Cleaning Up Tunisian Education

Cross-posted from Open Society Voices

The way we address corruption in education matters. Strategies that focus on monitoring or punishing specific instances of corruption are too often politically motivated and fail to address the root causes of corruption. If our goal is to fix the transparency gaps, perverse incentives, and contradictory or confusing regulations that lead to corruption, then we must take a systematic approach to monitoring corruption.

This spring the government of Tunisia asked the OECD to conduct a preliminary integrity scan of their education system as part of a bigger effort in the context of the OECD CleanGovBiz ini­tiative. The resulting report, Integrity of Public Education in Tunisia [PDF], identifies areas in the education system that might benefit from a more in-depth assessment or immediate policy responses.

An OECD assessment team visited Tunisia in May 2013. Using the Integrity of Education Systems research framework, which was developed and piloted in Serbia in 2012 with support from the Open Society Education Support Program, we assessed four dimensions of integrity: access to education, quality of education, sound management of staff and resources, and capacity for corruption detection and prosecution.

Public schools in Tunisia are having trouble providing quality education despite large investments in education and teacher salaries, according to international assessments and data on grade repetition. This, in turn, nurtures distrust in schools’ ability to fulfill their mission and fuels a need for and widespread acceptance of private tutoring. Tunisia reports the world’s 9th highest rate of private tutoring with up to 70 percent of Tunisian students participating, according to data from the Program for International Student Assessment in 2006.

The same assessment found that up to 54 percent of students were offered tutoring by their own classroom teachers—a serious integrity threat. In many cases, important parts of the curriculum are available only to students who can pay for private lessons.

Lack of school and teacher accountability perpetuates ineffective learning. In turn, these problems become more widespread, making it even more difficult for authorities to understand the extent of the corruption.

Integrity challenges confront universities as well. Tertiary enrollment in Tunisia continues to boom, but the admissions process fails to recruit qualified students or to ensure their field of study coincides with their choice and interests. This turns the focus of higher education from learning to obtaining a degree to fulfill bureaucratic requirements for future employment. It encourages cheating among students, paying teaching staff for grades, and similar abuses of academic ethics. The absence of integrity standards and adequate accreditation and evaluation mechanisms further promotes tolerance for malpractice which, according to the OECD, is widespread in the higher educa­tion system.

“Education reforms and integrity interventions should be aimed at the restoration of trust in the public education system of Tunisia, a system with great potential which Tunisians were once rightly proud of,” Mihaylo Milovanovitch, leader of the OECD assessment team, writes in the report.  

Other countries are confronting the challenges discussed in this scan as well. Tunisia might be in a favorable position to set a good example in deal­ing with them. It is one of the very few countries that have opened themselves up to an external integrity analysis of the public sector and of education in particular. This is an important step in taking informed decisions regarding the course of action against corruption,” says Mihaylo Milovanovitch, part of the OECD research team.

Understanding, prevention, and participation are the best ways to combat corruption in education. Specific recommendations include reforming the university admissions process, introducing a code of professional conduct for teachers, and improving the school inspection system. Furthermore, rather than taking a technocratic approach to change, it is important to engage students, parents, teachers, and the general public to make sure that reform becomes part of the fabric of the education and daily life.

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