Tunisia plans to use an £80 million loan from the World Bank to reform and expand its tertiary education sector.
This is Tunisia's second World Bank loan. The first was received in 1963 when president-for-life Habib Bourgiba embarked on his mission to create a secular Islamic state.
Among the reforms initiated at that time were a series of measures designed to emancipate women from the home. "This has been one of the contributing factors to the growth in university numbers," said Hedi Zaiem, an adviser to the minister for higher education, Sadok Chaabane.
Professor Zaiem, an economist by training, has been appointed coordinator of the higher education reform support project. "Originally under President Bourgiba the student population was supposed to (increase), but this is no longer government policy," Professor Zaiem said.
"We have seen university enrolments increase rapidly since 1966." Then only 1.9 per cent of the population aged between 19 and 24 was involved in higher education. Ten years later, that figure was 5.5 per cent and this year it reached 18.9 per cent. For the first time the percentage of females in the student population exceeded that of males, reaching 50.4 per cent.
The emancipation of women is not the only cause of Tunisia's rising demand for higher education places. There has been a concerted effort to encourage more students to attain the baccalaureate and to apply for university.
"In the 1960s, only 35 per cent of candidates passed," Professor Zaiem said. "It was a difficult test, but such a failure rate was wasteful. This year, the pass rate was 60 per cent, and it is part of our project with the World Bank to achieve 75 per cent."
Professor Zaiem is adamant that standards will not fall to achieve this target. "We wish to make the standard of Tunisian higher education comparable to that of Europe and other middle revenue countries," he said.
Over the past 30 years, the government has initiated a massive building programme to accommodate the increased numbers of students. "Thirty years ago there was only one university in Tunisia; now there are six," Professor Zaiem said.
All new Tunisian universities lean towards multidisciplinarity. The higher education reform support project has recognised that too much of the education money goes into subsidising the "university cities" to reduce living costs for students. By creating more local universities, the government hopes to spend funds more directly on education.
Professor Zaiem's team is looking at ways to increase tuition fees, which until 1997 were pegged at 2.50 dinars (just over Pounds 1) a year. This has been increased to 40 dinars, but it is still too low, particularly when students who receive grants pay only half fees.
"We need to find a formula for raising funds," Professor Zaiem said. "But this formula must not create a barrier to education."