Tunisia university entrance exams highlight regional disparities
TUNIS - Tunisian students from coastal areas had nearly a three times better success rate in university entrance exams than counterparts in less-privileged regions, underlying the disparity in many socio-economic fields, including education.
In Sfax, a coastal economic powerhouse in central Tunisia, 49% of students succeeded in the final secondary school graduation exam. The province’s figure was the highest in the country. It distanced many other provinces, especially those in underprivileged regions such as Kasserine, which showed a success rate of 16%. That province, 200km west of Sfax, faces a particularly high unemployment rate.
An industrial town where families often emphasise education, Sfax is home to many skilled professionals and a regional manufacturing, trade and service hub.
Sfax scored 0.55 on Tunisia’s regional development indicator, compared to 0.16 for Kasserine. The indicator takes into account 17 factors related to wealth, employment, education and knowledge, health and social justice.
About 43% of students in Monastir, another developed coastal region, passed the baccalaureate exam, compared to 22% and 20%, respectively, in the southern regions of Tataouine and Kebili.
In the 13 most developed regions in Tunisia, students’ success rates ranged 32%-49%. In the remaining 13 regions, the success rate was 16%-28%.
Baccalaureate exams are critical for Tunisian students’ futures, determining which subjects they qualify to study at university. Many students use the high school education performance as a way to leave Tunisia, with those scoring the highest often enrolling in universities outside the country.
Public education has been one of Tunisia’s most important sectors since independence, providing a gateway to development, growth and security but, in recent years, a lack of reforms and teachers’ strikes over conditions and wages left the system less effective, especially for students from less-developed areas.
For many upper-class families, private education offers their children a quality curriculum through which they can more easily distinguish themselves.
Cheating during final exams plagues both private and public education. “Private education recorded 200 cases of cheating and bad manner compared to 440 cases in the public sector even when the private sector has 18,000 students compared to 107,000 students for the public sector,” said Omar Ouelbani, who oversees exams at the Ministry of Education.
Tunisia’s student-parent association said the drop-out rate was one of the biggest problems facing the system.
A poll conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development indicated that 27% of Tunisians aged 15-24 said they intended to leave the country, the highest rate in Africa. However, 60% said they would not be interested in emigrating if they could secure good jobs at home, the poll results stated.
“Results of the students depend on the economic, social and cultural conditions in the regions and the social and cultural levels of the families. It is urgent to implement an effective strategy to fill the gaps between regions and families,” said the parent-teacher association, adding that “private lessons for students out of school classrooms played an important role in the results of this year.”
Regional disparities often fuel social discontent with underprivileged regions complaining of discrimination and clamouring for more government spending and better employment opportunities and living conditions.
Families, political leaders and security officials see a functioning education system as key to preventing radicalisation.
“Extremism starts as a deviant idea that transforms into destructive animosity towards the direct environment,” said Nejib Zbidi, a senior education official and member of the Education Reforms Committee. “School has a crucial role in fighting extremism as education and teaching deal with ideas and thinking.”