Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1318, (3 - 9 November 2016)
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1318, (3 - 9 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Cash-less classes

Education and its high cost were among the main topics addressed by President Al-Sisi during the National Youth Conference, reports Reem Leila

Al-Ahram Weekly

With a looming demographic bulge and a need for higher youth employment, Egypt’s education sector is the focus of much attention. Its public education system is the largest in terms of student populations in the Middle East and North Africa yet its levels of public spending have only seen nominal increases in the last five years. In 2011, 3.5 per cent of GDP — around $9.5 billion — was spent on education, which equates to around $300 per student each year. In the 2013/14 fiscal year, the amount increased slightly to 3.9 per cent of GDP, equivalent to $11.1 billion.

At the National Youth Conference last week, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said the government could not put an overhaul of the country’s poor education system high on its agenda, saying Egypt has insufficient resources to do so. “The country’s resources are scarce… and the challenges are huge,” said Al-Sisi at a seminar on education during the three-day conference.

Obstacles such as high rates of population growth, slums and a high unemployment would hold the country back from adopting needed reforms to overhaul the flawed system, he told the gathering. “Would Egyptians accept having all available cash be put in education and have other issues wait?” he wondered. “Would youth wait while the country remains at a standstill or go out in the streets because they want to make a living?”

In response to questions posed by attendees who suggested Egypt adopt measures that have been successful in other countries, Al-Sisi urged youth to take into consideration the country’s flagging economic situation before proposing a solution, and to think of how much a proposed initiative would cost and how it can be funded.

Minister of Higher Education Ashraf Sheha, who took part in the seminar, said the government’s current plan includes working to integrate modern technology into the education system, adding that Internet speed and the number of computers have increased at state-run universities. The minister said the government is also looking to link state-run schools with the Bank of Knowledge, a state-funded project launched earlier this year that provides free access to net-based research resources.

According to Sheha, the country’s strategic plan includes improving the learning environment through training programmes for professors and teachers, and new, active learning techniques to help students develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

The findings from the 2015-16 Global Competitiveness Report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) illustrate the impact of Egypt’s education and literacy levels on the country’s economy. Categorised by WEF as a stage two, efficiency-driven economy, it is ranked 116 out of 140 countries compared to 119 out of 144 countries in the 2014-15 report. Although this does not show an improved performance, the report gives a generally positive assessment of the country’s institutions, noting, in particular, the higher levels of physical security, a more efficient judiciary in settling business disputes and improved protection of property rights.

In terms of higher education and training, WEF ranks Egypt 111. In addition to policy instability and inefficient government bureaucracy, the WEF report notes that the poor work ethic in the labour force and the inadequately educated workforce are amongst the most problematic factors for doing business in Egypt.

Besheir Hassan, the Ministry of Education spokesman, unveiled a reform programme which began in 2014 and will end in 2017, with further planned reforms up until 2030. The scheme includes introducing a nutrition regime in all public schools, eliminating illiteracy, reducing the number of student dropouts, and improving the curriculum.

New educational buildings are to be constructed and class sizes reduced to 40 students per class in primary schools. Free extra classes will be offered, and efforts to prepare graduates for domestic teaching jobs will be renewed. In cooperation with the United Arab Emirates, the ministry is also working on a programme to extend technology use in schools, known as the Million Student Project.

“The ministry is reviewing curricula, and together with UNICEF, is supporting professional development. It is also looking to enhance support for the disadvantaged. Specialists in the field highlight the need for giving particular attention to human resource gaps, improving governance and helping teacher morale,” said Hassan. “The country’s effort to expand access to education at primary school age has come, “in many cases… at the expense of quality”.

The push to boost capacity has limited investment in teacher training, course curriculum and infrastructure and, according to UNICEF, has led to overcrowded classrooms and poor performance. According to a survey conducted by non-governmental organisation CARE Egypt, illiteracy rates were found to be as high as 80 per cent in some schools.

According to UNICEF estimates, less than 10 per cent of schools in Egypt meet the national standards for quality education and 20 per cent of buildings used for educational purposes are not fit for use and lack functional water and sanitation facilities.

The Egypt Country Report states that among university students, around two-thirds specialise in the humanities and social sciences. This trend has resulted in a mismatch between the output of the education sector and the needs of the labour market. Now, however, some institutions are beginning to address this imbalance.

University professor Ahmed Hamad believes that the education system is trying to build up more specialised academic programmes as well as training courses for entrepreneurship and innovation to ensure a more real-world, effective applicability of curriculum. Increasing numbers of university applicants could also pave the way for more private institutions to enter the market. “Given the large number of students looking to attend university and the limited capacity of public institutions, there is considerable room for growth for private players,” Hamad said.

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