Are private universities the way forward for Tunisia?
In Tunisia, free university access is guaranteed to anyone who passes the government’s national baccalaureate test at the end of high school
Private higher-education institutions are increasing in both number and capacity in Tunisia, raising concerns over quality in a country known for its rigid education system.
In Tunisia, free university access is guaranteed to anyone who passes the government’s national baccalaureate test at the end of high school.
Based on the French Baccalauréat, although not as intensive, the Tunisian model has an average annual success rate of only 40 percent.
Because it is a system said to be based on meritocracy, students are not always placed in their discipline or university of first choice.
Engineering is one of the study fields highly restricted to the top notch of baccalaureate graduates.
Those with high scores would be selected for a two-year preparatory course in which they learn high-level mathematics, physics and chemistry, among other scientific subjects.
Students who pass the two years are put through another standardized national exam, specifically tailored for engineering.
Only half, and sometimes less than half, tend to pass this exam and proceed to join a national engineering school.
However, private engineering schools scrap all that effort. Those who wish to pursue engineering can simply apply to their chosen program and pay tuition fees.
“It used to be only the state that graduates engineers. Now, people who want to pursue engineering simply apply and get selected based on their profile. There is no exam,” Fakhreddine Khelifa, president of the national syndicate of Tunisian engineers, told Al Arabiya News.
Engineering students in national schools have long criticized private schools for admitting students who have not gone through the foundational years.
However, in December, the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and the Ministry of Vocational Training and Employment signed an agreement that allowed vocational training graduates to also qualify for an engineering degree.
Vocational training institutes are accessible to high school dropouts and those who have not passed the baccalaureate.
The agreement triggered a nationwide strike among engineering students from public schools demanding that the ministry supervise the admissions of engineering students and apply the national exam requirement in private schools as well.
“This was the chief reason behind the strike,” Khelifa said. “This exam follows really challenging preparatory years. Those who can’t survive this educational system now have alternative ways to get around it and gain an engineering degree.”
Some private schools, such as the Ecole Supérieure Privée d’Ingénierie et de Technologie (ESPRIT), offer their own equivalent of foundational years for fresh baccalaureate graduates.
Those who have already finished three years of higher education in a given discipline can also pursue their engineering degree without having to go through the two preparatory years.
Khelifa said the random admission of students in engineering programs would “degrade” the quality of the degree.
“An engineering degree is highly respected in this country. The social status of being an engineer attracts a large number of students to pursue this field,” Khelifa said.
An overcrowded labor market is another concern for students in public schools. “The growing number of engineering graduates coming from private schools creates a problem in the job market. We already have around 10,000 unemployed engineers,” said Khelifa.
“The solution is clear: the national exam needs to be revised and made compulsory for all students without exceptions,” he added.
“We want equal opportunities among all students, and an exam is necessary to receive an engineering degree.”
The Higher Education Ministry ended the three-week strike by promising students to toughen up the requirements for engineering degrees from private schools.
A ministry official told Al Arabiya News: “We’re going to apply a new rule in the coming academic year that disables students from enrolling in engineering schools without passing the national exam or the specific exam.”
The “specific exam,” the official said, will be identical to that of the national one. “We’re going to apply the same standards utilized by the public engineering schools.” he added.
“But we’re going to have two lists: a list of students going for public schools, and a list of students going for private schools. “Those who underwent two preparatory years at a private institution and excelled in the national exam can be accepted anywhere. The conflict is over.”
In addition to the exam, the ministry has also formed a committee that is expected to inspect the admissions process in private engineering schools and revise the legal requirements for opening private institutes.
However, imposing a standardized exam on private engineering schools could harm student intake and eventually school revenues, because students intentionally choose private schooling to avoid going through the challenging state system.
“The foundational program doesn’t go for everyone. It’s stressful and intensive, and people get depressed over it,” said Seyma Menjour, an engineering student at ESPRIT.
She was accepted in the two-year program following her baccalaureate but did not pass. She then transferred to ESPRIT.
“I could be a genius in computer science, but not that great in mathematics and physics. Why do I have to excel in subjects I don’t like or I’m not good at in order to be able to pursue computer engineering?”
She added: “Not passing the national exam doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not competent enough to become an engineer. What ESPRIT is providing us with is an opportunity.”
Youssef Chiboub, another engineering student at ESPRIT, said: “At the end of the day, a given company will look at both our CVs and will choose the profile it’s looking for.”
He added: “It doesn’t matter anymore where you graduated from; it’s up to your level of competency and your experience. They’ll never be able to impose the exam on us.”
However, Ali Njim, also a student at ESPRIT, said: “They kind of have the right to protest. Practically anyone can become an engineer nowadays.”
Njim added: “Before, engineering students rarely remained unemployed. Because there’s a large number of engineers graduating from private schools, in addition to those from public schools, unemployment is on the rise.
“Can you imagine being unemployed after all that effort because someone from a private school took your place?”
While a school such as ESPRIT is doing exceptionally well in terms of training and engineering formation, not all the other private schools are up to standard, Njim said. “Some of these schools are basically selling their degrees.”
The number of licenses given out to engineering schools needs to be limited, and those schools already operating need to be supervised, he added.