Friday,20 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1312, (22-28 September 2016)
Friday,20 July, 2018
Issue 1312, (22-28 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Hope for the future

Egypt has many problems, but the determined youth always prevail, writes Azza Sedky

Al-Ahram Weekly

Hard as it may be to admit, it is generally acknowledged that Egypt’s education system is in shambles, stumping youths, shattering hopes, and shrivelling development. In 2013, the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Competitiveness Report ranked Egypt last in quality of primary education out of 148 surveyed countries.

Let’s go back a few decades in history, to be exact to the mid-1950s, when this all began. Public education became free, first at the primary level and later across the board — an exemplary aim that shortly afterwards backfired with its ramifications felt as far in history as today. Schools, despite being free, or because they were, depended on rote learning (memorising) and offered students little incentive for creativity. They were notoriously known for packing students like sardines, 70 in a class, and four on a bench.

President Gamal Abdel-Nasser guaranteed all university graduates a job in the public sector, which on the surface was noble, but ultimately left Egypt with over seven million public sector workers doing the work of a million at best — they, too, seated a few at a desk.

What parents saved from sending their children to free public schools and universities they paid, and more, to private tutors, and in the process shifted a teacher’s noble cause — to nurture students — to making money and, consequently, downgrading the school’s role in society at large.

And in the 1960s came the nationalisation of banks, insurance firms, foreign agencies and big businesses resulting in the exodus of foreign and Egyptian expertise. While dispossessing the upper class of its wealth, nationalisation stagnated the middle class and definitely, at the far end, impoverished the lower class.

As trainers, coaches, mentors and those with the knowhow dwindled in numbers, educational standards slumped even further. Suddenly the country was left with no compass or rudder as to how to rear the upcoming generations.

Today, realising the deficiency in the system, Egyptians are calling on the government to improve the education system with better classes and schools, informed and skilful teachers, meaningful learning strategies, and fewer students in each class.

How does Egypt achieve that goal? A complete overhaul of the system while putting everything else on hold and spending on nothing but education for a decade or so would be the best option, though highly impractical. Other necessities demand as much attention and liquidity as education — especially health, infrastructure and security.

In fact, whatever is put in education is merely a drop in the bucket of what is indeed needed. Change, when it comes, will have to be radical and far reaching, but in the meantime what are the options?

Despite this gloomy rendition of where Egypt is as far as education is concerned, I am hopeful. Here’s why.

In the 1980s, a second educational tier emerged when many private institutions, schools and universities came to be. The enrolled students paid hefty tuition fees to profit from the education accessed in these schools and universities, true, but these students are now reaping the fruit of their schooling, and so is Egypt.

These graduates enjoy critical thinking and problem-solving abilities and will become the trainers, mentors and those with the knowhow of tomorrow. They will provide the necessary compass and the needed rudder while insisting on efficiency and productivity. These graduates will support others as they lead and pave the way to bridging the gap. I hate to admit that we need to depend on students reared outside the public school system, but, for the time being, they are our only hope.

Entrepreneurial, cultural, and educational enterprises are springing up across Egypt. I could name dozens of new projects, owned by young investors, willing to go the extra mile tofulfil their dreams, and our dreams along with them. These go-getters look at problems and envision growth, at challenges and contemplate improvement, and at the swelling population and see productivity. They are visionaries and forward thinkers.

Greek Campus, having taken over the ex-AUC campus in Tahrir Square, is home to close to 200 companies and is regarded as the Silicon Valley of the Middle East. It offers an opportunity for start-ups in the centre of Cairo.

Initiatives such as Flat6Labs, Sawari Ventures, Wuzzuf and Instabug turn “visionary ideas into market-leading companies in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)”, while simultaneously changing the Egyptian landscape.

The same is happening in culture. Worth-viewing movie and television productions, such as “Clash” and “Grand Hotel”, are beacons paving the way for other efforts. Fatma Said, the young Egyptian opera singer, is the 2016 winner of the 8th Veronica Dunne International Singing Competition and the first Egyptian soprano to be accepted at La Scala Academy.

Mish Madrasa, an after-school alternative education in Saft Al-Laban, teaches children in informal settlements, amongst other issues, how to maintain a garden atop a roof, how to remain healthy, and how to respect and be respected.

Those who run Megraya, in Mallawi, Upper Egypt, believe that art brings people together, so they aim to preserve the areas’ heritage while supporting contemporary culture through photography, film and book exhibitions.

The Alwanat, another initiative established in Minya, promotes different types of art. It also established the first ballet school in Upper Egypt. The Alwanat initiative promotes the belief that every person has the right to “taste different types of art and engage in various cultural initiatives to build a more open and intellectual personality”.

Athletically, as well, a more open-minded trend is emerging. The young generation is finding refuge in being fit, in working out in makeshift rooftop gyms, and in following President Al-Sisi’s example, who takes us on his biking trips around Egypt. The New York Times article, “Egyptians Take to the Streets Again, Now in Workout Gear”, speaks of a surge in athleticism in Egypt. Amusingly the article assumes that since young people can’t go out demonstrating, “they can go out to run”. Later, though, the article delves into how athletically inclined Egyptians have become, mentioning squash players who have reached international heights, and those who exercise for the sake of exercising, not for participating in a championship or winning a trophy.

Thanks to some, Egyptians — in particular the youth — are indeed changing. They are more involved with and concerned about Egypt; they are extremely active physically compared to where they were a few years back, and they volunteer and partake in charitable projects. They run businesses and create opportunities. They also think outside the box. More importantly, they are fulfilling their dreams, and in the process fulfil ours.

The writer is a political analyst.

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