equipment, research labs and infrastructure.
Regardless, we consider private education to serve as a very important component of the country’s educational infrastructure, in part because they have much more management flexibility than public universities. They can quickly implement new training cycles and programmes, which in turn can help attract foreign students. As a result, private institutions can promote Tunisia as a destination for higher education and draw students from Europe, Africa and the Middle East. However, this can only be the case if Tunisia’s private institutions are able to meet the highest international standards of education.
This is why the government is implementing an upgrade programme for private institutions. The programme started with an examination of the institutions, to find the failures and do internal evaluations. Today, private institutions are asked to follow a framework that will later become a contractual programme, aiming to improve the quality of their degrees. Eventually, this will allow Tunisian private institutions to be accredited by international authorities.
What can be done to improve the employability of new graduates in Tunisia?
BOUDEN: A solution can only come from a joint effort by both universities and the private sector. Universities have to reach out to potential employers, and companies have to also make the effort to engage.
The current educational system in Tunisia requires all students from universities to do an internship. Students also have the opportunity to do a long internship, or a contractual assignment in their final year. These types of initiatives are good, but not enough to adapt the educational curriculum to meet the real socio-economic needs of the job market. Those internships should ostensibly be overseen by a university supervisor, who in turn should be aware of the assignment and the project’s goal.
Another important step is finding a framework that allows companies to easily interact with the education system. The current framework is not particularly interesting or appealing for them, and thus, there are not many companies that are involved.
How can educational disparities be minimised?
BOUDEN: At the higher education level, disparities are partially the result of a concentration of economic activity more broadly. Companies settle where there are favourable environments for investment, partly determined by where there are favourable business environments. They look for good locations with accessible logistical networks, such as ports and railways. As a result, there is a concentration of investors and companies on the coastal areas, translating to a preponderance of development and job opportunities in those same areas. The result is that both students and faculties prefer universities by the coast.
Even when faculties are assigned to a position in the interior, or southern regions, they do not often settle in those areas. They primarily continue to work and do research for other universities on the coast, returning only to give classes. Consequently, institutions in remote areas operate at very low percentages of their total capacity. To tackle this issue, we need to improve the living environment of the campuses themselves, in addition to the living and business environments of the cities in the interior and south.
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