TUNIS—Tunisian professors seeking better pay and working conditions are emigrating in large numbers, leaving the students and professors left behind worrying the country’s quality of education.
Over the past three years, more than 1,800 university professors have left the country, including 800 this year, according to Tunisia’s minister of higher education.
“Some professors have started to leave since 2011, but recently the numbers have increased significantly,” said Slim Khalbous, the minister of higher education and scientific research, in an interview. “They are exercising their right to choose their future, but we are losing important national cadres.”
The resignations especially affect master’s degree and Ph.D. students, who are having difficulty finding qualified supervisors to oversee their research. For example, more than 200 postgraduate students in fine arts, media and English literature at the university Tunis 9 Avril need supervision, while the number of supervising professors does not exceed ten.
“Many of the lectures at the scientific, medical and engineering faculties are halted in some universities due to the lack of professors or anybody to replace them,” said Ahmed al-Thawadi, a member of the General Union of Tunisian Students’ Executive Office and an engineering student at the Monastir University. “This is a big problem.”
Like most Arab countries, Tunisia’s public university professors suffer from difficult economic conditions that force most of them to seek other income through tutoring or part-time evening work, or even to leave the country in search of a better-paid job. (Read the related story: “The Economic Struggle of Public University Professors”).
“The matter is not new,” said Khalil al-Amiri, a professor of history at the faculty of humanities and social science of Tunis 9 Avril and the state secretary at the Tunisian General Labor Union’s Higher Education and Scientific Research Public University. “As professors, we have been demanding the improvement of our living conditions for more than five years. The professors who are leaving are an irreplaceable loss.”
In Tunisia, a university professor earns an average of 2,000 Tunisian dinars (US$900) per month, while a typical four-member household in Tunisia spent an average of 3,871 Tunisian dinars (US$1,605) per month in 2015, according to the National Statistics Institute.
“Many of them pay for their transportation to universities in the southern regions,” al-Amiri said. “And many have no opportunities for professional development within the universities or budgets to support their research. So, they are forced to look for supportive institutions abroad.”
Essam el-Metousi, a university professor at Manouba University and a member of the Higher Education Committee in parliament, agrees with al-Amiri about the weak financial allowances for university professors and the lack of support. “The problem is that those who leave often do not think of coming back,” he said, “as there is no change in policies. On the contrary, the situation is getting worse.”
Still, Tunisia’s ministry of higher education rejects accusations of dereliction. The minister of higher education announced early this month that his ministry is working on a study to improve the conditions of university professors in the country. The minister also said that the ministry is considering ways to benefit from the departing professors through partnerships with the universities abroad that they work for, to ensure that the country benefits from their research there.
Professors often do not resign from Tunisian universities upon their departure, but apply for open leave to travel abroad and keep their right to return whenever they want. This also exposes them to criticism.
“Any professor has the right to seek a better living,” said al-Amiri. “But remaining a staff member at the university even if without payment does not offer opportunities to assign replacements. There should be a certain period of time for unpaid open leaves.”
The departing professors deny they are the cause of the problem. Recently, some 200 Tunisian university professors working at Gulf universities signed a petition responding to accusations of hurting standards of education at Tunisian universities. They also rejected the proposal to set a time period for periods of leave, as this would negatively affect their chances to work abroad.
“Getting out of the country is not easy, but our living standard in Tunisia is unacceptable,” said Waseem Qirbi, a professor of multimedia who left Tunisia to work at the Muscat University’s fine arts faculty in Oman. “Here, we get more than four times our wages in our country, besides housing and mobility allowances and comfortable conditions. Universities here pay great attention to research and support research professors, something we are sorely lacking in Tunisia.”
Thuraya al-Senoussi, a university professor at Al Ghurair Private University in the United Arab Emirates, agrees with Qirbi that money is not the only motive for professors to leave Tunisia.
“While we are receiving moral and material support abroad as research professors, we suffer from severe restrictions in Tunisia, besides the lack of qualified research laboratories,” she said. “Most research ends up in desk drawers and no one wants to take advantage of it.”
The debate over the reasons for professors leaving, and the accusations about their responsibility, does not seem likely to end soon. But it is certain that the departure of professors will continue. Hamza Dhay, a professor of psychology at a private university in Tunisia is considering leaving the country soon.
“I am looking for an opportunity to work outside Tunisia,” he said. “I want to open my own clinic in the future, but my work here will not enable me to do so. Working abroad for some years will reduce the time it takes to make my dream come true.”