As the University Admissions Service receives holders of vocational degrees, Yasmine Fathi reports from among a queue of discontented students
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Considering options before filling out forms; window of opportunity: applicants at the acceptance office
t 10am the University Admissions Service office in Bulaq is already packed. Here as elsewhere, vocational-training degree-holders were permitted to apply to universities for only three days this week. With low preparatory certificate grades, these students had no recourse to thanawiya amma (the secondary school certificate with which students normally apply to university); they would have had the choice of enrolling at a private secondary school or, as in the case of those queuing up in Bulaq this morning, study for a vocational thanawiya (generally referred to as a diploma). "Unlike thanawiya amma holders, who must supplement their certificates with a degree from a university, college or institute," Soad Kamal, head of the Vocational Training Department, an affiliate of the Ministry of Higher Education explained, "holders of this certificate are eligible for immediate employment." Due to huge numbers, the service receives applications in "phases".
This year 430,000 thanawiya amma holders are applying to higher education institutions. An additional 80,000 diploma holders are applying to both universities and institutes depending on their high school scores. The first phase of the latter application required a 70 per cent score for state institutes while the second phase taking place this week required a score between 60 to 70 per cent for application to private institutions only. Booming through a loudspeaker, a man's voice guided students through the procedures. In the shade of a large tent erected to shield them from the scorching sun, they sat, stood, squatted, completing application forms -- available for LE30 in large yellow envelopes including a technical guide to private institutions as well as the requisite stamp collection. Though Kamal stressed the variety of choices on offer, many of the applicants encountered were unhappy with their diplomas. "I was so lazy, I never studied," Ola Fahmi recounted, "and my preparatory grades were terrible. So I had to go to a vocational institute, but on graduating last year I realised that my certificate doesn't amount to anything. And it dawned on me how important education is to getting on in life." Grateful for her "second chance", Fahmi is now hopeful that she will be admitted to her private institute of choice, to study engraving, from which, in the case of an 80 per cent score or higher, according to Kamal, they can transfer to a university. Hopes nothwistanding, students like Ali Atia, from Zagazig, complained of private institute fees: "The least you can pay is LE1,500 a year. How on earth can people afford it? Most of the students you see here will end up leaving for lack of money alone." Though Kamal insisted that some institutes cost only LE500 a year, on bulletins listing institute fees the lowest figure seen was LE1,161 a year.
Indeed one commentator, an admissions office employee who wished to stay anonymous, called his workplace "the heartbreak stage". Only five per cent of diploma students applying to private institutions, he testified, manage to enroll in a course of study; and in the vast majority of cases, the obstacle that prevents it is financial. "I won't bother to apply," declared disgruntled Adel Thabet as he sat on the grass with his younger brother. Thabet's plan was to transfer to university-level engineering receipt of a vocational degree. "I just don't have the money. So I'm going to go home and work in my father's rug shop." Though equally discontented, parents like Mohamed Seif blame the students themselves for ending up in this position: "Most of these students have a working-class background, their parents work very hard to pay for their education. But instead of rewarding their parents, they just pay no attention to their studies. They've made their own bed, is all I can say -- now they can sleep in it." That said, Amir Girgis, one such student, transfers the blame to the vocational schools themselves: "It was chaotic. The teachers would arrive, sign in and leave. Skipping classes was the norm and there was no one to guide or monitor us. How could we end up with anything but low scores?" Sami Adel, another student, goes even further: "I was a nerd, I studied non stop, I was so sure I would score over 90 per cent. Then, during the exam, the monitor having left the room, 30 students gathered around my desk to cheat -- I couldn't concentrate." Ending up with a score of 65 per cent, Adel was left with no choice but to apply to an expensive private institution.
And however infrequent Adel's case might be, the future many of these applicants face runs counter to the government's policy of promoting vocational training, on the theory that such graduates are more likely to find employment. At the end of the day, the ground littered with flyers advertising different private institutions, it was clear that the shortage is in neither students nor schools but rather, simply, in cash. "They told us it's better than thanawiya amma -- a craft would come in handy," Adel said angrily. "Why are they turning their back on us now?"