Risks and opportunities of Covid-19 in higher education in Tunisia

The Covid-19 health crisis has led to a slowdown in economic activity worldwide and containment has become the watchword in countries affected by this pandemic. Tunisia is no exception to this rule. In mid-March, it decreed a total containment policy, only leaving open some sectors in order to ensure a minimum of production and distribution necessary for the vital needs of citizens. Faced with this unprecedented crisis, the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research proclaimed the end of face-to-face lessons and asked the teachers to develop distance educational support for students. However, it was specified that there would be no ‘blank year’ and that students would also not automatically progress to the next level.

This unexpected scenario presents several risks for the scientific and university community, but nevertheless offers a major opportunity for higher education in Tunisia in order to upgrade digital tools and be able to promote distance education. However, one of the major problems that arose is how to safeguard equity between all students in Tunisian universities. In Tunisia, some students do not have a PC, smartphone or tablet, which makes it difficult for them to follow a distance course properly. Furthermore, some teachers refuse this alternative, arguing that distance education could never replace face-to-face teaching and equity for students could not be guaranteed. As such, higher education during this period of confinement could take several speeds, from well-resourced educational support to basic educational support on DL (Distance Learning) platforms, or even the total absence of any form of support, should certain students no be assisted with their access and technology challenges.

The risks of this pandemic are varied for the higher education sector; first, the period of confinement could be very long and the return to the university campus may cause a rebound in contamination. This requires considerable foresight, including plans for the disinfection of classrooms and university establishments in order to reassure teachers, students and administrators. Second, the pandemic could cause serious psychological consequences for students and teachers. Confinement can invoke psychological tensions which can result in students dropping out of courses or teachers struggling to deliver. Psychological monitoring cells must be set up immediately, so as to be prepared to support students in distress situations (including foreign students who lack means or are isolated). Finally, the end of confinement can raise the issue of evaluation (exams) which, according to the law, should be done face-to-face and should relate only to what is taught face-to-face. This can prejudice the quality of diplomas and pedagogical achievement if virtual academic support has not been provided and if the face-to-face teaching which will take place after confinement would prove to be insufficient.

 Capitalising on the Virtual University of Tunis

Despite these risks, the Covid-19 crisis quickly raised awareness for the usefulness of digital tools in the transmission of knowledge: The ministry asked the Virtual University of Tunis (UVT) to facilitate this. Access of all students and teachers to the university platform was given. Courses and teaching materials from different Tunisian university institutions have been pooled, demonstrating a high level of cooperation. To do this, rapid training programmes have been launched for teachers with the help of UVT trainers. Free connection to the UVT platform for students following an agreement with national telephone operators also makes it easier for students to access this platform. However, the large number of students and teachers who connect to this platform at the same time makes access more difficult. The UVT is working to improve the capacity of this platform to allow easy access and faster connection.

Several tools can be used in distance education, such as the UVT platform (ENT-Moodle) or the Class Room platform, as well as videoconferencing applications to facilitate synchronous meetings with students (Google-team, Google-hangout, Zoom, Microsoft Team, Skype). These tools offer students the opportunity to ask their questions, in interaction with their colleagues and teachers.

The University of Sfax, which is committed to provide distance support to its students, has achieved convincing results in most of its institutions in a very short period of time, mobilising as many human and educational resources as possible. Sfax plans to further consolidate this tool in the years to come in order to introduce the educational innovations necessary for distance learning and training. The statistics delivered by the UVT, drawn from its platform on April 11, 2020, show that 3,776 teaching materials have been submitted, 16,791 students have registered on the platform and 1,365 teachers are participating in this support. We hope that in the coming days the number of students enrolled will increase and that they will be able to really access the course spaces dedicated to their specialty, and also find the possibility to communicate with their teachers through the various tools offered by the UVT or by the teachers themselves.

Mobilising Tunisian researchers to find creative solutions

The other opportunity offered by the Covid-19 crisis is the mobilization of researchers through calls for projects launched by the ministry in order to find technological solutions, which can support the efforts of the Ministry of Health in its fight against the pandemic. Significant mobilisation of researchers, teachers and entrepreneurs has been initiated in order to find innovative solutions to the various problems posed by this pandemic. In this context, a digital platform has been developed for a virtual fair which exposes the different solutions offered. This will encourage Tunisian researchers and inventors to collaborate in the industrial field in order to find solutions which will support the Ministry of Health. In addition, several schools and faculties have developed prototype machines such as respirators that can be used in hospitals.

Digitalisation of university administration

Finally, this pandemic offers an opportunity for the Tunisian administration to switch to digital administration. The confinement obliges universities to minimise the use of paper and to deliver various services via Internet. Travel authorisations, administrative documents related to thesis or habilitation or emergencies related to the pandemic are now digitised. Even meetings of the university council and the council of institutions are held remotely. This constitutes progress in the modernisation of the administration. It is hoped that these achievements will be maintained and consolidated after the end of confinement.

Sami Hammami, Vice-President of the University of Sfax, Tunisia