TUNIS—Tunisia, often praised internationally as the sole success story from the 2011 Arab uprisings, has the will to improve higher education, but hasn’t yet found the way.
The country’s continuing economic crisis and increased efforts to combat terror are blocking efforts to improve the quality of its universities. The latest terrorist attack, which resulted in the deaths of at least 37 people at a beach resort, may serve to reinforce the flow of money away from education and toward security efforts.
Since the revolution, Tunisia has steadily decreased the share of its federal budget spent on higher education and research—from 6.9 percent in 2010 to 4.8 percent in 2015.
While the higher education budget as a percentage has shrunk, some government officials point out that because the national budget has grown, the actual money devoted to higher education has increased. The 2015 higher-education budget reached 1.52 billion dinars ($780,000,000) in 2015, up from 1.34 billion ($690,000,000) the previous year.
But the Ministry of Higher Education and Research has this year integrated the former Ministry of New Technologies and Communication, leaving even less money for higher education and research, according to the official website of the Tunisian 2015 Finance Law.
Meanwhile, the combined budgets of the Tunisian ministries of defense and interior witnessed a 15 percent increase this year. The increases are to be spent on weapons, technology and other needs of the security forces.
The government attributes the ministries’ budget spikes to the increase in terror threats. Of the Arab countries, Tunisia provides the most foreign fighters to the Islamic State and has suffered from extremist attacks at home. Tunisia is also vulnerable to violence spilling across the border with the increasingly unstable Libya.
“We raised the defense and security sectors’ budgets by 15 percent since we all agree that terrorism constitutes a major challenge to the state,” said a former minister of finance, Hakim Ben Hammouda, who laid the foundation for the new budget.
The continuing economic crisis may also hinder future budget expansion. In 2014, Tunisia saw a drop in revenue from phosphate production—a major industry—and in tourism, also a larger earner for the country.
Tunisia needs 2.5 billion dinars —$1.28 billion—in funding and foreign loans to cover this year’s deficit, taking into consideration that foreign debt last year reached 31 percent of GDP, according to Finance Minister Slim Chaker.
The Tunisian government has drastically cut budgets in all segments of education. The Education Ministry and the Higher Education and Research Ministry dropped to 18 percent of the national budget in 2015, from 23 percent in 2013. Despite the drop, the Education Ministry, which oversees primary and high schools, has the largest budget of all the ministries.
A former Tunisian education minister, Salem Labyedh, said limitations on the budget will hurt efforts to improve educational infrastructure. The budget for higher education will barely cover wages, much less support innovation or scientific research, he said.
Labyedh said the federal budgets during the past few years were already “austere,” which was reflected in higher education. The problem, he added, is that national policy has not prioritized education since the revolution.
Education unions are critical of the budget priorities. “Funds for the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research do not comply with the needs of the universities, and of scientific research,” said Hussein Boujarra, the secretary general of the higher education section in the Tunisian General Labor Union.
“We should not forget the growth in the number of students,” he added, “and also the fact that if we intend to improve the services and quality of education, we have to increase the budget.”
“Many laboratories in Tunisian universities are now teaching theoretically rather than practically because of the lack of adequate equipment,” he added.
Tijani Sakni, the union leader for faculty members at the University of Kairouan, says the lack of funds is clearly evident, and as a result, recruitment of professors has dropped.
“Scientific research is deteriorating because of the lack of full-time scholarships,” he said. “Salaries are insufficient to cover costs of living in another city, transportation, printing expenses, and buying scientific publications from foreign countries,” he said. “I wonder if the Ministry of Higher Education sees any real value in scientific research at all.”
According to the Tunisian Student Union, university students have also been hurt by lower higher-education spending. They have trouble finding decent housing and paying for transportation. The food in university cafeterias is of low quality and most students choose to avoid it. College scholarships have not been adjusted for inflation.
“Nobody can deny the accumulating problems are hurting universities especially after the increase in students [at public universities]—now topping 400,000—and the deterioration of university services,” said the student union, in a press release.
“Thousands of students are deprived of their right to adequate education for lack of academic leadership.”
Some say it’s urgent to reconsider the priorities. “We have to understand that the knowledge-based economy requires new arrangements, additional services and new mindsets,” said Hassan Al-Yahmady, director-general of the Tunisian General Labor Union for higher education. “We have to invest in universities by allocating real funds.”
Moez Al-Jowdy, professor of economics and chairman of the Tunisian Association for Governance, an independent think tank, said that in spite of budget pain, the government is doing what is necessary to pave the way for reform.
“The new budget allocations are difficult, but maintaining stability and combating terrorism are a necessity, too, in order to restore the old budgetary system,” he said. “No doubt health and education are the two most negatively affected sectors.”
Indeed, even some of the education budget itself is being eaten up by the fear of terrorism. The Ministry of Higher Education and Research and the Education Ministry have set aside funds to protect their institutions, according to Nagy Geloul, minister of education. The ministries plan to hire 1,000 guards.