From the day he held office, Neji Jalloul, the former Tunisian education minister had a very precise (and one he thought to be clever) strategy for how he intended to run his ministry.
Apart from the alarming needs of the Tunisian education system, Jalloul’s political aims were synonymous to that of any typical dictator: to hold office for as long as he could. His love for power, coupled with his obsession with being on the spotlights, have brought everyone’s attention towards him exposing his futile policies, false promises and extreme foolishness in regards to education reform in the country.
As a university professor and a Sorbonne graduate, many believed that a man with such an experience in the field of education would have concrete ideas that can lead the country to take a significant step in the process of education reform. Tunisians alike-whether teachers, professors, students or administrators-acknowledge the fact that education in Tunisia has been facing aggravating problems and obstacles. Regardless of our affiliations with the Tunisian education system, we have all seen the struggle of elementary school kids carrying school bags twice their size and we have all sensed the stress and fear of high school students because of the Baccalaureate exam. Whether we have lived it or not, we all stand as witnesses of the dehumanizing effects of this “System.”
Since his first appearances, Neji Jalloul made it clear that he had adopted “Education Reform” as his slogan as well as his objective as a minister of education. Not only on radio stations and newspapers, but also on T.V., Neji Jalloul utilized every media source he could reach to spread the word about himself, as well as, about his plans as a minister. For weeks and even months, we were obliged to listen to him go on and on about the miserable state of education, one with which we were very familiar. We were also reminded millions of times about his willingness to take on a revolutionary and radical change to education in Tunisia. But, we already knew that that was the approach that needs to be taken and we were still looking forward to seeing it take shape. Besides publishing a book and executing poorly-thought decisions (some of which even got pulled back by the minister himself), nothing much was accomplished by Neji Jalloul. In contrast, so much was ruined and the state of education in Tunisia worsened.
I was a senior in high school when Jalloul decided to ban the Tunisian tradition of outside-of-school tutoring. This decision, although advertised by him as an effective way to combat and stop the financial and psychological exploitation of students by teachers outside of schools, did nothing but create more fear and stress amongst students who found themselves with less resources to tackle the monstrous aspects, which we all know very well, of the Baccalaureate examination. First, contradicting his advertised purpose behind this decision, Jallou did not take any action towards the tutoring that happens inside schools. Instead, he even made it clear that he wanted to continue with it. Based on this, it is easy to deduce that his decisions were, by no means, against the principle of tutoring and the extra pressure and commitment it is putting on students. They were instead focused on how much money would schools be able to generate from this tradition that he clearly showed no real interest in banning. Second, Jalloul’s decision lacked a very important component, which is implementation. A few days after the announcement of these new regulations by the minister, most teachers who engage in tutoring outside of school found it easy to continue teaching at one of their students’ houses instead of their own. That way, no one could find out about their engagement in tutoring or be able to report it. The students and parents, feeling the need for such tutoring to continue, cooperated with teachers and everything flowed the way it used to.
Jalloul, of course, did not miss any opportunity to celebrate his fake and non-existent victory on every media channel he could have access to, leaving many wondering about either his outstanding time management skills or the shocking amount of free time he possessed as a minister. The second supposition is probably the one that holds the truest as most of Jalloul’s “Solutions” were nothing but shallow, convoluted and improvised decisions that do not pertain a bit to education reform. The cancellation of the examination weeks, his re-implementation of the semester system, and his adjustment of the academic year’s breaks are all examples of his “on the spot”, unsuccessful policies.
The issue of tutoring, for example, is a deeply rooted problem in the Tunisian education system. This tutoring was created and maintained due to our system’s use of memorization-based testing. The more problems the students work on, in subjects like math and physics, the more likely they will encounter familiar content on the tests and the higher their grades will be. In a system where quantity is favored over quality, students find themselves obliged to have even more than 3 tutoring session a week with 3 different professors in hopes of being exposed to more strategies and problems. Teachers, who are unhappy with their salary, find this system very profitable and convenient. Some even go as far as pressuring students to take their tutoring sessions by making their tests harder, providing the students with little content during class, and playing on their fears (which tends to work very well as the academic future of students is tied to their Baccalaureate exam results). In order for this problem to be resolved and this principle to be abandoned, the evaluation methods we use with our students need to be changed. Only then will this “tutoring” become a complementary rather than a necessary component of the Tunisian education. Other solutions can take the form of providing more resources to our students that help them throughout their learning process, so that they do not find themselves victims of the societal and educational pressures of engaging in tutoring. We also need to implement strategies that increase the amount of supervision that we have on the quality and quantity of the academic content delivered by teachers in classrooms.
These are the interconnections and complexities of education in Tunisia that Neji Jalloul did not seem to understand or chose to ignore. The ability to critically look at problems and come up with solutions that target the root causes of our educational issues are all qualities that Jalloul lacked. Without these skills, he was clearly undeserving of the position he was granted and incapable of enacting any type of sustainable and effective change in his ministry. With him gone, we might be relieved from Jalloul’s unpredictable and destructive approach to education reform. However, we will still be faced with the task of finding a real education reform leader to fill his critical position. With the continued political unrest in the current government, it is very unlikely that a wise choice would be made by the prime minister. That is why, it is on our shoulders to advocate and protest for the appointment of an education minister qualified for such a position. Just like we went out to the streets to protest Jalloul’s policies, we need to call for the unification of forces, so that change in education can happen. This change does not only occur with a well-qualified and informed minister. It also occurs with our willingness as teachers to better our teaching methodologies, as administrators to better cooperate, as parents to monitor and report, and as students to resist and protest our right to an empowering education. The cultural shift that is needed for education reform to happen in Tunisia requires the hard work and efforts of all members of the society. Now is the time for us to act.
I am Walid Hedidar, a Tunisian student currently studying anthropology and international studies at the University of Denver in the U.S.