To learn or not to learn
German, Canadian, American or British? As the local higher education scene takes on a multinational face, Dena Rashed
Study hard. And with enough money, you have the broadest range of university options imaginable. For those who can afford the many alternatives coming to them from all across the globe, at least, gone are the days when only grades and the University Admission Service determined your placement. According to official statistics, some 420,000 Egyptian secondary school graduates expected places this year; indeed the numbers of those looking to enroll at universities have long exceeded the capacities of the state education system, and in the last few years private universities have stepped in to fill a niche long monopolised by the American University in Cairo, founded in 1919.
In 1996 alone, by Law 101/1992 (Executive Regulations 355/1996), four new institutions were established: the Sixth of October University for Modern Sciences and Arts, Misr International University, Misr University for Sciences and Technology and the Arab Academy for Science and Technology. According to Hamed Taher, vice-president of Cairo University and private university observer, the institutions in question were given a five-year trial period for assessment. "And they turned out not to be such a bad idea after all," he concluded, "at least insofar as they supplemented public universities." As if in response to their success, in 2001 and 2002, respectively, the French University in Egypt (FUE), and the German University in Cairo (GUC) opened. And this year students were afforded two more options, in addition: the British University in Egypt (BUE) and Al-Ahram Canadian University (ACU).
But aside from the demand for them, the launch of private universities was far from smooth. One charge frequently levelled at them is that, favouring profit over quality of service, they are an easy way out for students with low grades and rich parents. Sixth of October University Vice-President Talaat Rihan argues that such claims are no longer tenable, however: "People hold outdated views. Why should we be suspicious of private universities when we have thousands of students graduating from private schools each year?"
And there is a pressing need to dispel such prejudice, he insists: public institutions are no longer able to accommodate the numbers of secondary school graduates. "When a hard-working student who achieves a 95 per cent score fails to enroll at any of the state faculties of medicine, falling 0.01 per cent short of the required score," Rihan goes on, "that seems ridiculous. With private universities available, he not only has another option but frees space in overcrowded state institutions. Prior to the existence of private universities, he adds, the only alternative was to study abroad: This cost parents a lot of money, and it subjected students to years of solitude on their own." One requirement for sustained viability, Rihan goes on to indicate, is that the private universities should offer new degree courses, different from those available in public universities.
"Private universities have managed to attract some 40,000 students," Taher explains, "about a third of the total number of university students in Cairo, lifting off part of the burden of public universities. Yet many of them offer the same courses as their public counterparts; many courses remain unavailable in either category of university and the private ones have the capacity to develop them." They must also secure their own full-time professors, Taher added, to avoid draining public university resources. Indeed, it seems, the educational system and even the name of a given private institution is an increasingly decisive factor in any one student's choice of university education.
"British education sounded really good for me," Amira Osman, a private school graduate who holds an American diploma and will soon start her university education at the BUE explains. "I wanted to study business and it has a particularly good reputation in this department. I think," she adds, in relation to the private system as a whole, "having different educational systems can only be an asset".
Located off the Cairo-Suez road, in Shorouq City, the BUE campus has drawn in nearly 500 students for its first year, starting on 25 September. Headed by People's Assembly Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Mustafa El-Feki, the BUE is competing with three other institutions offering an education in English. The BUE, he insists, is a strong starting point: "The idea is to upgrade the level of education in Egypt, since British education in general has a good reputation." El-Feki obtained his own PhD from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, and he says that establishing a British university has been a long standing aim of Egyptian educationalists and intellectuals; and it opens with three highly popular faculties: engineering, information technology and business administration.
Experts expect private universities to provide quality education, and it is worth noting that some have quality-control departments monitoring programmes. BUE registrar and director of corporate services Nick Mchard expands on this further: "We share a vision with our Egyptian colleagues -- and our objective is to provide high-quality education and at the same time a full-standard experience to the students. We also know that the demand for higher education is growing rapidly in Egypt, where thousands of students are graduating each year. Egyptian students are fortunate to have such variety to choose from."
The BUE and ACU have together drawn in some 1,000 students -- a number which, though very small in comparison to public universities, both universities believe to be a good start. ACU President Farouq Ismail, a former president of Cairo University, made the point that, while they will not be a substitute for public education, private institutions are definitely needed: "With almost 14 million people living in Cairo, there are only three public universities and nine private ones. The major universities have over two million students."
Due to social-political factors, he went on to argue, public universities -- to which students have a legal right -- suffer from over admission, with the result that the quality of education has gone downhill: "To enhance quality we need to have a reasonable professor-to-student ratio, enough equipment and space, and social activities, which have not been available either."
Located outside Cairo, in Sixth of October City, the ACU is introducing three faculties in its first academic year: the Faculty of Pharmacy; the Faculty of Computer Science and IT; and the Faculty of Business Administration; four more faculties are planned for the next few years. Here as elsewhere, while a given institution may have a foreign name, it remains "100 per cent Egyptian". Though applying the Canadian system in collaboration with four Canadian universities, "we work according to Egyptian law and our staff is made up of Egyptian professors who, having taught abroad, are familiar with the Canadian system."
Despite their appeal and the gap they fill, however, there remains a glitch to private universities: they will remain affordable only to the well-off. Yet, as Rihan argues, institutions like the Sixth of October University have a range of fee systems: "Some faculties, like medical sciences, cost the student LE5,000 per year, but the fees for the Faculty of Economics are LE9,000, and for some faculties they go up to LE12,0000..." Hardly reassuring, this: BUE fees range from ¨3,500 to ¨4,500 (for business and engineering, receptively). El-Feki argues that such figures are "moderate", and they may be, indeed, relative to AUC fees, which reach LE60,000 per year in some cases.
While new English- language universities offer students options other than the AUC, which has been drawing in thousands each year, Tim Sullivan, the AUC provost argued that it is unlikely they will be affected: "Applications are up, not down; more students have applied this year." Speaking of investments, he went on to draw an analogy between shopping malls and universities: "After the first mall opens, many people invest in new malls. But what happened is that people over-built malls and they did not prove as profitable as they seemed. People come here to do big business but at the same time they don't offer enough variety. Some of the malls did not make it and it could happen with private universities too. They are in it for money and they are all for profit."
While profit-making is written into each university's plan, the presidents of the two latest universities agreed that it is on standards of education that survival depends. "If it is an analogy between malls and universities," El-Feki says, "the more malls you build the more you know about them and about the needs of their patrons, and the same goes for universities: it is the quality you provide the students with that will make or break your system."