General confinement entailed the suspension of classes in all public and private educational institutions. It also meant that the two first trimesters of the academic year were to determine a students’ moving on from one grade to the next. The National Office of Private Education denounced this decision, considering it « harmful for private institutions but also for students », in the words of the body’s representative Aicha Saïd. « We are responsible for 200 thousand students and therefore 200 thousand families in search of quality education […]. This decision saps the quality of private education », she added. Saïd moreover highlights the danger of a « collapse of this sector which employs 50 thousand employees between instructors and administrative staff ».

Holding on to (almost) every last dinar

These financial concerns compelled the UTICA’s National Chamber of Private Education to ask the parents of students enrolled in private institutions to pay the third semester installment, allowing for different arrangements according to the difficulties faced by parents to do so. Chamber president Latifa Boughattas indicated on Mosaique FM that « some institutions agreed to 20-30% reductions in order to maintain a financial balance while also taking into consideration parents’ situation. There are also parents who accepted to pay the third installment as expected », she says, pleased.

Contacted by Nawaat, Boughattas tells Nawaat, « We weren’t against suspending classes during the height of the health crisis, but we could have resumed in May. We are well equipped to organize this and to respect the rules of distancing and hygiene, plus our classes are not overcrowded. This did not happen. Many institutions did not have enough to cover salaries and maintenance for the months when there were no classes, in addition to the summer months ». According to Boughattas, the number of private institutions has increased by 250% over the past seven years, reaching nearly one thousand institutions. As for enrolled students, there are upwards of 200 thousand between private primary and secondary institutions.

Parents under pressure and institutions destabilized

Payment of the third installment became a topic of constroversy on social media. Students’ parents contest the pressures imposed upon them by educational institutions. They denounce the threat that their children would not be enrolled for the upcoming school year. Such threats were qualified as « violations » and « harassment » by the Executive Bureau of the Tunisian General Work Confederation (CGTT). The Confederation called on the Ministry of Education to confront the issue and take the necessary measures in order to fulfill its role as the sector’s regulatory authority.

Speaking on Shems FM on May 8, the Ministry’s advisor of legal affairs went so far as to threaten private education institutions with the withdrawal of their authorizations to operate if parents were required to pay the third installment on the basis that payment implies fulfillment of service. Director of L’idéale institutions Mourad Ghalleb said that the advisor’s statement galvanized some parents to refuse payment of the third installment.

The compromise: online education

« There wasn’t a massive refusal to pay the third installment for the simple reason that we ensured online teaching for all grades, from primary to baccalaureat, using a reliable application that enables strict monitoring of the students », explains Ghalleb. He continues, « The majority of parents satisfied with the quality of instruction provided did not contest payment of the third installment ». He says that respecting the terms of the educational and financial contract with parents enabled him to get through the crisis. According to Ghalleb, not one of the 600 employees working in his institutions was dismissed.

For Hatem Kaabi, director of the institution Al Andalous (Sfax), « there was some confusion in payment of the third installment. Some parents paid, others not fully », he laments, assuring us that no pressure had been put on parents in this regard. Al Andalous, which teaches seventh grade to baccalaureat (final year of high school) students, also used an online application to ensure the continuity of classes, but only for ninth year and baccalaureate students. « A minority of students did not participate in these courses, since they didn’t have an internet connection », he points out. Remedial courses are to be held for the other grades in September.

The situation in which institutions find themselves depends on their capacity to ensure online courses. « Some institutions had already invested in online learning and had the means to continue courses. As a result, the severity of the crisis differs from one institution to another and according to parents’ cooperation », regrets Latifa Boughattas. According to Boughattas, the requests for payment that were contested on social media concerned the months preceding confinement, or January, February and March. « From the beginning of the confinement, we were confronted with parents’ refusal to pay their old debts, and also those for April, May and June with the intention of never paying », she tells Nawaat.

Government threatens but doesn’t regulate

Boughattas evokes the precarious situation of the 50 thousand employees in private institutions. « Few are those who were able to benefit from the allowance for layoffs », she explains. She is hoping for a dialogue with the Minister of Education so that classes can resume in June « in order to salvage the financial disaster from previous months », she says.

« We participate in taking responsibility for a growing number of students. We are part of the system. And yet the government ignored us and didn’t take into account the fact that we depend on an economic system to ensure our pedagogical mission. We must finish this academic year holding class councils and sending out report cards, but with what means?! » she says indignantly before adding, « The controversy subsdided because we stopped asking for payment. We will see how the government intends to resolve this crisis ».

After having stated that financial contract relations between private institutions and students’ parents do not fall within the Ministry’s prerogatives, the Minister of Education showed himself to be more engaged by affirming that the state had fulfilled its regulatory role and was understanding of the fragility of private institutions’ economic model. He also stated, « If the financial contract between parents and private institutions becomes a source of pressure on students, coercive measures will be implemented, including the withdrawal of authorizations to operate ».