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Tunisian university councils vote for change

Tunisian university councils are for the first time electing the presidents of universities and directors of engineering schools.

The elections, which took place last week, mark a shift in the governance of Tunis’s 13 public universities.

Previously, faculty deans were the only positions to be put to a vote, and participation by staff was low, explained a veteran academic from the University of Tunis El Manar, the country’s leading higher education institution.

In the past, the minister of higher education and scientific research appointed heads of universities and engineering schools on the basis of their personal political affiliation with the ruling party.

But the revolution earlier this year, which toppled the regime of then-president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, has seen a shift away from appointing university management.

The new Tunisian system sees academics at each university first elect a scientific committee, consisting of five professors and five assistant professors, to act on their behalf.

The committee then administers elections for the university council, and the new university councils then voted in their presidents last week.

Participation in recent university elections by the academics has been high, Research Africa was told.

At the University of Monastir, located in the central coastal region of Tunis, structural mechanics lecturer Abdelwaheb Dogui replaced incumbent Mohamed Bakir Rammah.

However, at the University of Carthage, located in the capital city, Tunis, mechanical engineer Lassaad El Asmi was re-elected as president.

But El Asmi is not linked with the previous regime. El Asmi was appointed by the caretaker government this year in place of University of Carthage president Jemaïel Ben Brahim, who was accused of refusing to allow academics to attend international conferences, although they had gone through the correct procedures.

Many eyes have been focused on the elections at the University of Tunis El Manar, which is listed among the world’s top 2000 universities by the informatics institute at Turkey’s Middle East Technical University.

Mohamed Ridha Ben Hammad, the president of the University of Tunis El Manar, was replaced by Abdelhafidh Gharbi, a mathematics professor.

Ben Hammad “represents the old system,” said a professor from Tunis El Manar, who nonetheless asked that he not be identified by Research Africa.

Doing away with political appointees may help universities to operate autonomously, he said.

“The more important decisions come from the minister, and the dean and directors had no big power. Even the president of the university [had] no influence in the decision of the ministry,” he said.

For example, the National Engineering School of Tunis (Ecole Nationale d’Ingénieurs de Tunis, or ENIT) had waited two years for the old ministry to approve their proposal to set up a new department.

“We must wait several months (and sometimes years) to have the agreement of the ministry to improve [our] scientific programmes,’’ said a lecturer from ENIT, which is affiliated to the University of Tunis El Manar.

“Two years ago we proposed to create a new department of mathematical engineering … and we never obtained an official response of the ministry. It is things like this that have to change,” he said.

Greater independence from government may also help Tunisian university researchers attract international funding more easily.

Although the Tunisian taxpayer is the primary source of funds for the country’s 13 public universities, researchers have been successful in organising collaborations with their counterparts north of the Mediterranean through the European Union’s Framework Programme.

At least 70 researchers from Tunisia are working in collaborative projects funded by Europe’s current seventh Framework Programme (FP7).

A European Commission (EC) spokesperson, who said it was EC policy not to be identified, confirmed that the shift to elections may well help Tunisia improve its collaboration rates. FP7 funding is contingent on European partners being included in the consortia.

‘‘The recent changes in policy within Tunisian universities might facilitate further links with the European and international research community and potentially further involvement of Tunisian researchers in FP7 applications,’’ the EC spokesperson said.