Education ministers face down critics
The ministers of education and higher education were placed in the hot seat by independent and opposition MPs on Saturday, reports Gamal Essam El-Din
Yosri El-Gamal and Hani Hilal, the ministers of education and higher education, faced a torrent of interpellations submitted by nine opposition and independent MPs on Saturday.
The most vocal of El-Gamal and Hilal's detractors were, as usual, maverick deputies of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. They accused the two ministers of pursuing privatisation in higher education at the expense of poor families and permitting "Americans and Israelis" to infiltrate Egyptian schools and universities. The Ministry of Education, they claimed, had allowed the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to impose Western values on the local curriculum and reduce the amount of time spent on Islamic religion lessons. Hilal was also accused of condoning invitations issued to Israeli academics to deliver lectures in Egyptian universities.
Brotherhood MPs further accused him of "waging a war against Islamic values". "Please stick to Islam and stop your war against female students who wear the niqab on university campuses," said Brotherhood MP Ibrahim El-Gaafari.
"USAID offers money to help improve the technical performance of schools. They have no say at all in the curriculum," replied El-Gamal. He went on to explain that American help takes the form of upgrading school libraries, providing modern computers and instructing school staff in modern teaching techniques.
The Ministry of Higher Education's long term strategy, said Hilal, is focussed on establishing high technology universities.
"The cost of these universities will be high but this is due to them offering an advanced level of education," said Hilal. He said Egypt currently has 17 private universities that cater for just 50,000 students compared with more than two million students enrolled in public universities.
Mohamed Abdel-Alim Dawoud, an MP from the liberal-oriented Wafd Party, lamented that security forces retain a heavy presence on university campuses.
"They are out there to contain political activities on campuses," said Dawoud. "It is a disgrace that the Ministry of Higher Education spends a large part of its modest budget in generous salaries to security forces at the expense of vital activities such as research, building student hostels and upgrading university hospitals. Such is the policy of the ruling National Democratic Party [NDP] which is doing its best to prevent university students from joining opposition parties."
Brotherhood MP Ali Laban complained that spending on education in Egypt has fallen from 30 per cent to just 17 per cent of GDP. "Compare this with the budgets of the Ministry of Interior and the Federation of Egyptian Football, both of which have doubled, and you see where the NDP's priorities lie," he said.
Another Brotherhood MP, Ahmed Abu Baraka, claimed 80 per cent of the education budget goes to salaries and financial incentives for school teachers, education experts and consultants yet Egyptian families were still forced to spend a large portion of their monthly budgets on private lessons. "The cost of private tuition fees in Egypt reached LE36 billion last year," he alleged.
El-Gamal responded by drawing attention to his ministry's ambitious campaign aimed at raising the skills of teachers.
"More than a million teachers have received advanced training so far," said El-Gamal.
Hilal stressed that the fact that government universities are now required to procure quality certification had "compelled them to improve their performance" and that "the $50 billion from the International Monetary Fund the Egyptian government has obtained is funding a national project aimed at upgrading the performance of Egyptian universities."
"All we want," said Hilal, addressing charges that he was unfairly discriminating against niqab wearers, "is for female students wearing the niqab to show their faces when asked to do so by security so that their identities can be confirmed."