TUNIS—In August 2017, the country’s leading engineering organization, the Ordre des Ingénieurs Tunisiens, took the unusual step of publishing a list of private universities in the country whose graduates it would accept for membership.
The organization also made clear that it would not accept for membership graduates of private universities that were not on its list, saying the institutions not included had not met standards of educational quality.
The organization, known as the OIT, has about 50,000 members and represents most of the country’s qualified engineers. Its action last August caused a controversy that continues to simmer.
The engineering group’s action was a public criticism of the country’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, which is responsible for maintaining standards of quality at institutions of higher education.
The OIT’s director, Oussama Kheriji, said the ministry had failed in its duty to monitor the quality of education in private educational institutions, particularly in engineering. He said the OIT had contacted the ministry several times demanding action to ensure that private universities meet the approved standards and quality, without success.
“We did not receive any response,” Kheriji said. “So we decided to publish a list of universities that we approve.”
The OIT was effectively conducting its own accreditation procedure, independently of the higher education ministry. Kheriji said that his organization asked all the country’s engineering faculties to submit data proving their commitment to the terms of their licensing. Institutions that sent data showing good quality control were recognized by the OIT. Those that did not were left off the list.
The OIT’s move caused confusion among students and academics. It also raised questions about educational quality control at universities, and those responsible for monitoring it.
In Tunisia, the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research is responsible for licensing public and private universities. The minister has the right to withdraw the license of any private university that fails to meet the necessary conditions. However, such a step requires warning the institution first. The National Commission for Assessment and Quality Assurance and Accreditation is the official body responsible for the follow-up and evaluation of higher-education institutions. (Click here to learn more about university licensing and quality controls in Tunisia).
“It is not acceptable for the OIT to issue a list of the universities it accredits, or not by itself,” Slim Khalbous, the minister of higher education and scientific research, said in a press statement. “This is beyond its authority.”
However, the ministry made no response to the OIT’s action. This aroused resentment among many academics.
Hussein Boujra, secretary-general of the Tunisian General Labor Union’s Federation of of Higher Education and Scientific Research, described the ministry’s lack of response as “terrible.”
“This silence completely undermines the credibility of the certificates granted by Tunisian private universities,” he said.
Boujra believes that the ministry is not doing its job. “Some private universities do not have qualified professors, and some do not even have enough teachers,” he said. “Although the ministry knows this, it does not lift a finger.”
Habib al-Malakh, a professor of French literature at Manouba University and head of the Tunisian Association for the Defense of Academic Values, agrees with Boujra that the ministry’s monitoring is weak. “Many private universities are more like business establishments than educational institutions, and this undoubtedly affects Tunisia’s education quality and reputation,” he said.
Al-Malakh describes the OIT’s decision as “brave.”
“The organization’s stance shows a real interest in the quality of higher education at a time when the responsible party chooses to just watch,” he said.
Doubts about educational quality are not limited to Tunisia’s engineering faculties. Many complain about the decline in the educational standards of various disciplines at a large number of private universities.
“There is a decline in law education,” said Abdellatif Titouhi, a member of Tunisia’s bar association. “This is something that I personally notice when I compare my academic education with that of my daughter who is currently studying law,” he said.
He added, however, that the bar association cannot intervene: “It is not our responsibility.”
Nidal el-Khadrawi, secretary-general of the General Union of Tunisian Students, called on the ministry of higher education to effectively supervise the work of private universities.
“We, too, as a student organization, have demanded and still demand the existence of an effective authority supervising private universities,” el-Khadrawi said. “They are now offering certificates for money without paying attention to the efficiency of the professors.”
However, Khalbous, the minister of higher education and scientific research, defends his ministry’s record. “We are in a period of reform and change, and we cannot change everything at once,” he said in a statement to Al-Fanar Media.
In January, the ministry gave private universities three years to raise their quality standards.
“We can shut down the universities, but that’s not our goal,” Khalbous said. “We want everyone to adhere to quality standards to develop and advance education. Recently, we have stopped granting new licenses to any university and we are working to intensify our monitoring and follow-up efforts.”