Thursday,23 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1135, 14 - 20 February
Thursday,23 May, 2019
Issue 1135, 14 - 20 February

Ahram Weekly

Public or private universities?

Over the past 15 years more and more private universities have been appearing in Egypt, sometimes creating as many problems as they solve, writes Reem Leila

Public or private universities?
Public or private universities?
Al-Ahram Weekly

Since the establishment of the first private university in Egypt, aside from the venerable American University in Cairo (AUC), in 1996, there has been a perception that the growing number of these establishments is creating as many problems as it has solved, with some parents and students thinking that the private universities, most of them commercial entities, are more interested in financial gain than in improving the country’s educational standards.

According to Fatemah Hassouna, a doctor and the mother of four children, the private universities are a way of escaping the nightmare of the thanaweya amma, the secondary school leaving exam, and the high grades required to join one of the top faculties at a public university.

“I am not worried anymore, since even if my children don’t get high grades in their thanaweya amma exams, they can still go to a private university, which only requires money and not high marks,” she said.

The AUC was founded in 1919 by the American Mission in Egypt and sponsored by the United Presbyterian Church of North America, and it was dedicated to the cultural enrichment of Egypt. However, it was only in 1992 that a new law was passed paving the way for establishing more private universities.

In 1996, four private universities were established: the University of the Modern Sciences and Arts (MSA), Misr University for Science and Technology (MUST), and the 6 October University, all of which are in 6 October city, and the Misr International University (MIU) on the Cairo/Ismailia desert road.

A few years later, the French, German and Canadian Universities opened, along with the Al-Ahram Canadian University and the British University.

According to the private universities law, a representative of the Ministry of Higher Education has to sit on the board of each new private university in order to report back on the university’s activities. At first, the Supreme Universities Council refused to equate private university degrees with those from the public universities, but two years ago the council decided to recognise the equivalence of the private degrees, saying that they met the standard of those offered by the public universities.

Minister of Higher Education Mustafa Musaad has announced that 60 new universities will be established over the coming 10 years, 20 of them state institutions and the rest being “private, international and technological universities”. There were also plans to decrease the total number of students attending any one university, such that no university in Egypt will be able to enroll more than 40,000 students, which is in line with international standards, he has said.

“According to the 10-year plan, the higher education budget will be increased from the current LE17 billion to LE70 billion,” Musaad said.

The aim of establishing the private universities was to ease the burden on the public universities, which faced many more applicants than they could absorb. At present, there are 18 public universities and 17 private universities in Egypt. According to Gamal Nawara, secretary-general of the Private Universities Council, the overall number of students enrolled at the country’s private universities does not exceed 76,000. “This is a very low figure when compared to the millions enrolled at the state universities,” Nawara said.

While Nawara believes that the private universities have so far performed well, their number is still too small. “We need to have at least 200 private universities in Egypt to absorb the mushrooming number of students,” he said. “Iran, for example, has 400 state universities, while Egypt only has 35 altogether. This is why educational standards in Egypt are dropping.”

The degrees issued by the private universities are now recognised as being equivalent to those given by the state institutions, he said. “Even the certificates of the faculties of medicine at the 6 October and MUST universities are the same as those of the Cairo and Ain Shams state universities,” Nawara said.

Only these two private universities have faculties of medicine at present. “While the degrees these institutions confer are recognised as being equivalent to those given by the state universities, the medical faculties are still in a pilot phase. When they prove their success, the initiative will be generalised to all the private universities,” Nawara said.

However, there are some dissenting voices regarding the value of a private university education. According to Hamdi Al-Sayed, former chair of the Doctors Syndicate, the country should not permit doctors to graduate from the private universities. “Medical doctors from private universities should not be allowed to join the Syndicate, since they are not properly qualified. The private universities do not have the necessary laboratories and hospitals needed for adequate training,” Al-Sayed said.

“I took the 6 October University to court over this matter, as at that time it was the only private university having a faculty of medicine. My intention was to shut the faculty down. While the administrative court ruled in my favour, this was later repealed by the higher administrative court,” Al-Sayed said.

Some public university professors also have reservations regarding the growing number of private universities, based in some cases on philosophical grounds. Such critics consider private higher education institutions to be at odds with the principles of the 1952 Revolution, which call for equal access to educational opportunities for all.

By allowing private universities to operate in the country, critics contend, a two-tier system is effectively set up under which the wealthy have access to higher-quality education.

But Manal Saleh, a housewife and the mother for two private university students, said that the private universities provided a better quality of education as the number of students was less than at the state institutions. “I don’t mind paying in return for providing my children with a better education. The number of students in the classes ranges from 30 to 100. Compare that with the thousands in the classes at the state universities,” Saleh said.

Other critics include Abdallah Sorour, a professor at Alexandria University who is also a member of the 9 March Movement. Sorour describes the private universities as “time bombs”, believing that it is impossible genuinely to improve the country’s higher education by setting up more such facilities.

Faculties like engineering and medicine at the private universities often admit students whose marks are not high enough for admittance to the equivalent faculties at the state universities, he said. The result it that the standards of the doctors and engineers graduating from the private universities are lower than average.

Sorour also said that the private universities had failed to build high-quality faculties or support research. Tenured faculty should make up at least 10 per cent of the staff at such institutions, he said, but ‘up to now none of the private universities has its own staff, and they have all failed to build high-quality faculties. All of them depend on outside professors from the state universities.”

Although 15 years have passed since the creation of the first new private universities in Egypt, none of them have yet been able to offer post-graduate education at Masters or PhD level. “Students who want to earn a Masters or a PhD must get it from a state university,” said Sorour, who said it was essential to re-evaluate the way these universities operated.

Most private universities are registered as companies with educational licenses, he added, claiming that “they are not really educational institutions at all, being more like business entities aiming to make a profit from students.” The whole subject of granting licenses to private universities needed to be reconsidered, he added, in order to achieve better-quality education.

Sorour suggested that a national council for education and scientific research should be set up in order to improve the performance of the universities as a whole. The council would be headed by either the president or the prime minister, and it would include representatives of the ministries concerned as well as the presidents of the different universities. “The council would be responsible for planning educational strategies and reform plans, especially with regard to private university education,” Sorour said.

The best way to improve higher education was not to continue with the policy of establishing more private universities, he said. Instead, a national conference on educational reform should be held, attended by the president, the prime minister, the ministries concerned, and education specialists and experts. “We have had previous national conferences on this topic, but nothing has been done,” Sorour added. “This is because past conferences were just places for people to socialise. At the new conference, we need to see real recommendations that will bring about real reforms.”

The government’s policy has been to encourage the creation of private universities in order to attract private investment into higher education, promote quality, meet the growing demand for higher education and ease the problems facing Egyptians attending universities abroad. It has also wanted to host more Arab and foreign students.

In order to improve quality standards, it has recently decided to cancel the tax exemptions offered to the private universities and to raise the minimum grades for foreigners enrolling at the private universities. According to Farouk Ismail, president of the private Al Ahram-Canadian University, these policies have not helped the private universities.

The private universities could lose a large number of Arab students as a result, he said. “In fact, lowering the admission grades for foreign students, especially Arabs, to 50 per cent of what they are now could help the private universities tackle the economic crisis which most universities have been suffering from since the 25 January Revolution,” Ismail said.

Hamdi Nassar, vice president of the National Authority for Quality Assurance and Accreditation in Education, rejects the idea of slashing minimum entrance grades to lure more foreign or Arab students to attend private universities in Egypt. “On the contrary, entry grades should be raised if we want to maintain high academic standards and offer quality education. If these things are not maintained, these institutions will lose their reason to exist,” he said.

Nassar also has some reservations about private involvement in higher education. “In my view, establishing an educational project to make money automatically compromises the quality of the education offered. With profit maximisation in mind, the university will aim to meet the tastes of the marketplace in order to attract as many customers as possible. Why not just reduce the quality of the education and lower the criteria to pass if the market is the only thing that matters,” he asked.

As a result of the recent increases in salary given to professors at state universities, many of them will now think twice about teaching in the private sector as well. “In the past, a university professor was paid a maximum of LE3,000 per month. Now, full professors are paid around LE12,000. The private universities have also raised salaries, but the increases in the state sector are impacting their budgets,” Nassar said.

However, many private universities were working hard to improve the quality of their staff, he added, “which should help them to limit the use of outside professors. Within a matter of a few years, there will be some private universities able to grant Masters and PhD degrees in Egypt.”

On the other hand, the private universities are different from the private primary and secondary schools in Egypt, which must meet strict accreditation standards.

Students from Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia, along with Arab students, typically attend Egypt’s private universities, which nevertheless still absorb only around two per cent of new students in Egypt each year. “We are working on improving the education at these universities in order to attract students from Europe or Asia,” Nassar said. “At present, foreign and Arab students make up almost 50 per cent of the students attending the private universities.”

According to Nassar, there are two kinds of students who prefer to go to the private universities. Some are after specialties only found in the private universities, such as at the German University in Cairo (GUC), while others have weak high-school grades and a private university is their only chance to matriculate in a top faculty.

“On the whole, I believe that the philosophy of private universities is now on firmer ground,” Nassar concluded. “Most of the problems in the private university sector in Egypt are on their way to being resolved.”

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