Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 December 2009 - 6 January 2010
Issue No. 979
New Decade's special edition
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Educated guess

What shape will education in Egypt take in 2020? A veteran in the subject tells Mohamed El-Sayed it's not as simple as ABC

The future of education in Egypt has always been one of the most talked about topics in media, academic conferences and political circles. As the number of school and university students increases every year -- it hit 18.5 million this year -- debate on curriculums, decentralisation of the education process, run-down government-run schools and universities, overcrowded class rooms, and private lessons dominate public talk.

How will education in Egypt look like 10 years from now? "No talk about the future of education in Egypt is valid unless we deal with illiteracy," argued well-known educationalist Hamid Ammar. "The government must reduce the percentage of illiteracy from 30 per cent to five per cent by 2020."

According to Ammar, reforming education in the next 10 years should start from the tender age of four. "The percentage of four-year-old children joining kindergarten must be raised to at least 45 per cent, up from the current 18 per cent of the total number of children."

Recent conferences on education held in government and partisan circles have emphasised improving the quality of education provided in government schools.

An agency entitled to grant accreditation to schools has been established to ensure the quality. Nevertheless, Ammar believes emphasis in the coming 10 years should be put on the quantitative rather than qualitative development of education.

"Yes the quality of education is still poor, but education policy-makers should first formulate a vision aimed at expanding the number of schools and classes and increasing the number of children joining schools in the next decade. We cannot speak about improving the quality of education while we still have around two million dropouts in preparatory schools," Ammar told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Joining primary schools has a multitude of challenges, however. According to official statistics, there are around 300,000 dropouts every year from primary and preparatory schools due to the country's poor economic state and family financial-oriented problems. "Egypt has to increase the number of children joining primary education from the current 92 per cent to at least 98 per cent by 2020. Unfortunately, many parents take their children out of school after three or four years," Ammar said.

Ammar is also critical of the current trend -- decentralising the educational process, starting with three governorates as a first phase, and which the Ministry of Education plans to generalise nationwide in the decade ahead. "On the face of it, the decentralisation of education sounds like a good idea. However, it might end up placing the responsibility for education in the hands of governors instead of the minister of education. And governors in turn will adopt a bureaucratic way of managing schools. There will then be no improvement."

Before decentralisation, Ammar argued, education officials must consider social and cultural contexts in which such a system can properly operate. "We should not import, for example, the American educational system and apply it in Egypt. I expect it will not work here."

Should decentralisation of secondary school examinations take place, Ammar believes there will be "protests and complaints" from students in the governorates about the difficulty of their exams in comparison with tests in other governorates.

As far as the future of university education is concerned, Ammar remains cynical about government policies. "The number of universities now in Egypt is only 16. Over the past 30 years, no government- run university has been established. All what the government did was separate branches of existing universities and turned them into separate universities.

"By 2020, there should be a university for every two million citizens, which means that we need to have 40 universities. We should have at least a university in each of the 28 governorates we have now."

Lack of funds remains a major obstacle in the way of developing education in Egypt. The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) will jack up the educational budget to six per cent of GDP, up from the current 3.4 per cent, as one of its main targets for the next decade.

"Six per cent of the GDP should be the minimum budget the government earmarks for education," Ammar said. "This percentage was proposed by UNESCO 15 years ago. Now it should climb to at least seven or eight per cent so that education improves, relatively speaking."

Ammar predicts that without adequate funds the upgrading of the educational system will be a far- fetched dream. "No community participation or civil society will be able to replace the government's role in developing education. It's a pity the annual budget allocated for a primary school student stands at only $300, and a preparatory school student receives an average of just $800."

The increased education budget should be directed towards building new schools and equipping them with labs, playgrounds and other school facilities, says Ammar's vision. "It's useless to earmark only seven per cent of the budget of education to school infrastructure, as is the case now. A considerable part of foreign grants should go to building new schools and universities."

The fall of capitalism -- and hence globalisation -- will have a direct impact on education in Egypt in the coming decade, according to Ammar. "Now states are hurrying to rescue their economies by injecting billions of dollars into their banking systems. The same will go for education since it's a vital sector whose responsibility should lie with governments.

"It's a national security issue."

Foreign education has been in vogue and will apparently continue to flourish in the decade to come, which causes Ammar alarm. "There should be a ceiling for foreign education in Egypt. It should not represent more than 10 per cent of education. Egypt is inundated with foreign education, starting from kindergarten until university, and the government is unable to intervene in setting their syllabuses or their fees."

Ammar says the government made a "grave mistake" by partially relinquishing its role in sponsoring education of private and international schools and universities. "Foreign education is focussed on meeting the needs of multi-national corporations. Therefore, these companies, rather than nations, are the sole beneficiary of this kind of education." Nevertheless, Ammar expects that parents with money will continue sending their children to international and private schools.

With the mushrooming of private lessons in Egypt in the past two decades, and with the high possibility that lessons at home will continue into the next decade, any educational strategy for the future will be useless, Ammar believes.

"Any talk about upgrading the educational system is useless as long as private lessons thrive.

"It's the biggest danger looming over the future of education."

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