Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1193, (17 - 23 April 2014)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1193, (17 - 23 April 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Can Egypt afford quality education?

Many of Egypt’s problems can be traced back to its underfunded education system, writes Hayat Hussein

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Scriptwriter Nadine Shams recently lost her life due to possible medical malpractice. Her tragedy reminded the nation of the low quality of many essential services and not only in the medical sector or in state-owned agencies. Years of low-quality education have also taken their toll on the country’s performance in many areas, with the result that in a country that suffers from widespread unemployment, skilled labour and competent professionals can be hard to come by.

What Egypt lacks in quality it makes up for in quantity. The country has nearly 15 million students in pre-college education and 2.2 million in colleges. However, employers complain that once these students are in the labour market their knowledge, work ethic, and skills are below average. Experts say this is the result of years of underfunding of the educational system.

In hospitals, schools, shops, and government departments, the impact of poor education is taking its toll on performance. Television producer Hanan Hassan has a fourth grader that she used to be proud of. Now she complains that the education system is suffocating her child’s talents.

“My son used to be bright and witty, and I had hoped that school would make him better. But instead it has ruined his talents. He used to love to draw. Now he has lost interest,” she said.

Mohamed Ibrahim, a tax official in Qalyoubia, had to send a small desk and chair for his son to use at school. “The number of students in his class is so large that not everyone has a seat,” he says. Howeida, a housewife in Qena, complains that her daughter, now in high school, has to travel far from her home to get to school. “Every day I worry about my daughter having to travel for so long on public transportation. She leaves in the early morning and comes back too tired to study,” she remarked.

Siham, who works for the Sharqiya Local Council, hired private tutors for her son, who is now in twelfth grade. She says that the cost of the tutors is twice as much as her salary – but she cannot afford not to use them. The teachers, she added, neglect those students that don’t pay for private tuition.

 Some may think that low-quality education is a problem only of government schools. However, some private schools are also falling short of expectations. Tuition in private school starts from LE10,000 ($1,500) per year, and sometimes it is ten times as much. But parents complain that the teachers are sometimes not up to standard and that the schools are poorly administered.

In the 2013-2014 Global Competitiveness Report, released two months ago, Egypt was at the bottom of the scale in terms of school administration and quality. Even countries like Mauritania, Guinea, and Kyrgyzstan seem to be doing better. Egypt came 111th in a list of 122 countries in terms of the quality of education last year.

However, the problem is not a new one, since nearly 50 years ago cartoonist-poet Salah Jahin made fun of the poor level of education in some schools, producing a series of cartoons about unqualified teachers, illiteracy, and a lack of interest in science.

Last year, film director Sherine Talaat released a documentary entitled Alef Beh Teh, in which she described the low educational standards in the country. “Egypt is ready for educational reform. The education system needs to be changed to meet the country’s needs. We need to overhaul the entire system,” she told viewers during discussions following the screening of her film.

If we need to shut down the schools until we have overhauled the system, then we should do so, Talaat declared.



CASH CONSIDERATIONS: The authors of the UNDP’s latest Human Development Report attribute the deterioration of the educational situation in Egypt to inadequate spending.

Former International Labour Organisation (ILO) director Ibrahim Awad agrees. Low funding leads, among other things, to crowded classrooms. “How do you expect children to learn when they are packed 60 to a class,” he asked.

Kamal Moghith, a researcher at the National Centre for Educational Research (NCER), illustrates the issue with facts and figures. The cost of student education in grade school is anywhere between $3,000 and $5,000 per student in many countries. Egypt spends less than one-tenth of that.

Egyptian scientists and Nobel laureate Ahmed Zuweil also spoke at length on this issue during a gathering at the Cairo Opera House in 2010. According to Zuweil, the government spends an average of LE24 billion ($3.5 billion) on education per year, which translates to $250 per student, compared to $1,500 in Israel.

Egyptian families spend an extra LE10 billion ($1.5 billion) to LE15 billion ($2 billion) on private tuition, a “staggering figure” according to Zuweil. Students in state-run universities cost the government $500 each, whereas tuition at the American University in Cairo is $15,000 and at the Nile University $10,000 per student annually.

Egypt currently spends just under four per cent of its income on education. The writers of Egypt’s 2014 constitution suggested that this ratio be increased to six per cent. But experts don’t expect this figure to be reached before three years or so at least. “Education has become more sophisticated in other countries, but this has come at a higher cost,” Moghith said.

In some middle-income countries, education expenditure now stands at 12 per cent of GDP. Malaysia spends one quarter of its total budget on education. This contrasts markedly with Egypt, where, according to Cairo University professor Marwa Al-Beltagui underfunding could wreck the chances of economic reform. In her recent study, “Higher Education between Underfunding and Reform,” Al-Beltagui argued that without a rise in expenditure, college education in Egypt will continue to lag behind world standards.

“When you spend so little on education, you miss out on labs and computers, without which it is difficult to upgrade the learning process,” Moghith said. Zuweil, for his part said that Egypt needed to overhaul its schools, training for teachers, and curricula. In his view, cramping students 60 to a room can be a problem for teachers as it impedes any attempt to encourage creative thinking.

Moreover, teachers were paid 10 times as much 40 years ago as they are now, Moghith pointed out. Because salaries have dipped since then, the quality of teachers has also taken a turn for the worst. To redress this situation, the government has been promising for the past eight years to raise teachers’ salaries, but whatever it has done does not seem to have resolved the problem.

Retraining teachers is also the cornerstone of educational reform in many countries. In the US, President Barack Obama launched the “Educate to Innovate” initiative in 2010, which aims to improve the aptitudes of American students in science, technology, and mathematics over a ten-year period. The US is training 10,000 new teachers and retraining 100,000 existing staff. Its total expenditure on education is upwards of $1 trillion per year.

Meanwhile, in Egypt we have had tuition-free education since the 1950s, and many attribute the low standards of education in the country at present to this policy. However, free education is not a socialist fad or a new phenomenon. Since mediaeval times, students have often received not only free education at venerable seats of learning, such as Al-Azhar, but have also been given free accommodation, food, and clothing. This tradition of free education continued under Egyptian ruler Mohamed Ali when he introduced European-style education to the country in the first half of the nineteenth century.

In 1943, when Ahmed Naguib Al-Hilali was minister of education and Taha Hussein, the blind author and scholar, was his assistant, the country revived plans for free education. When he became minister of education in 1950, Hussein introduced free secondary education.

The 1952 Revolution then took this measure further, making college education free as well.

Education and democratisation: Analysts have pointed out that Tunisia has had fewer problems in its path to democratisation following the country’s 2011 revolution than Egypt. One of the reasons has been that education in Tunisian schools is better than it is in Egypt, analysts say.

“The Mubarak regime encouraged the kind of education that makes students take orders, not solve problems,” Moghith commented. Moreover, in order to have full control over the educational process, the government ordered private schools in 1993 to follow the same curricula as government schools.

In Egypt, exams tend to reward students on their memorisation skills, not on their creativity, Moghith added. Even so, the Mubarak regime failed to quell the ability of the young to think for themselves, as the 25 January Revolution amply demonstrated. In the latter years of the Mubarak regime, the president’s wife, Suzanne Mubarak, also sponsored a campaign calling for better education for girls.

Experts say the campaign was more show than substance, but the number of girls enrolled in school has been rising. Their quality of education, however, leaves much to be desired. The ratio of girls failing to enroll in primary education is four per cent in Egypt, compared with one per cent for boys, according to the Human Development Report, though the country’s successive constitutions have made primary education mandatory for both sexes.

The 1923 constitution noted that “primary education is mandatory for all Egyptians, both boys and girls,” for example. Article 18 of the 1971 constitution says that education is mandatory in primary schools and that the government should do its best to make it mandatory for longer periods.

For his part, Zuweil has urged a national project to end illiteracy, increase funding, overhaul the curricula, and change teaching methods. “Students must learn that there is a difference between fact and fantasy. Fact builds character, and critical analysis is of the essence,” he said. Zuweil also wants to see teachers undergo regular training and assessment. In the US, he pointed out, salaries are linked to performance.

The numbers of students also have to be kept to manageable levels. “Don’t ask a university that has 500 seats to accommodate 1,500 students,” he said.

Professor Saber Abdel-Baki of Minya University shared the same sentiment. Modern equipment and updated curricula were essential for educational reform, he stated. “Every year we reinvent the wheel, cancelling sixth grade or reinstating it, combining the last two years in high schools, or separating them. Every minister starts from scratch, as if nothing had happened before his time,” said Ayman Al-Guindi, Director-General of the Arab Federation for Human Resources Development.

According to Al-Guindi, education must reflect the country’s aspirations and needs. For example, South Africa’s education system focuses on the skills needed for tourism, a major source of income in the country. Some countries also spend as much as one third of their budgets on education, Al-Guindi said. Egypt not only needed to spend more, but it also needed to pay more attention to scientific and technological education.

In Egypt, as in most Arab countries, technical education also does not get the funding or attention it needs. Despite the fact that technical education maximises chances of getting a job, less than 0.2 per cent of Arab students enroll in technical schools.

The focus on academic education may have gone too far, Al-Guindi said. “If you get a good education before going to college, you may not even need to go to college,” he remarked.


The writer is a freelance journalist

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