Cablegate: Tunisian Minister of Higher Education Receptive To


DE RUEHTU #0869/01 3291632
P 251632Z NOV 09





E.O. 12958: N/A



1. (SBU) Dr. Lazhar Bououni, the Tunisian Minister of Higher
Education, voiced his support for many of the themes in the
Secretary,s Marrakesh speech (including the visit of a
Presidential Science Envoy) when he met with the Ambassador
on November 25. In addition to science and technology, the
Minister stressed that English-language instruction in
Tunisia was sorely in need of expansion, and was receptive to
the possibility of resuming a Peace Crops program in Tunisia.

2. (SBU) In response to the Ambassador,s request for swift
and positive action on the research topics of four Fulbright
doctoral students, the Minister was positive and said he
would have an answer within a few days. He also expressed
willingness to reconsider the general deadlines for
submitting doctoral dissertation topics for review. The
Minister and the Ambassador also discussed the 2004 Agreement
on Science and Technology Cooperation, new areas of emphasis
in Tunisia's higher education plan, areas for possible
cooperation between the two countries, and the problem of
impeded Embassy access to campuses. End summary.

The Secretary,s Marrakesh Speech

3. (SBU) In the course of the conversation, the Minister
of Higher Education voiced his support for many of the themes
the Secretary sounded in her November 3 speech in Marrakesh.
He particularly emphasized the importance of English-language
instruction and science and technology. When the Ambassador
noted plans to send a Presidential Science Envoy, Dr. Elias
Zerhouni, to Tunisia in the next few months, the Minister
replied that he had met him before, that he was held in high
respect in Tunisia, and that he was looking forward to
conferring with him.

Importance of English Language Instruction

4. (SBU) Bououni mentioned that English-language
instruction was receiving enormous emphasis and that a
requirement of five semesters of English over a period of
three years has been made a requirement for a degree in all
disciplines, at all universities. He hoped that the details
for cooperation in this area could be worked out in further
meetings between our "teams." The Ambassador asked about the
possibility of re-introducing the Peace Corps, which had done
much English teaching in Tunisia, and the Minister said that
he would reflect on the idea after discussing it with his
staff. If the Peace Corps were to return, he said he would
want them to teach English for special purposes, keyed to
particular fields, again saying that this was something that
"our teams" could work out. The Minister parenthetically
remarked that the three "Language Village" programs that
AMIDEAST has been conducting with financial support from the
Embassy and expertise from the Regional English Language
Officer in Rabat was a huge success and that he welcomed this
sort of immersion language program.

Fulbright Program

5. (SBU) The Ambassador explained that we have been having
difficulties administering the Fulbright program, and
presented the Minister with a list of the four Fulbrighters
currently in country whose research plans are on hold. The
Minister said he would "have an answer for us about their
status in two or three days." (Comment: We will follow up
on November 30, after the conclusion of the Eid Al-Adha
holiday. End comment.)

6. (SBU) The Ambassador also raised the problem of
unrealistic deadlines set by the Ministry for approving
Fulbright dissertation topics and asked that the deadline be
re-set to November 30. Although the Minister expressed
willingness to reconsider these details, he indicated that
this matter was tied more to the calendar of the universities
that host the doctoral candidates than to any instructions on
the part of the Ministry. He indicated that this issue could
be reviewed in upcoming discussions, however, but was

confident that some adjustment might be reached. (See reftel
for more details about the deadline problem.)

7. (SBU) The Minister remarked that currently, academic
exchanges are mainly limited to the Fulbright program but
that he would like to see an expansion of exchanges with more
students involved (he mentioned at the B.A., M.A., and Ph.D
candidate levels) and the opportunity to study in each
other's country. He also mentioned that Tunisia was reaching
out to other countries for educational expertise, naming
Canada, Japan, China and South Korea. He saw a "very, very
urgent need" for other countries to play a role in Tunisia's
educational development plans. Among these was a desire to
expand the number of Tunisian engineers from about 4,500
today to 9,000 by 2014.

8. (SBU) Bououni expounded on the power of educational
exchanges to build closer interpersonal understanding between
the populations of different countries and said that this wa
particularly important in the post-9/11 world t reduce the
possibility of a "clash of civilizations." "We are both
peace-loving countries," he continued and, "our
intelligentsias need to build more bridges." "Americans
should come to Tunis to do research and learn Arabic;
Tunisians need to live in America and earn diplomas."

Overview of Higher Education in Tunisia

9. (SBU) Dr. Bououni referred to a major educational
initiatie in progress, saying that the United States and
Tunisia have cooperated a great deal in education, but that
they could do more. He mentioned that the current tempo of
American academic interactions was insufficient to address
adequately the big plans that Tunis had for the next five
years. Among these was the opening of "techno-parks" or
regional research and training centers focusing on such areas
as computer science, information technology, alternative
energy, environment issues, and bio-tech. The Minister said
that Tunisia was remarkably well-developed from the point of
view of higher education, citing 370,000 students in
universities country-wide, at 13 universities (including one
distance-learning based virtual university) and 32 research
centers, some of which were well-known abroad. The new
"techno-parks" were an addition to this slate and the
Minister mentioned that he would be eager to see what America
could do to help.

--------------------------------------------- -
U.S.-Tunisian Science and Technology Agreement
--------------------------------------------- -

10. (SBU) The Ambassador noted that there was already an
agreement between the countries on scientific cooperation
signed in 2004 that had never been ratified by Tunisia. He
stressed that rather than negotiate a new agreement, the
existing one should serve as a basis for further discussion,
adding that a senior American delegation on science and
technology was prepared to come to Tunisia in the next few
months. He also noted the possibility of adding additional
items of cooperation as an annex. The Minister said that
adjustments to the existing agreement were possible and that
he would welcome such a delegation. After the meeting
concluded, the Minister,s chief of staff asked the
Ambassador when the U.S. delegation could visit Tunisia; the
Ambassador replied that he understood that a visit in the
first quarter of 2010 was under consideration but it would be
helpful to know early which dates worked for the Ministry.

Access Issues

11. (SBU) The Ambassador explained that while the United
States definitely is eager to cooperate, the current problems
Embassy officers have in obtaining timely permission to visit
campuses (i.e., submission of a diplomatic note to the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs for every appointment) works
against their being able to cooperate to the degree necessary
to implement the terms of any agreement. The Minister said
he understood the point and that he would try to do something
to resolve the problem. The Ambassador also raised the
problem of limited access to the Ministry's Agency for the
Promotion of Research and Innovation, which is partnering
with the Commercial Law Development Program at the Department
of Commerce on a technical assistance program.


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