Prof Jelel Ezzine is currently Professor of Systems Theory and Control at the Electrical Engineering department of ENIT (Ecole Nationale d’Ingénieurs de Tunis) of the University of Tunis El Manar. As a close partner of the DAAD Tunis, we asked him to share his experience as a university teacher during the Corona-pandemic with us.
Prof Ezzine, you have been teaching engineering at ENIT for many years. The Ministry of Higher Education has asked all university teachers to offer online classes. This is an absolute novelty in Tunisia, how do you evaluate this concept?
Tunisia, as well as the rest of the world, are fighting Covid-19, an unknown, invisible, and lethal enemy. Higher education institutions worldwide with their 20 000 universities and 200 million students responded collectively to confinement by shifting to online teaching. Those experienced and well-equipped universities will most likely succeed in adapting to this crisis, others will struggle to deploy viable distance learning, and others will fail due to the lack of infrastructure, and know-how.
Tunisia falls in the second category. Indeed, online learning remained a shy practice in our universities. Fortunately, the Tunisian Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MHESR) responded positively to this challenge and took advantage of the situation to relaunch online learning and consolidate distance education at all levels and in all its institutions. Unfortunately, the decision of the ministry wasn’t endorsed by the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT). In fact, the Union claimed that such a move will exacerbate inequalities between well to do students and those lacking the necessary means to adequately attend online classes.
However, in the absence of a distance learning decision during this crisis, the students, as well as the national education system, will face serious problems. Among these, I site only a couple: (i) Most of the students if not all of them will miss the second semester and consequently won’t be able to fulfill the requirements of their academic year constraining them to catch up with the missed credits sometimes next year. (ii) The latter delay will extend their graduation date at least one semester, in addition to overloading classes, faculty, and administration. Last but not least (iii) the different universities will have to accommodate the about 50 000 high-school graduates adding therefore to excessive crowding and most probably to faster and wider contaminations by Covid-19!
Moreover, UGTT has to understand that well to do families can always help their sons and daughters access the plethora of available online courses made accessible by top international universities and thus get them ready to pass their credits. In this case, and in the absence of viable national online courses for every student, the challenged students will miss this opportunity and find themselves further behind.
The MHESR, the Union and interested stakeholders should join their efforts and find viable and sustainable solutions so that no student is left behind. In doing so, this challenge will be transformed into an opportunity and thus relaunch robustly the much-needed distance education program in higher education and beyond.
Digital teaching and research are currently means for universities to continue to work in this crisis situation. What positive effects may this have in the long term once the crisis is over?
During the 90s Tunisia was among the countries, in its category, with the best ICT infrastructure and was favorably poised to become a regional leader in this growing and highly promising sector. Unfortunately, after installing the infrastructure, the expected strategies, policies and programs failed to materialize. Why didn’t Tunisia succeed in leveraging its ICT advantage remains a puzzle.
Nevertheless, resistance to change, the inertia of the administration, and the lack of developmental vision are certainly part of the problem. Nowadays, and unfortunately, Tunisia finds itself with an old ICT infrastructure in particular when it comes to the internet especially broadband penetration and digitization., Tunisians are awakening to Covid-19 clarion call and in fact, the Distance Learning and remote teaching and advising by faculty members initiative initiated by the MHESR is a true bright beacon in this bleak situation.
It is highly possible that this initiative will create the much-needed and awaited momentum capable of launching a wide and deep transformational digitization process. The resulting digital platform will catapult the country in the highly competitive and quickly changing 21st century. As a matter of fact, such a countrywide digital platform will boost the productivity of all sectors including inefficient, conservative, and slow administration. Will bring the key services closer to the citizens with lower costs and higher quality. Will boost the performance and openness of the government via efficient and swift e-government and more participative and collaborative open government. It will also create synergy in the different industry and service sectors and bring them even closer to their customers.
The restructuring of our higher education system, along with an adequate digital platform will enhance the developmental role of our universities, increase the international visibility of our higher education institutions, and thus reduce viably the brain drain of both faculty and graduates and hopefully attract international talents.
You are very active in civil society. What is your personal contribution and what is your contribution as a university teacher to the Tunisian society?
My national and international experiences and implications in civil society, go back several decades ago. Before I swiftly review my present activity, I will mention only a highly memorable experience. Since the age of 15, I integrated the Young Scientists Association of Tunisia (AJST). The reason I’m insisting on this early AJST experience is that it had a determinant effect on my academic career and my recent civil society activities.
Lately, and since 2011 I founded, with several friends and colleagues, the Tunisian Association for the Advancement of Science, Technology, and Innovation (TAASTI). There are three key motivations behind this project. Firstly, after almost a decade of experience in the MHESR as director and as director-general, my conviction grew stronger that Tunisia needed urgently, especially after the revolution, viable capacities in public policy design in general, and in the Science, Technology, and Innovation (STI) sector in particular. Secondly, there were no national capacity building programs in STI policy, nor structured research programs related to the National Innovation System. Last but not least, TAASTI was the founders’ response and contribution to Tunisia’s historic and profound democratic transition in dire need for deep socio-economic restructuring congruent with a collective vision of an inclusive and sustainable learning society.
During these last decades, I initiated and led several contributions, with several active partners and dynamic teams like the foundations of the “Engineering and Technology Policy” professional master program and the “UNESCO Chair on Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy” Chair. I’m presently the director of the “Research and Training Platform on Contextualized STI Policies,” a research project financed by the MHESR.