Imagine a country that has actually managed to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education (European Back for Reconstruction and Development, 2012). A country with a virtually 100 per cent youth literacy rate (World Bank, 2012). A country ranked in the top ten globally for its science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education (World Economic Forum, 2009: 230-231). A country where women outnumber men in tertiary education enrollment (Millot at al., 2003; European Back for Reconstruction and Development, 2012).
This country actually exists. On paper, Tunisia has done everything right, in the education for development realm at least. Over one-fifth of government expenditures are invested in education (World Bank, 2012). Ben Ali’s government bought into – and seriously invested in – a popular assumption about how to grow a country. They focused on education, particularly in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, and worked toward basic gender equality in education. The government minimized the rural-urban gap in school enrollment so prevalent in developing countries.
Throughout the first decade of the 21st century, Tunisia was touted as an example for developing countries. Here was a country that did it right, that properly prioritized and was well on the way to economic prosperity and inclusion in the society of “developed” nations.
And then came 17 December 2010, the self-immolation of a young Tunisian street vendor that sparked widespread protests in Tunisia and throughout the region. By 14 January 2011, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s government was no more.
This was not, to say the least, how the story was supposed to go. Development economists and others have been selling a promise for decades, a path leading from incapable, ignorant people to a skilled, productive workforce through investment in human capital and the promotion of education. Making education a government priority is supposed to result in prosperity, not overthrow.
What went wrong? Using ideas from three dominant frameworks of education (human capital, human rights, and capabilities), this paper will critique the “educational myth” that guided Tunisia and falsely promised individual- and state-level success. The paper will conclude with some suggestions about improving educational investment so that Tunisia, once an exemplar for the “right” way to do things, does not become merely the first in a long list of countries made chaotic by a narrow model of education.
Buying and Selling the Myth
The government was not the only actor in Tunisia who bought into a myth about education. The state, in turn, sold the idea of citizens successfully navigating several years of school, receiving a valuable degree, and finding a good job with that degree. It is a common story in our world, this door that education is supposed to open.
But the realities in Tunisia simply do not allow for this myth to play out in many people’s lives. Unemployment in the country has been above 13 per cent for the past decade (World Bank, 2012). These rates are even worse (above 20 per cent) among individuals with higher education (Achy, 2011: 8), because Tunisia’s economic growth strategies have focused on low-skill sector investment with cheap labor even as its government has focused on intense educational improvement (ibid: 3). Thus, though some data seems to indicate that there are jobs available in Tunisia, it seems likely “that increased education raises the expectations of these new entrants to the labor market, making them reluctant to take the jobs that are actually available” (Rama, 1998: 71).
A serious mismatch has arisen between educated skills and existing jobs; this no doubt was a significant contributor to the political unrest in 2010 and 2011 (World Economic Forum, 2011: 6). The perception of overeducated yet unemployed individuals in the country is so strong in the country that several news outlets reported that the street vendor whose self-immolation set off the Arab Spring had a university degree, even though he never graduated high school (Ryan, 2011). Many of the leaders and participants in the protests, however, were unemployed youth with university degrees. As Achy (2011: 10, 17) puts it,
Education turned out to be a double-edged sword by raising the expectations of educated youths and fueling their frustrations. Most educated youth choose to wait for jobs in the formal and public sectors, which offer better wages and benefits. On average, each university graduate remains unemployed for two years and four months, which is nine months longer than for of nongraduates…
The poor and middle class invest in the education of their children and reap frustration and unmet dreams and expectations.
The implied guarantee that a good education provides a good job is further confounded when children and youth from rural areas generally need to travel for their education, often resulting in disconnects with village life and the creation of local power struggles (Hill and Woodland, 2005). Given the tensions between urban and rural, traditional and modern, and the apparent mirage of education’s promise, it is not surprising that the populace rose up in protest in what some are labeling a “higher education bubble burst” similar to the US’ housing bubble burst (Carney, 2011).
Too Much Education?
A complete picture of Tunisia’s economic and educational situation begs the question “Could there be such a thing as ‘too much’ education?” This paper will conclude by analyzing this question through three dominant frameworks of education: human capital, rights, and capabilities (Robeyns, 2006).
From a strict human capital understanding, there may indeed be too much education happening in some areas (Woodhall, 1987). Human capital is based on the assumption that current investment in individual’s skills and abilities can reap future benefits through higher wages and the like. In Tunisia, though, the rate of return on this investment is currently rather minimal for both the individual and the state; indeed, it is all too often essentially zero in terms of wages and productivity. If the purpose of education is to invest in human capital, you can indeed have too much investment, especially when human investment and investment in other forms of capital are unevenly spread. A proponent of human capital might argue that there is nothing wrong with the myth of “educationàgood job”; instead, Tunisia’s government did not properly diversify investment. The solution, then, is to ensure that human investment matches other investments, so that the kinds of jobs and workers available balance.
Human capital is often critiqued by human rights advocates arguing that education should be regarded as a human right, valuable in its own right and not merely as a tool to enhance productivity. Tunisia’s focus on and investment in universal primary education is important in the human rights framework regardless of whether or not an educated populace is more economically valuable. As a friend put it, “what’s wrong with having philosophical factory workers?” But most human rights advocates would also consider the ability to have a job or make a living a human right. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights lists “protection against unemployment” among its rights (United Nations, 1948). The human rights framework is notoriously bad at making value judgments between rights. While there may be strong ethical arguments for refusing to prioritize certain rights, this stance makes it difficult to determine whether Tunisia should be chided for providing too much education or too few jobs given its limited resources. A human rights advocate would probably argue adamantly against the idea of too much education but might concede that governments should ensure all other human rights are met before pushing past primary education levels.
The capabilities approach to education believes “the intrinsic aim of educational policy should be to expand people’s capabilities” (Robeyns, 2006). The idea of “capabilities” focuses on ensuring that individuals have the freedoms to be and do what they wish, living the lives they have reason to value (Sen, 2000). Robeyns (2006) argues that the capabilities approach is the best of the three frameworks in acknowledging the many roles that education can take (increasing wages, expanding values, sharing cultures, enhancing enjoyment from life, etc.). From a capabilities standpoint, it is difficult to think of any level of education as “too much,” unless it is a faulty education that is detracting from, rather than adding to, capabilities.
Here is the true question and problem: What kind of education? Any amount of the “wrong” kind of education is too much. But what makes for the “wrong” kind of education? Each of the three frameworks can shed some light on this issue. From a human capital standpoint, education that is provided promising future returns on investment when those returns are not truly present is the wrong kind. Tunisia’s training a huge number of engineers without creating an equivalent number of engineering jobs made for bad educational policy. From a human rights perspective, education that negatively affects your own or another’s rights is the wrong kind of education. Models of education that systematically destroy or offend cultures are the wrong kind of education. Importing an educational system and knowledge from the West to rural Tunisia, without proper precautions and alterations, is likely to do exactly that. The wrong kind of education, from a capabilities standpoint, has already been alluded to. Education must expand people’s capabilities and abilities to live a fulfilling life. In Tunisia, educating a generation with a myth in place about the promised returns of an education detracted from that generation’s ability to live happy lives. The current attempts at educational reforms going on in Tunisia should not focus on how to get more people in schools; instead, they must focus on creating schools that people want to go to, with transparency about the purpose of schooling and a multi-potentiality of uses for that education. We must somehow find a way to make educational systems that enable people to be fulfilled in many walks of life, not merely one narrow path whose dominance is quickly declining.
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