Tunisia gets its Learning World two-year report card as Maha Barada returns to see if the Arab Spring has blown a wind of change through the country's classrooms
Two years ago when Learning World looked at post-revolution Tunisia, education was still suffering but reform was top of the to-do list. Today, has anything changed? What are the prospects for the future? Maha Barada has returned to see.
We used to ensure the biggest number of students made the transition from elementary to intermediate levels without taking into consideration their grades
Declining student performance, high dropout rates, a lack of resources and low teacher commitment. These are some of the persistent problems still troubling Tunisia. Learning World visiting schools and spoke to local experts to find out what is being done and whether any progress has been made.
From quantity to quality
Ghaith and two of his brothers are now back in school after dropping out for some time. Living in a dire situation, his parents could not afford basic schooling demands. Thanks to the campaign “Back to school for out-of-school children”, a collaboration between UNICEF and the government, these students have been offered housing, basic clothing, a school bag, stationary and other resources to help them resume learning.
“I want my children to learn so that they can have a profession, they can be trained, they can talk to people and answer questions I hope God enlightens their way, I am happy for them,” says their mother, Hanan Al-Luwati.
Due to a lack of proper evaluation measures 14-year-old Ghaith does not know how to read or write. He is getting extra help at school.
“In the past era and with past policy, we used to work on the quantity and not the quality. Which means we used to ensure the biggest number of students made the transition from elementary to intermediate levels without taking into consideration their grades, relying on non-objective evaluation measures,” says Headmaster Kamal Alhajjam.
More than 100,000 students dropped out of school in 2012. Now with the reforms some 15,000 are back studying. While social reasons, poverty and distance from school are some of the causes behind high dropout rates, it is also about the quality of education.
“I think there are multiple factors. I think that dropout rate is due to the quality of education. Quality is within the teachers. We have to look at why teachers are not coming to the school, and not teaching. Often they don’t maybe because they don’t have the adequate training, maybe they don’t have the material to teach. Maybe the surroundings or school are not the right fit for them really to teach the content they are teaching,” says UNICEF’s Lilia Peters.
Teacher training is now being developed by the Ministry of Education. Maha asked these educators to explain what they are learning.
“The goal behind this activity is to train the teacher on delivering phonetics so that he can feel the difficulties the student suffers when he or she tries to make the same sounds. The teachers need training to improve their skills, develop the pedagogical practices, especially as neuroscience nowadays has added a lot to learning and studying the ways of learning,” says teacher Samya Yahaoui.
Quality of education and declining student performance have made many families resort to private tutoring at home to help improve their childrens’ results. These lessons are costing Tunisians around half a billion dollars annually according to official estimates, and not everyone can afford them. The government has taken measures to restrict support lessons to schools.
A system unfit for purpose in the 21st century
Now taking fledgling steps to reforming education, one man in office aims to make a radical change.
“The Tunisian education system doesn’t suit the 21st century whether it is the infrastructure, the curriculum, the books or the quality of paper and images. Schools have to adapt to the development of people and to the normal growth of the Tunisian child,” says Tunisia’s Education Minister Neji Jalloul
Last time Maha was here she met Dr. Hayet Omri, an Organic Chemist who has won international recognition for her scientific work. Today she is a member of the Tunisian parliament. The educational hurdles she faced have made her determined to change things for young Tunisians. What solutions does she envisage for the future?
From a farm in her birthplace, Rekab, Sidi Bouzid, emerged many of the experiments Hayat did as a student. At that time scientific research in Tunisia was underfunded, many universities suffered a lack of resources and laboratories were under-equipped. Today nothing much has changed.
“The last budget approved in parliament in 2015 was 5% of the national budget for the whole higher education sector, scientific research had 0.34% of it. Of course I am not satisfied with this amount,” she frowns.
How is this affecting universities and higher education? Hayat is quick to point out the inequalities in the system.
“I am very surprised to see the situation of laboratories that are more like ones for schools and not universities. There are huge disparities between institutions in the capital and those in coastal or inner parts of the country”.
There is a well-equipped institution in the capital, but Tunisian universities do not rank highly internationally, student performance is low and unemployment is high.
“Not everyone who teaches at university is qualified, some of them have the skills, but there are teachers hired according to their political affiliations or other non-professional criteria. On the other hand, there is no true evaluation of the professors throughout the year.”
A modern system suiting Tunisia’s needs
“In Tunisia until now, we imported education systems that were not always successful and that were parachuted in without preparing the right conditions. University studies do not match the economic environment at all. Today unemployment is the biggest problem that is facing Tunisia and this could lead to lots of problems like crime, unofficial migration and terrorism,” insists Hayat.
Some of the proposed reforms that are being discussed in parliament are giving universities more independence in resourcing, restructuring institutions and bridging the gaps between them, giving more value to scientific research, and making agreements with international institutions to help improve student performance.
“This national reform will not happen in a year or two. It needs years to be radical and structural for the whole system. Reforming higher education will not happen unless there is a clear development plan and accordingly universities should be directed to serve the national economy, job market and graduates,” warns Hayat.
Are you Tunisian? What do you think of the educational situation? Are you satisfied with the planned reforms? Let us know on our social media pages.