Education: Tunisian women continue to outpace men and the demographic challenge that creates

Almost 130,000 Tunisian students will attempt to pass the Baccalaureat exam this year. Based on the French system, le Bac is a cumulative exam that allows those who pass to enter the university system.

Suffice it to say – in a country that has emphasized education since its independence – it’s a big deal. Daily news reports update the public on how the exams will be conducted and the mobile phone companies have ensured that every student will receive a text message when the results are announced on June 22.

Recent articles in the Tunisian press have discussed whether with an Islamist government philosophy should still be part of the Bac, the interdiction of the full face veil for women taking the exam, and how the ruling party, Ennahdha, is giving candy to students taking the Bac.

One recent article on the Bac caught my eye – it stated that of the 130,000 students taking the exam, 57 percent will be women. Perhaps not surprising, in a country known since independence for its treatment of women, the results correspond to another trend – it is not just women who are becoming more educated  – according to World Bank data – it’s men who are becoming less educated. While women’s enrollment in primary school has been increasing, overall enrollments have been declining – meaning that fewer and fewer men are enrolling or completing school.

The trend starts early, 92 percent of girls complete a primary education in Tunisia, while only 90 percent of boys do the same – and their numbers are in steep decline, down 17 percent from the high. Of those who complete primary school, 87 percent of girls go on to secondary school, while only 80 percent of boys do. Again this year, more women will complete their secondary education and move on to college.

Yet despite the fact that women’s educational levels are increasing in absolute and relative terms (compared to men), their participation in the labor force remains limited. The World Bank estimates that only 25 percent of women are active workers, virtually unchanged from 10 years ago.

This corresponds to another sad fact of Tunisian employment – the more educated you are, the worse your prospects are. In an inverse to trends in the U.S., unemployment rates are actually higher in Tunisia for those with college degrees.

As Lahcen Achy noted in his study of Tunisia’s economy for the Carnegie Endowment, “Education turned out to be a double-edged sword by raising the expectations of educated youths and fueling their frustrations…On average, each university graduate remains unemployed for two years and four months, which is nine months longer than for of nongraduates.”

The problem is even worse for women – who often have difficulty getting jobs in the private sector, and yet have found public sector employment harder and harder to come by. As a recent African Development Bank report put it: “out of an equal number of male and female active engineers, the industry and private services sector hires 79 women for every 100 men. On the contrary, the public services sector hires 108 female engineers for every 100 men.”

Now more than ever, the need for education and labor market reforms is apparant. The government is expected to release a report on changes to the secondary educational system. Let’s hope they go beyond the recent announcement that they will once again, in a post-Ottoman empire irony, to teach Turkish in their high schools – and start looking at how to improve the system so that it corresponds to the needs of the Tunisian labor market.

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