Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1362, (28 September - 4 October 2017)
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1362, (28 September - 4 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Towards a new educational philosophy

Egypt must make the education and training it offers its young people more relevant to the country’s economic needs, writes Ahmed Abdel-Tawwab

Egypt’s future relies largely upon the determination and skills of its young people. However, many young people are not developing the attributes the country needs. Much of the working-age population does not have adequate skills for employment in a modern economy, and traditional sources of employment are not growing at anywhere near the rate required to absorb new entrants to the labour market – whether school-leavers or tertiary education graduates.

The urgent priority for Egypt is to make education and training relevant to its economic prospects. It will need to do so in ways that develop well-rounded citizens who can work together to build a cohesive society. The transformation that is required in Egyptian education involves improving the learning experiences and outcomes of schooling so that educated youth can be productive citizens. That involves shifting the orientation of Egyptian schooling from the acquisition and repetition of knowledge to the development and demonstration of skills.

The challenges facing Egypt’s education system are numerous and pressing. The demographics underscore the urgency of reform: thirty two per cent of Egyptians are under the age of 15. The slow response to the large-scale shifts in society over past years risks depriving another generation of an education that meets the needs of the changing labour market as well as responding to the evolving political system. The mismatch between the outputs of the education system and the needs of the job market is one of the key reasons behind the persistently high level of unemployment in Egypt, officially estimated at 12 per cent but generally assumed to be significantly higher.

This unemployment is particularly high among the under-25s and university graduates, who typically take long periods to find jobs. Youth unemployment poses a number of social and political, as well as economic risks. The poor quality of much of the state education system, and the widespread reliance on private tutoring to supplement it, also contributes to Egypt’s high level of economic inequality, raising concerns about social justice.

Egypt also continues to be burdened by outmoded public-sector administration. Higher education is affected by this problem, both in its internal organisation and in its relations with government agencies. The Egyptian higher-education system is highly centralised, but it is not well-planned. Legislative provisions have detailed specifications and various central agencies exercise highly interventionist powers over operational minutiae. Budget allocations to higher education institutions are not linked to the respective roles and needs of individual institutions. Employment and staffing policies in the sector mirror those of the public sector at large, fostering commensurate problems of staffing imbalances, promotion by years of service, and poor remuneration.

Opaque processes for determining student enrolment levels at each institution and by faculty and specialty are an excessive form of micromanagement that limits institutional flexibility and impedes responsiveness to changes in student demand and labour-market needs.

Private institutions are subject to many of the same regulatory controls imposed on public ones, thereby negating the benefits of a strong and innovative private sector. Governments of the world are devolving more responsibilities to higher-education institutions in recognition of their economic and social importance and their growing complexity. They are giving them more substantive and procedural autonomy, so that the institutions have the flexibility necessary to respond to varying needs in changing and competitive circumstances.

Such devolution involves changed roles for government and institutions, and changing relations between them. It includes reforms to system steering and institutional governance, clarification of institutional roles and performance expectations, less-restricted funding with stronger accountability for cost-effectiveness, and stronger quality assurance processes with a focus on educational outcomes.

Among the mechanisms used to increase autonomy, accountability and responsiveness are competitive funding schemes, and mission-based performance-related compacts.

 

Need for accountability: There is growing recognition of the need for strengthened national policy capacity, the dissemination of information about institutional performance, elimination of redundant regulations, and stronger academic quality assurance and consumer protection.

The next step is to provide greater autonomy to the universities, technical colleges and institutes, particularly in matters of student selection, programme offerings and enrolments, curricula and academic staff appointments, promotion and compensation. One option for proceeding could be to identify a small number of institutions with which to trial more flexible arrangements. In Thailand, for example, the Suranaree University of Technology has been given the special designation of a “public autonomous university” and receives a lump-sum budget from the government, giving it discretion over the use of its resources.

It is self-governing in terms of its personnel and operates outside the civil service. It reports on the results it manages and demonstrates what it is possible to achieve.

To improve the effectiveness of public higher-education institutions and create a level playing-field for both public and private institutions in Egypt, the authorities could grant more autonomy to universities and institutes, allowing them to operate with more flexible educational processes, administrative procedures and financial management rules. Egypt’s public higher-education institutions could be given increased responsibility to undertake strategic planning with a view to aligning their programmes and educational processes with student demand and labour-market needs.

For this to take place, the authorities would need to devolve a wider range of powers to institutions, particularly regarding their educational offerings, student admissions, staffing and resource utilisation, within a framework of institutional accountability for managing those resources effectively to achieve results. Public universities with the status of public corporation might be governed by a board of trustees with the authority to determine their academic and operational affairs.

The authorities should also reconsider overhauling the underperforming, under-resourced and undervalued provision of technical and vocational education and training in Egypt by upgrading its capacity and status, reorienting its offerings to current and emerging labour-market requirements, and integrating it at the centre of Egypt’s economic transformation agenda. The comprehensive National Education Strategic Plan 2007-2012 has set ambitious goals, and considerable progress has been made in achieving higher rates of participation in the compulsory and post-compulsory stages of education.

Attention has been paid to increasing the professionalisation of the teaching workforce, giving greater autonomy to school principals and using a more systematic approach for data collection and the reporting of progress against targets. Less progress has been made on the difficult challenge of improving educational quality. The common factor undermining efforts to improve student learning at all levels is the invalid system of student assessment and its improper use. It is invalid because of deficiencies in its design, and its use is improper because scores derived from its application unjustifiably determine the life chances of students.

Egypt is committed to education for all and to educational excellence. Both quality and quantity should be realised together because learning and success for all are characteristics of good education, particularly in the age of information and communication. Efforts and initiatives exerted thus far have created mechanisms for sustainable educational reform, and national debates at conferences, symposia and seminars are leading to the establishment of a decisive and dynamic climate, consolidating the reform process to ensure qualitative and quantitative educational reform in Egypt.


The writer teaches in the Faculty of Arts at Menoufiya University and is a former visiting professor at Wake Forest University in the US.

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