Tunisia is considered one of the best educated Arab countries. According to UNICEF, the overall literacy rate amounts to 78% in 2005-2008. The male literacy rate in the age group of 15-24 was 98% whereas 96% of females were literate in the same age group during 2005-2008. There were 28 in 100 population internet users in 2008. Though these figures are quite favorable compared to their neighbors, Tunisian still celebrated the downfall of the autocratic government.
When Ben Ali fled the country after the popular uprising, Tunisian scientists, in particular, were thrilled over potential opportunities the new Tunisia would bring. Under the reign of a tight police state, researchers had no space for advancement nor innovation. There was some brain drain of scientists particularly to France, due to inability of researchers to manage their own research institutes. Most scientists had no power over the choice of research to work on nor choice of researchers to collaborate with. For a conference to be held, the state oversaw all the presentations, papers and participants of the conference. In addition, researchers could not create policies or plans for their research that would meet societal demands. In short, the tight government control curbed innovation.
But the standards of scientists and research in Tunisia are comparatively better than most Arab countries. This is mostly attributed to Habib Bourguiba; the first President of Tunisia post colonization. Bourguiba founded a solid secular country with strong emphasis on education and women’s rights. It was him who established most of Tunisian Universities and provided them with French academics. As Hamed Ben Dhia has rightly put it, “We went from an honest autocrat to a dishonest and bloody autocrat”, comparing the 2 regimes since independence from France in 1957.
Now however, universities are calling for free elections to replace the old administrations. They are hoping the new interim government would release young political activists arrested by the old regime. A change in the curricula that match societal needs and encourage collaboration with industry is being called for. They believe this would open entrepreneurial and employment opportunities for young scientists.
To learn more of the challenges and the hopes click on Tunisian scientists rejoice at freedom