Back-to-school expenses prove prohibitive for Tunisian families

Supermarkets bear the greatest responsibility in retail price hikes, which sometimes reach 30%.
Saturday 28/09/2019
Challenges and hopes. Students cross their arms as they listen to their teacher at the Hakim Kassar Primary School in Tunis, September 16.(Reuters)
Challenges and hopes. Students cross their arms as they listen to their teacher at the Hakim Kassar Primary School in Tunis, September 16.(Reuters)

TUNIS - More than 2.5 million Tunisian students returned for the next school year on September 17 after most of their families had to scramble to deal with the soaring prices of schoolbooks and supplies.

Some families borrowed money or bought from parallel markets, despite poorer quality of the goods offered and potentially harmful effects on the health of children.

Parents have faced additional pressure this year because of new measures and syllabus changes, which meant new textbooks and materials. Riadh Boubaker, director of Tunisia’s National Pedagogical Centre, said the introduction of French as a subject in the syllabus for the second year of basic education and of English in the syllabus of the fourth year of basic education was among the changes.

After completing compulsory online registration, families began purchasing school supplies but many were overwhelmed by high prices.

The head of the National Chamber of Trade for School and Office Supplies Wholesalers Faisal al-Abbasi said prices of about half of the needed school supplies at Tunisian schools increased 60% from 2017-19. He explained this was primarily due to increases in the price of raw materials.

Abbasi said supermarkets bear the greatest responsibility in retail price hikes, which sometimes reach 30%. Supermarkets are slowly replacing traditional neighbourhood bookshops as main sources for school supplies.

Textbook prices in Tunisia are normally set by the government. Boubaker said textbook prices have not changed for four years. However, prices for other supplies are pushing many families to borrow money to meet the expenses.

Najiba Kouki, a divorced mother of three girls, said: “The back-to-school season caught up with us while we were still reeling from the expenses of Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.

“Frankly, our numerous holidays have become a big financial burden for the average Tunisian and we are still expected to meet the expenses of electricity, water, sanitation and a successful beginning of the school year.”

A survey by the National Consumer Institute at the end of 2018, working off a sample of 3,015 family heads, indicated that about 1.8 million families in Tunisia find loans indispensable. The survey said 20% of families with debt resorted to borrowing to pay off previous loans, risking being permanently in debt.

Some families resorted to the parallel market for school supplies, despite potential health risks to students.

“I applied for an advance payment on my salary from my institution but my request was turned down because I had already got a loan from the bank,” said Basma al-Hidri, a private-sector employee and mother of four children at different educational levels. “So now I turned to parallel markets where school supplies are sold at reasonable prices.”

“Even if the quality of the supplies in the parallel market is not always good, they do the trick. Providing the school needs of four children at different educational levels from the regular bookshops would eat up my entire salary,” she said.

Authorities warned about the health risks of the uncontrolled products in the parallel market, saying they may contain hazardous chemicals that can have immediate effects (allergies, skin irritation) or cause long-term issues (kidney disease, cancer).

The Tunisian Organisation for the Defence of Consumers campaigned to raise awareness among parents and children about the health risks of uncontrolled products and urge them to get their supplies through regular channels of distribution because those products have been checked for health risks.

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