Two universities, one piece of land
The future of Nile University, the first private and non-profit research university in Egypt, is becoming less clear by the day, reports Sarah Eissa
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Clockwise from top: the entrance to Nile University; former prime minister Ahmed Nazif at the inauguration of NU; the graduation ceremony of 2010; NU students collecting signatures to save scientific research; Zewail visiting the headquarters of the university after getting the green light to establish the City for Science and Technology
After four years waiting to move from their temporary building to a new and fully equipped campus, Nile University (NU) students, researchers, faculty and staff were surprised to learn recently that they will not now be moving to their new campus, even though the present one is overcrowded and provides inadequate access to labs.
According to Tarek Khalil, president of the NU, building the new campus took four years on some 127 acres of government-provided land at a cost of approximately LE300 million, with the campus' fixtures and fittings adding a further LE43 million to the bill.
On learning that the new Zewail City for Science and Technology will now be located in the premises earmarked for the NU, Khalil said that "the private and public sector did their part in building the new university, but the government made a commitment and then pulled back from it."
The status of the project is still unclear, with less than two months to go before the beginning of the new school year.
He said he had been surprised to learn from the media that there was now an intention at the highest levels of government to allocate the NU campus to the rival Zewail project.
Khalil explained that the NU was established in 2006 as the only non-profit university in Egypt having a vocation to teach and carry out research in the sciences under a special presidential decree.
The 2006 decree was issued under the private universities' law as the most appropriate legislative framework at the time. As soon as law number 12 of 2009 was passed, allowing the establishment of further civil universities, the NU was approved in January 2011 by the Supreme Council for Civil and Private Universities. However, due to the 25 January Revolution, the presidential decree was not signed.
The university was building its new campus and was nearly ready to move in when the January Revolution interrupted its plans to do so. "The revolution was a wonderful phenomenon, led by young people eager to help improve Egypt, education, the economy and scientific research," Khalil said.
However, former prime minister Ahmed Nazif, now in prison awaiting trial on corruption charges, was among the founders of the NGO that established the NU, though Khalil said that the NU had always had its own legal structure.
Nevertheless, some of Nazif's decisions have since been questioned, among them the University's links to the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology (MCIT), Nazif also being the minister at the MCIT at the time.
Khalil said that the university was only informed of board decisions after they had been taken, though he praises the decision of former prime minister Ahmed Shafik to transfer the university from the MCIT to the Educational Development Fund (EDF) as a good one because the latter has a special remit regarding education.
Meanwhile, at a lecture at the American University in Cairo recently, the Nobel-Prize winning Egyptian chemist Ahmed Zewail gave details of his rival project, now apparently earmarked for the NU buildings.
The projected Zewail City for Science and Technology would not be a conventional university, he said, but instead would be a not-for-profit research institution designed to play a leading role not only in Egypt but also internationally.
Zewail said that both Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and head of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) Mohamed Hussein Tantawi had been enthusiastic about the project and that he had been given a green light to go ahead.
A board of trustees having national and international members had been formed, including six Nobel laureates, and this would be setting out its proposals soon. The City would be privately funded, Zewail said, and it would receive donations from private individuals through a dedicated bank account at the Central Bank of Egypt.
According to details on an unofficial Facebook site, Zewail had earlier said that the idea for the projected City had originated in the 1990s and that the foundation stone had been laid on a site of 300 acres in January 2000.
However, Nazif had subsequently taken 127 acres of the original 300 to build the NU, which the Facebook site described as a "crime".
For his part, Khalil commented that he was not aware of the exact history or legal basis of the NU, but that the documents in his possession indicated that the land had been bought by the MCIT in order to establish the NU, in accordance with the presidential decree.
There was a certain "chaos" in the official announcements that had been made, he said, claiming that the ministry of higher education and scientific research had announced that the NU would be the "nucleus" of the Zewail project.
The NU would welcome collaboration with the rival project, he said.
The NU had been ready to move to the new site, he said, until Amr Salama, former minister of higher education, had told the University to wait until after a visit by Zewail.
Raghda Medhat, a research assistant at NU, said that staff had expected Zewail to assist them in resolving the problem. "However, his visit was very disappointing," she said. "All he did was to tell us we should study and then if we were lucky some of us might be able to join his project."
"I am really surprised that the government appreciates Zewail's project so much, even though it is still on paper, whereas the NU is an existing and independent project. Everyone is sending funds to Zewail, while no one is supporting the existing project," she told the Weekly.
Khalil said that during Zewail's visit, the latter had said that some students, faculty, or research workers might expect to find a place in the projected City, if they were compatible with his plans.
He said that he was still confident that the SCAF would assign the 300-acre site and buildings to the NU, though this decision could be delayed until after the formation of the new parliament and the presidential elections.
Medhat said that when students at the NU had told Zewail that his project would take several years to complete, while the NU already existed, he had said that the University did not have working labs, though these "are on the new campus."
Menna Syam, a postgraduate student in the NU's Centre for Information Science, said that there was limited lab space at the NU and that many students had had to find space outside the university in order to complete their theses.
Khalil said that the situation had been complicated by the NU's signed agreements with foreign companies and universities, something that will now be threatened by the latest announcements.
"All this was in our strategic plan, and we were moving fast to implement it," he said, adding that many of the commitments the university had wanted to make were now under threat. As a result, donations to the university have stopped.
Meanwhile, as the new buildings now stand empty awaiting a decision on their future to be made, disuse is threatening their physical fabric. The campus is equipped with the latest technology, making it one of the most modern in the Middle East, but as long as it stands empty this technology will not be put to effective use.
Khalil criticised the decision to close the campus while rumours about a member of the former regime were investigated. A petition had been sent to the SCAF, he said, as well as to the prime minister and the minister of higher education, but this had not met with a response. In the meantime, lawsuits were being initiated by faculty and students.
Medhat is one of the students appealing against the decree to transfer the land from the MCIT to the EDF, arguing that it is part of a disputed site. "We have turned to the judiciary as the final solution," she said, "but only after trying everything else and failing."
Some people believe the students are somehow corrupt because the University was founded by Nazif, she said, but "we are against corruption, and if it's proved that Nazif is involved in corruption then let's just move on and continue with building the university."
Iman Nabil a postgraduate student at the NU, said that some students had expressed fears that they may not be able to find jobs due to the university's negative image.
Zewail media advisor Ahmed El-Meslmani was not reachable for comment, though he did say in his TV programme Al-Tabaa Al-Oula (the First Issue) recently that Zewail would feel nothing but pride in the NU, like any other Egyptian university, if it had high academic standards.
Zewail, however, El-Meslmani said, had nothing to do with the land dispute, which was a matter for the University and the government to decide.
However the dispute is not resolved yet, and according to Khalil some NU professors are looking for other jobs, something which he said would be a great loss to the country.