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Politics, Education and Unrest

This is the sixth in a series of blog posts from Rebecca Christianson, an Associate Professor of Applied Physics at Olin College who is in Tunisia as a Fulbright Specialist. She is blogging about her experiences while she is away.

Last week, protests in Algeria and the demands of the military led to the ouster of their long-time dictator.  In addition, a rebel militia leader in Libya began a violent offensive on Tripoli in an attempt to overthrow the UN supported government.  This is an uncomfortable situation for Tunisia, which sits between the two countries, and is a fraction of their size and economic power:  both Libya and Algeria are oil-producing states, while the only oil Tunisia produces comes from olives. The current situation is being compared to the Arab Spring of 2011 which began in Tunisia, and only in Tunisia did the democratic fervor of that event result in lasting democracy.  Tunisia held free elections in 2014, and last week the current president announced that he will not seek another term in the elections due to be held this fall here.  It was an eventful week in North Africa to say the least! 

Yet democracy alone does not guarantee prosperity or stability. Tunisia has struggled, and is still struggling economically. I have heard plentiful complaining and evidence of inept government operation here, which significantly impacts quality of life and security.  If the economic situation in particular does not improve, it could easily destabilize the democracy and the liberal, open-to-the-world feel of the country.

Esprit is trying to help.  Esprit was founded in a similar way to Olin:  the founders talked with representatives from industry to establish the skillsets that are most valued in engineering hiring today, and then crafted a project-based curriculum to develop those skills: teamwork, project management, business basics, communication skills, etc.  Tunisia has always had a good educational system, with free state-sponsored college, but the absence of competition in education seems to have led to some complacency in these institutions.  When Esprit was founded just 16 years ago, it was one of the first private schools in Tunisia, and is now also one of the largest with 6000 students. And, as Esprit has pushed the envelope with being the first accredited engineering program in the country and with an extremely high employment rate for its graduates, the public schools have upped their game to try to keep up.  A significant portion of the highly-trained Esprit graduates also stay in Tunisia after graduation, contributing to attracting more tech companies to establish locations here, and reducing the persistent ‘brain drain’ which this country has long experienced. 

But Esprit is extremely resource-limited.  I have recently been involved in some conversations at Olin about the financial state of the college and some of the resource problems that we face there.  All I can say is by comparison we are very fortunate.  I heard someone here describe Esprit as ‘delivering a world class engineering education on zero dinars a day.’  Last week, I heard two days of project talks by students in the electromechanical department, many of whom were entering the build phase of their projects.  Yet they are building their physical projects out of the scraps left over from previous projects, from bits and pieces purchased cheap from second-hand stores, and only a small budget for new purchases, many of which will have to be shipped to Tunisia with lead times which can stretch into months for even simple purchases.  The students will make a significant part of the project by hand, but the machine shop only has a small collection of equipment, most of which is extremely old.

Yet, Esprit has fashioned opportunity out of this challenge.  Some of the student projects are intentionally framed as taking previous student projects and improving them, so resources can be reused.  The students get just as significant an engineering education building from second-hand available parts as they do when they are able to order the top-of-the-line components and have them shipped next day. Indeed, they may learn more this way since they have to pay attention to costs, trade-offs and advanced planning.  And a number of student projects also focus specifically on creating products that will be useful for future generations of student projects:  for instance, the student project to create a motorized saw for cutting small metal stock, or the group working on a combined laser engraver/3D printer, or the numerous groups who were working on creating software tools to help later students learn particular engineering frameworks and processes.  

The largest challenge that Esprit faces, though, is with their faculty.  Their faculty have high teaching loads, with upwards of 15 contact hours per week every semester, but with lower pay than is offered at the public universities.  Some of the faculty I’ve talked to have taken on additional work outside of Esprit just to make a bit more money.  Also, the faculty are teaching the students high-demand, highly employable skills, so it only makes sense that the faculty also possess these skills, and hence are in high demand.  The turnover rate in the faculty is, then, understandably very high. Two weeks ago, three faculty left Espirt and another two left last week. 

Students can begin the semester with one professor teaching a class and end it with another.  Some of the faculty have worked at Esprit for a long time and are very passionate about the mission of the school and interested in exploring new and different ways of teaching, but in general, Esprit has not, I think, spent enough time thinking about their faculty:  who they are, what are their goals, what is the value to them in working at, or in staying at, Esprit.  Once again, I am struck by how lucky we are in our situation at Olin, and how small our complaints and dissatisfactions feel when compared to the challenges here.  

Overall here, there is a sense of urgency in Tunisia.  There is a race going on between the tide of economic improvement and the reactionary, ultra-conservative forces that are using the hardship of the current situation to try to turn back the clock on political and social reforms. 

Education is a part of the answer, and Esprit is playing a role, but Tunisia could use some help.  Not aid, so much as economic investment. It will take industry to recognize the opportunity presented by the highly skilled, under-employed workforce in the country and move in to take advantage of it.  Microsoft, HP and Samsung all already have.  Let’s hope that the pace of economic development accelerates fast enough for the seed of democracy that was planted here in 2011 to grow, and hopefully spread to Tunisia’s larger and more powerful neighbors.