In the aftermath of decolonisation, Tunisia was among the top investors in education in Africa, promoting socio-economic development and boosting human capital, which led to rapid progress in literacy, access to primary education and high enrolment figures. Today, the authorities are focusing on overhauling the educational and vocational training system, as well as bolstering private education, as a means to uplift educational standards and cut the rising unemployment rate among young graduates.
After independence, Tunisia prioritised the sector through a series of laws on education leading to the introduction of free and compulsory basic education for ages 6-16 and the nationalisation of almost all educational agencies. Tunisia’s school system developed from then on according to the French model, consisting of basic, middle and upper secondary school. Since the 1970s, teaching has been conducted in Arabic, except for some sciences and technical subjects that are taught in French, which is widely spoken. English has also recently gained significance as a mandatory requirement for certain degree courses. Currently, school enrolment rates are high in Tunisia by regional standards, with a gross attendance rate of over 100% at the primary level and around 91% at the secondary level, according to the World Bank.
In 1960 the government passed a higher education law that led to the establishment of the University of Tunis, which was responsible for overseeing all existing institutes, faculties and schools in the country. In 1988 it was split in three institutions, all under the University of Tunis name. According to a 2014 British Council report titled “Education in North Africa”, since then the system has developed to include 198 public higher education institutions, 63 private institutions, 24 higher institutes of technical studies and six higher institutes for teacher training. The expansion of the higher education system led a boom from 17,000 students in 1975 to half a million students in 2015, which represents an increase in the enrolment rate at the tertiary level from 2.6% in 1974 to 35.2% by 2015, according to the British Council’s report. Tunisia ranked 73rd out of 144 countries on higher education and training, according to the World Economic Forum’s “The Africa Competitiveness Report 2015”.
Since 2006 Tunisian universities have been operating under the licence-master-doctorate system, which is accredited by the French government. As a whole, Tunisia continues to priorities public spending on education, despite a recent drop in investment. In mid-2015 Al-Fanar Media, a publication focused on education in the Arab world, reported that while expenditure for the Ministére de l’Éducation ( Ministry of Education, MoE) had been cut from 23% of the national budget in 2013 to around 19% in 2015, the MoE still had the largest budget of all ministries. A November 2015 Al Huffington Post Maghreb report showed that in 2016 the MoE would have a budget of TD4.5bn (€2.1bn) and that the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (Ministére de l’Enseignement Supérieur et de la Recherche Scientifique, MESRS) was allocated TD1.5bn (€687.9m), accounting for a combined 25% of the 2016 budget.
Vocational training in Tunisia is overseen by the Ministry of Vocational Training and Employment via the Tunisian Agency for Vocational Training, which manages 136 vocational training centres, including 47 sectoral training centres, 61 training and learning centres, 14 training centres for young rural women, 11 centres for training and promotion of self-employment and one aeronautic training centre. In all, these vocational facilities offer specialties in 244 areas. There are also various routes to enter the vocational training system. Pupils can be enrolled at the age of 16, after finishing their basic education, and take a two-year course to obtain a Certificat d’Aptitude Professionnelle (CAP). Students with a CAP may advance to a two-year qualification known as the Brevet de Technicien Professionnelle (BTP). Finally, the Brevet de Technicien Supérieur (BTS) requires four more years of study.
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, of which nearly one-quarter were completing their apprenticeships, more than one-quarter were enrolled in a CAP programme, 11% were enrolled in CAP and BTS programmes, and 27% of students were completing BTP programmes. Students in the Tunisian vocational training system are enrolled in a wide range of fields, with electricity and electronics making up the largest segment at 25%, followed by textiles and clothing at just under 20%.
As a result of the nationalisation of education after independence, Tunisia’s education system relies primarily on public institutions, which still serve the vast majority of Tunisian pupils and students. Nonetheless, private education has experienced strong growth over the past two decades, with a marked acceleration following the 2010-11 revolution as public distrust of the government increased. This is particularly striking at the primary level, with the Tunisian news site DirectInfo reporting in September 2015 that the number of primary schools more than doubled between 2011 and 2015, from 109 to 263. Consequently, the number of pupils enrolled in private primary education rose from 24,953 to 48,390. At the secondary level, there are around 300 private high schools that serve 5% of secondary students; however, their development mostly occurred during the mid-1990s. In a context of increased competition for education and growing distrust among parents towards public institutions, new international secondary programmes have broken ground in Tunisia, particularly in the form of international schools, such as the International School of Carthage, which offers a French curriculum, the British International School of Tunis, L’École Canadienne de Tunis and the American Cooperative School of Tunis.
Similarly, Tunisia has seen a strong development of the private higher education sector since the early 2000s with the enactment of Law No 2000-73 whereby the MESRS recognises diplomas awarded by secondary-level private institutions. The development of private education has rapidly expanded to reach 63 institutions of higher education in 2016, with half of them focused on engineering, according to MESRS figures. They serve roughly 30,000 students, equivalent to 8% of the country’s student population.
Focus On Quality
In a bid to oversee the quality of teaching within private institutions and turn higher education into a competitive service, the MESRS is working on a roadmap aimed at improving accountability for private institutions, encouraging modernisation of scientific equipment, organising internships and maintaining infrastructure. Tunisia’s higher education is also receiving increased interest from international universities. In 2009 private university Dauphine Tunis was established in the capital and was the first instance of Tunisian partners (two banks) and a foreign shareholder (Paris-based Université Dauphine) working together on an educational project. In 2015 the American University in Tunis was inaugurated and is the result of a partnership between the local, private Université de Montplaisir and three US universities, namely, Savana State University, Clayton State University and the University of Michigan. The government also intends to review the legal framework governing public-private partnerships, as well as creating new legal provisions to encourage more foreign universities to cooperate with local partners.
Although Tunisia has continued to prioritise investment in education, with positive results in terms of enrolment rates, it has paid too little attention to the requirements of the labour market. This has led to a mismatch between qualifications and the needs of the employment market. The authorities will have to continue overhauling Tunisia’s higher education system by providing improved career guidance and ensuring better employability for new graduates.
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