Tunisia must fix its broken education system
If young Arabs were asked about their aspirations for the future, most would talk about their expectations for fundamental changes in politics and governance, the protection of human rights, economic development and ‘a desire for lasting peace in the hotspots of the region, to name a few.
In the minds of young people in the region, structural deficits in a number of sectors, particularly health and education, continually impede progress towards improving their lives or livelihoods and, by extension , economic, political and social conditions in the wider Arab region.
This is a remarkable indictment of the widening gap between the promises of change of successive regimes and the sad, almost universal reality: a deleterious cycle that begins with the inaccessibility, deprioritization and underfunding of education, which contributes to double-digit youth unemployment as well as multi-generational poverty, and ultimately results in members of the region’s largest demographic group facing a bleak future.
If the Arab world is to succeed in transforming a landscape marked by decades of past failures and the conflagration of crises that threaten to engulf it today, the key lies in education reform, inclusion and participation of his discontented youth.
This is absolutely essential in countries like Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Lebanon which are grappling with multi-faceted ills compounded, in part, by failed interventions to fix failing education systems.
In Tunisia, for example, youth priorities tend to shift towards pursuing economic reforms, free from the current political malaise, to reverse deteriorating conditions and transform demographics into active and contributing members of society.
However, the focus on economic issues, while urgently needed, overshadows the serious problems of Tunisia’s education system, which was once considered one of the best in the Arab world.
For decades, Tunisian authorities invested heavily in education, creating invaluable human capital that set the North African country apart from its regional peers and provided its citizens with unprecedented opportunities for upward mobility.
Unfortunately, the current state of the country’s education system is far from the pinnacle of President Habib Bourguiba’s always lauded efforts to create an educated and empowered postcolonial workforce by promoting an inclusive, coeducational, bilingual and layman who privileges quality. on quantity.
While university enrollment was low overall, most high school graduates had access to quality vocational and technical training that prepared them to participate in the economy.
Additionally – and perhaps more importantly – Bourguiba’s program was intended to anticipate a troubling regional trend in which education was increasingly becoming a tool for building loyalty and legitimizing by turning the system into a patronage rewards program. Training young minds with a rigid pedagogy tinged with nationalist propaganda, dogma, and exclusionary rhetoric has helped stave off any “threat” of debate or criticism of those in power in most postcolonial Arab societies. However, programs that emphasize rote learning, memorization, and acceptance of absolute truths will eventually take their toll by producing graduating classes ill-equipped to engage in a changed and ever-changing world.
If Tunisia’s leaders fail to address the continued rise in school dropout rates, the beleaguered country risks squandering one of its greatest assets and the key to unlocking the potential of its youth.
The Bourguiba system worked – it raised Tunisia’s academic standard while strengthening its nascent workforce and professional classes. By investing a fifth of the public budget in education, the country, unlike its peers, is investing in the future and increasing its visibility and competitiveness. However, for Tunisia to reap the benefits of such a carefully organized system, it required continuous vigilance, adaptation and prioritization – something Bourguiba’s successor, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, was not prepared to do. TO DO.
In vain attempts to associate the Ben Ali-era regime with the notorious successes of a progressive, secular and modern education system, as well as to cover up rising dropout rates, universities have lowered the academic standards of admission and reinforced the diplomas of the graduates. This company flooded the Tunisian labor market with graduate job seekers who lacked the knowledge, skills and expertise required to fill rapidly shrinking positions.
Today, almost 80% of Tunisians are dissatisfied with the state of education in the country, a higher proportion than in any other country in North Africa, including war-torn Libya. This statistic is not surprising, given that Tunisia ranks in the bottom five out of 70 countries in terms of learning performance in science, reading, mathematics and collaborative problem solving.
In fact, about two-thirds of high school graduates in the country are barely able to meet the minimum grades required to participate in modern society. Moreover, in a study, Tunisia ranked among the bottom three out of 50 countries based on assessments of student performance during their formative years, prompting warnings from academics , analysts and educators about serious gaps in early learning programs.
Currently, only 25% of Tunisian university graduates obtain some form of employment. Others have to face the chilling reality that they have acquired an education for jobs that simply don’t exist and probably never will. Worse still, graduates of Tunisian higher education institutions would have a harder time finding a job than those without a diploma.
The continued neglect of the education system and lack of targeted interventions to address the mismatch between educational outcomes and employment prospects has already led to a brain drain, with Tunisia’s best and brightest leaders looking elsewhere for work. work. Furthermore, the lofty ideals of the few still able to access and benefit from quality private education tend to overshadow the way in which the political failures of the 1990s became a costly burden, contributing to the growing some inequalities.
If, or when, the elites of Tunis manage to fix the broken education system, the priority must be to resuscitate Bourguiba’s legacy and restore the broad, bold, progressive and secular programs that advocated tolerance, encouraged debate and sought to transform Tunisian youth into Beyond tackling a growing learning deficit, any potential solutions to this crisis are only viable if they recognize how the state of education in Tunisia is an under- product of a stagnant economy currently limping through a pandemic.
In other words, in addition to updating curricula and correcting the inequitable geographical distribution of schools (which favors Greater Tunis and the Mediterranean coast), the government must also remedy the way in which the degrees offered are no longer in tune with post-2011 socio-economic realities. realities or requirements of the Tunisian labor market.
Most post-revolution graduates tend to seek employment in the public sector, although they hold specialist qualifications better suited to the private sector, which is key to boosting employment, provided the government encourages such reorientation, for example by freezing its own recruitments.
This “cancer” and its symptoms are obvious not only to Tunisians but also to outside observers. Numerous studies have been published that include proposals outlining ways in which the government can respond in a timely manner to anticipate the all-too-familiar volatility that precedes widespread unrest.
Increasingly, a disorderly education sector and a government distracted by mainly political unrest have crippled learning in Tunisia, both for those who can afford it – at great expense – and for those who cannot. not and no longer see any value in it.
Unless Tunisian leaders address these worrying trends, including the continued rise in school dropout rates, the beleaguered country risks squandering one of its greatest assets and the key to unlocking the potential of its youth.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell
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