If one were to ask young Arabs about their aspirations for the future, most would talk of their expectations of fundamental changes in politics and governance, the protection of human rights, economic development, and a yearning for enduring peace in the region’s hot spots, to name but a few.
In the minds of the region’s youth, structural deficits in a number of sectors, particularly healthcare and education, continually impede progress toward improving their lives or livelihoods and, by extension, the economic, political and social conditions in the wider Arab region.
This is a remarkable indictment of the growing gulf between promises of change by successive regimes and the woeful, 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 multigenerational poverty, and ultimately results in members of the region’s largest demographic facing grim futures.
If the Arab world is to succeed at transforming a landscape marred by decades of past failures and the conflagration of crises threatening to engulf it today, the key lies in reforming the education, inclusion and participation of its disaffected youth.
This is absolutely essential in countries such as Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Lebanon that are struggling with multifaceted woes worsened, in part, by failed interventions to fix broken education systems.
In Tunisia, for instance, priorities among the youth tend to skew toward the pursuit of economic reforms, free of the current political malaise, to reverse deteriorating conditions and transform the demographics into active, contributing members of society.
However, a focus on economic issues, while urgently needed, overshadows serious problems in 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 distinguished the North African country from its regional peers and granted its citizens unparalleled opportunities for upward mobility.
Unfortunately, the current state of the country’s education system is a far cry from the heyday of President Habib Bourguiba’s still-lauded efforts to create an educated and empowered post-colonial workforce by promoting an inclusive, coeducational, bilingual and secular education agenda that prized quality over quantity.
While overall university enrollment was low, most secondary 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 agenda sought to preempt a troubling regional trend in which education was increasingly becoming a tool to garner loyalty and legitimacy by turning the system into a clientelistic rewards program. Molding young minds with rigid pedagogy tinged with nationalist propaganda, dogma and exclusionary rhetoric helped stave off any “threat” of debate or criticism of those in power throughout most postcolonial Arab societies. However, curricula emphasizing rote learning, memorization and acceptance of absolute truths will eventually wreak havoc by producing graduating classes ill-equipped to engage with a changed, and still-changing, world.
Should Tunisia’s leaders fail to address the continuing rise in 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 standing while also shoring up its labor force and nascent professional classes. By investing a fifth of the public budget on education, the country was, unlike its peers, investing in the future and raising its profile and competitiveness. However, for Tunisia to reap the benefits of such a carefully curated system required continuous vigilance, adaptation and prioritization — which Bourguiba’s successor, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, was not prepared to do.
In vain attempts to associate the regime during the Ben Ali era with the noted successes of a progressive, secular and modern education system, as well as to cover up rising school dropout rates, universities lowered academic standards for admission and padded graduates’ credentials. This endeavor flooded Tunisia’s labor market with graduate job seekers who lacked the requisite knowledge, skills and expertise to fill rapidly dwindling roles.
Now, close to 80 percent 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 unsurprising, given that Tunisia ranks in the bottom five of 70 countries in terms of learning performance in science, reading, mathematics and collaborative problem-solving.
In fact, about two-thirds of secondary school graduates in the country are barely able to achieve minimum scores required to participate in modern society. Additionally, in one study Tunisia ranked in the bottom three of 50 countries based on assessments of student performance during their formative years, which triggered warnings from scholars, analysts and educators about serious deficiencies in early-learning programs.
Currently, only 25 percent of Tunisian university graduates secure some form of employment. The rest are left to grapple with the chilling reality that they acquired an education for jobs that simply do not exist and probably never will. Worse yet, graduates of Tunisia’s tertiary institutions reportedly have a more challenging time finding employment than those without degrees.
The continued neglect of the education system, and a lack of targeted interventions to address the mismatch between educational outcomes and job prospects, has already led to a brain drain as Tunisia’s best and brightest head elsewhere in search of work. In addition, the aspirational ideals of the few still able to access and capitalize on quality private education tend to overshadow the ways in which policy failures in the 1990s have become a costly liability, contributing to growing inequality.
If, or when, the elites in Tunis get around to fixing the broken education system, the priority must be to resurrect Bourguiba’s legacy and reinstate the broad, bold, progressive and secular curricula that prized tolerance, encouraged debate and sought to transform Tunisian youths into worldly-wise adults.Beyond tackling a growing learning deficit, any potential solutions to this crisis are only viable if they acknowledge how the state of education in Tunisia is a byproduct of a stagnant economy now hobbling through a pandemic.
In other words, aside from updating curricula and fixing the unfair geographical distribution of schools (which favors Greater Tunis and the Mediterranean coast), the government must also address the ways in which the degrees on offer are no longer in line with post-2011 socioeconomic realities or the demands of the Tunisian job market.
Most post-revolution graduates tend to seek employment in the public sector, despite holding specialist qualifications better suited for the private sector, which is key to reviving employment, provided the government incentivizes such a reorientation by, for example, freezing its own hiring.
This “cancer” and its symptoms are evident not only to Tunisians but also to external observers. Numerous studies have been published that include proposals outlining ways in which the government can respond in a timely manner to preempt the all-too-familiar volatility that precedes widespread unrest.
Increasingly, a disordered education sector and a government distracted by mostly political troubles has crippled learning in Tunisia, both for those who can afford it — at great cost — and those who cannot and no longer see any value in it.
Should Tunisia’s leaders fail to address these troubling trends, including the continuing rise in 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 with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell