"Our country has a deep and rich history…" explains the captivating Minister of Education for Tunisia, H.E. Mr Neji Jalloul. When he tells us about Hannibal fighting the Roman Empire and his elephants crossing the Alps, I am filled with memories from my childhood stories.
History and education are deeply intertwined. I am in Tunisia as part of the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity's (the Education Commission) dialogue with heads of state and government across Africa to present the Learning Generation report and share ideas on an international financing facility for education. The mission was led by our Commissioners H.E. Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete, the former President of Tanzania and H.E. Dr. Amel Karboul, former Minister of Tourism for Tunisia.
Education Minister Jalloul, with a PhD in History, continues to enlighten us. We learn about the Berbers, an ancient indigenous group scattered across countries of North Africa. And about the Phoenicians, who migrated to Tunisia from the Eastern Mediterranean coast, making the land part of the famous Carthage Empire. The Romans followed in 149 BC. The Arabs took over in the 7th century. Then came the Ottomans, the French and finally independence from France in 1956.
Tunisia is fascinating. It reaches the most northern tip of Africa, a whisper away from the Italian island of Sicily, and nestles between Libya to the southeast and Algeria to the west. It has numerous UNESCO world heritage sites, including a 6,000-year-old amphitheater. Flanked by the Mediterranean Sea and impressive Atlas mountains in the North, plains in the centre, and the Sahara desert in the South, it is pure beauty.
With a population of 11.5 million, the country is small– and so is the national budget. Since 2000, the government has spent a remarkable 20 – 30 per cent of its budget annually on education. This makes it the largest budget item and above the average for a middle income country, but so are the teachers' salaries, which start at over 400 per cent of GDP per capita, while starting salaries in high-performing education systems around the world range from 80-120 per cent. The consequence is that well over 90 per cent of the budget is comprised of teachers and administrators' salaries, leaving a small percentage for other expenditures such as investment, skills-building and infrastructure.
While the teachers receive high remuneration, accountability is often limited. Measurement of teacher performance and results (testing) is either weak or largely absent.
Tunisia has been very successful in achieving gender parity, access to education with universal enrollment in both primary and secondary school. The university and pre-primary have both expanded quickly. But high expenditure has not translated into learning results or employment and some standards are dropping.
Every day 300 adolescents aged 12 to 17 years old leave school. One in three of Tunisia's youth is unemployed while 25 per cent of Tunisian companies report they cannot fill vacancies dues to a lack of qualified candidates. Tunisia has a skills mismatch and worrying youth unemployment. Tunisia's young people are not learning the skills demanded by the labor market.
Minister Jalloul explained that the government is focused on improving governance and management of the sector, quality of teaching and learning outcomes, which are reflected in their national strategies. They have already taken important steps to improve accountability throughout the sector.
The Minister is determined to increase access to pre-school education, decrease high drop-out and repetition rates as well as the inequality among regions and schools. Drop-outs and failure rates are concentrated in particular regions.
This national focus on education was clearly articulated by President Essebsi, who we had the honor to meet. A sharp, twinkly eyed 90-year-old President with evident wisdom, he expressed clear enthusiasm for education and the work of the Education Commission. "We are excited by the prospects of the Pioneer Country Initiative, and supportive of the Commission's International Financing Facility for education which can release additional – and much needed – funds for countries across the African continent," he stated.
The President added, "Tunisians have long been proud to call ourselves 'Education Champions,' and today is no exception. I look forward to seeing what can be achieved with the Commission as we work together in common cause."
UNICEF is an important partner to the government. Lila Pieter's, UNICEF's Tunisia representative said, "I am very happy that UNICEF is associated with a nation that is shaping and championing the education system for tomorrow's children".
While in Tunis, I also had the pleasure of meeting Ouided Bouchanaoui, who was part of the National Dialogue Quartet who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015. The quartet helped establish a political process to prevent the Jasmine revolution from descending out of control. This is an inspiring story of hope, courage and conviction. Ouided outlined the importance of education for creating socially cohesive societies, and stressed the importance of education for rural women.
Civil society activists with whom we spoke were brimming with ideas such as stronger links with the private sector to strengthen vocational training and skills for the job market; increasing the role of social enterprises; students mentoring students; ranking schools to increase monitoring and accountability; focusing on management and results with improved data for equity, employability of graduates, teacher performance, and delivery; strengthening and supporting the teaching force. And above all, making learning fun!
As a Commission, our next steps are to visit more countries, put in place practical workshops, and focus on financing education. This is an exciting time for education across the world. As we witness huge transformations in telecommunications, energy, agriculture and health, it is now education's time to do the same. Technology and innovation can reduce the skills mismatch, mobile learning can extend learning beyond the classroom and digital access can make learning fun. Tunisia is perfectly placed to be a leader in that transformation.
Caroline Kende Robb is Chief Adviser for the Education Commission.