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Tunisian educators use UGA college as model

By Cat Holmes
University of Georgia

For students in Tunisia, a university education doesn't cost a dime -- or rather, a dinar. From first grade through college, education is free in the small, north African country, thanks to an expansive education reform begun in 1988.

The reform costs the Tunisian government more than 20 percent of its annual budget. But it's paying off.

Today, 99 percent of the country's 6-year-olds are in school. And the number of university students has grown from 40,800 to 226,100. It's expected to double again in the next six years.

As their school and student numbers grow, Tunisian education officials are looking to the University of Georgia as a model for further expansion.

Takoi Hamrita, a UGA associate professor of biological and agricultural engineering, has used a $300,000 grant to help set up a partnership between UGA and the university system of Tunisia.

The program will focus on higher-education leadership and management, strategic planning, curriculum development and university structure and governance.

Last month, presidents of two Tunisian universities and an advisor to the Tunisian Minister of Education visited UGA to meet with some of the faculty.

"In the past, the power [of Tunisia's university system] was centralized. Everything came down from the ministry of education," said Lilia Gaaloul, advisor to Tunisia's Minister of Higher Education, Scientific Research and Technology.

"The concept of universities as you know them here in the United States did not exist," Gaaloul said. "The major reform we have enacted in Tunisia seeks to put the power in the hands of the presidents of our universities. As our university system expands, they must be empowered to lead their institutions."

Decentralization is important to the Tunisians. That makes the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences particularly interesting to them.

The college has three campuses (in Athens, Griffin and Tifton) and extension offices and research facilities in all 159 Georgia counties. Devising a similar system to integrate and manage a number of facilities is a major goal of the Tunisian reform.

"Higher education must be accessible to everyone in Tunisia," said Slaheddine Gherrissi, president of the University of Manouba. "As we increase the number of higher education institutions, management becomes a more crucial issue. One of the main motivations [of this partnership] is to facilitate interdisciplinary work among all universities, both internal and external."

Like Georgia, Tunisia is geographically diverse. The country has a Mediterranean coastline, a fertile mountain region and a region of the Sahara desert.

Many of the country's almost 10 million people live in rural areas. So training Tunisian professionals in distance learning is a major focus.

Indeed, Tunisia has a national mandate to get 20 percent of its university curriculum on-line by 2006. To oversee this process, they've created a virtual university.

"The focus isn't simply the technology of putting curriculum online but the pedagogy of online learning," said Houcine Chebli, president of the Virtual University of Tunisia. Chebli plans to incorporate various UGA strategies.

"Another focus -- and an ambitious plan -- is to create 10 technology parks by the year 2010," Hamrita said.

"Tunisia presently has four such parks, which incorporate university research and technology and business technology and sales," said AbdelFettah Ghorbel, director of the Sfax research park.

"The UGA Georgia BioBusiness Center, which supports bioscience startup companies, is a model," Ghorbel said. "The Sfax technology park project is regarded as an essential component in the development of the Tunisian economy."

The parks are modern, low-density facilities catering to high- tech industries. "They will provide a range of shared, on-site resources," Ghorbel said.

(Cat Holmes is a science writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

(Cat Holmes was a science writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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