Capitalizing on Youth Disillusionment: the Lucrative Business of German Language Schools in Tunisia

Based on numbers issued by the Ministry of Education, roughly 136,000 students started taking their Baccalaureate exam, the national high-school leaving exam, between June 7 to 14 this year, and successful candidates are then expected to make a choice that will determine their future career for years to come. With the Tunisian economy still struggling and rates of unemployment stuck in double digits, Europe remains an attractive destination for disillusioned youth and skilled workers with Germany becoming increasingly popular with every passing year.

For years now, Tunisia has been afflicted by the perpetual exodus of skilled professionals, a chronic brain drain that has been further heightened by a long decade of political instability and economic stagnation. Based on statistics from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Immigration and Tunisians Abroad, the Tunisian diaspora stood at about 2 million in 2021 (roughly 16% of the total population) mainly residing in North America and Gulf countries, but with a majority centered in Europe in France, Italy and Germany.

What is alarming about these figures is the accelerated rate at which people have been leaving. Since the 2010-11 revolution and until 2021, the annual rate of immigration was estimated at 3.7% while the annual growth rate of the population over the same period was 0.9%. Such unsustainable migration patterns will have a devastating impact on both the economy and society since the great majority of the young and motivated workforce are looking for better alternatives abroad in a way that will eventually cripple vital sectors like health and technology. Such shortages are usually a by-product of an aging population, but for Tunisia and despite its youthful demographic landscape, the shortage of skilled labor is already being felt with an estimated 39,000 engineers having departed during the past 6 years at a rate of 20 every single day.

For countries like Germany, Tunisia is considered an increasingly valuable provider of skilled workers to respond to the needs of their aging population and fill the unabated demand of various economic sectors. To address its labor deficiency, Germany needs a yearly net influx of 400,000 immigrants to the country. Exhausted by the pandemic, the health sector in particular is suffering from a chronic lack of staff reflected through a staggering 35,000 posts left vacant last year with a third of all healthcare jobs forecast to remain unfilled by 2035. And despite the language barrier, a growing number of Tunisians choose to migrate to the strongest economy in Europe. In fact, between January and October of last year, more than 5,000 work permits were granted to Tunisians with the trend only expected to rise as Germany has recognized foreign qualifications and diplomas including the Tunisian Baccalaureate.

So with more than 60,000 students expected to graduate from high school this year, the demand for learning German is inevitably expanding especially given that in 2020 Germany passed the Skilled Immigration Act that requires knowledge of German at a level appropriate to the opportunity sought. Generally, a B2 level of the Common European Reference Framework for languages is needed to secure employment in the country with health workers specifically expecting their initial net salary to reach up to €2,300, around ten times the average wage in Tunisia.

With language proficiency being the primary and essential prerequisite for this immigration project, German schools in Tunisia have experienced significant growth in recent years, attracting numerous students annually. Nafaa Abid, the director of the German Language Training Center in Tunis, reveals that his institute alone accommodates approximately 1,000 learners, the majority of whom are between 26 and 35. However, there are around thirty similar institutions throughout Tunisia, resulting in an annual student population exceeding 30,000 every single year.

But the whole process to get to Germany is tedious and can take years. Due to the high demand for appointments to get a work visa, the waiting time is over 12 months with many people waiting since 2021 for a response.  Such conditions allow institutions providing German courses to make migration to Germany a publicity stunt as some offer to act as intermediaries between their students, their potential German employers and the German Embassy.  Agencies have emerged that take advantage of this promise, offering such services as translation of documents, provision of work contracts, and dealing with visa paperwork in a way that brings them considerable financial gains (an average cost of €5,000 in a country where the average monthly salary is €250). Having recourse to these agencies is in fact unnecessary and doesn’t provide students with any competitive advantage, as explicitly stated by the German Embassy, “The preparation of the visa file by an agency is not necessary for the presentation of an application… the involvement of an agency does not increase the chances of obtaining a visa.”

Youth disillusionment with the economic conditions and their strong desire to leave the country make them susceptible to such predatory practices. It is crucial that both the German and Tunisian governments take action and put an end to these exploitative businesses. While people are willing to incur substantial expenses and make investments for a better future, the government remains inactive, unable to generate employment opportunities for young people or to halt the ongoing cycle of skilled individuals leaving the country.

Tesnim Grira