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Friday, 15 November 2019

The culture of education in Egypt

What can be done to develop a more open and less conformist culture of education in Egypt

Ahmad Abdel Tawwab , Friday 23 Aug 2019
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I read a news story a few days ago about the suicide of a secondary school student in the Sharqia governorate. In another such story a student jumped from the fourth floor of a building after receiving an exam result, and in another a student hanged himself in Kerdasa.

Such stories are sadly not uncommon after the announcement of the secondary school certificate results. 

A few days ago, I received a telephone call from a colleague who spoke to me about one of his neighbours who was in a deep depression because of his son’s exam results, as he would not now be able to go to one of the country’s top colleges. All this has made me think that we must reform the secondary school system. 

At the beginning of every summer, a war begins between parents and children over the names of the colleges they wish to go to after leaving school.

Parents insist that their children write the names of top colleges on their list of wishes, and children are drawn between what they want and what their parents want for them. 

I do not know when the idea of “top colleges” began. Originally, there was no “top” and “bottom.” The term is not used by the state institutions, though it has become popular with students. Today, every secondary school student wants to go to a top college.

Yet, we are the ones who create such delusions and seek to increase them. We are now witnessing the tragedy of such a lack of coordination between students’ desires and what is open to them, with this being a clear example of the failure of the idea of top colleges and of an injustice that does not really take into consideration a student’s inclinations.

The idea of top colleges leads to bigger crises with the same result, namely unemployment and its repercussions. We are already facing such problems as a result of the illusion that there are colleges at the top and colleges at the bottom, and we are not paying enough attention to the technical education that our society needs more than ever.

We no longer focus enough attention on agricultural or technological education, though this is demanded by the labour market.

How can the College of Law or the College of Agriculture not be top colleges, when studies confirm that the coming period will see a growing demand for agricultural specialties, amid high expectations for more support for this specialisation? Massive agricultural projects aimed at producing biofuels from plants will be necessary to blaze a new global path.

We must be strong enough to change our educational system and change the names of the technical institutes in order to change people’s “sometimes misguided” perceptions of them.

Technical education offers good solutions to qualified young people, helping them to find good jobs and meaningful careers. Quality education of this type should help to ensure a high level of professionalism and a high level of skills among technicians working as individuals or in companies. 

Such education, if implemented to a proper quality, can help a young person start his life early and work even before graduation, perhaps moving to one of the new communities and bringing with him his professional skills and competences.

Technical education in many countries is based on partnerships between the government and the private sector, something which is true in the US, for example, where major industrial companies have educational institutes specialising in the fields in which they operate.

Role For The State

The state should play more of a role in promoting technical education and working on the distribution of technical colleges and their quality, so that they are linked to the needs of each province. 

If we want to see real progress, we need to establish standards to coordinate admission to universities, guarantee justice for all students and put the appropriate students in the right places in order to meet the needs of the labour market.

We need, if necessary, to go against the current educational culture, which lives off the illusion of social prestige and undermines the real abilities and skills of entire generations by placing them on educational paths that are not commensurate with their capabilities and development.

The state must implement changes in this system and act to promote a culture of technical education with a view to underlining its importance for the future.

The system must promote creativity, and it must remove the stigma that sometimes sticks to technical subjects and agriculture, despite their very evident importance.  

Many factors have contributed to this problem, with psychological factors often determining society’s view of graduates from certain colleges.

We are all familiar with responses to a student who wants to study philosophy, for example, who will be asked what he will do with this degree after he has graduated.

Even if we agree with this kind of financial accounting, it is not clear that some specialisations in industry do not have higher financial returns than the Faculty of Engineering’s Mathematics Department, which at the moment has far greater prestige. 

In the first half of the 20th century, the Faculty of Law was Egypt’s top college because it graduated future ministers. Today, when money has become ever more important, the Faculties of Engineering and Medicine come out top.

In other countries, on the other hand, the top colleges may be different, since in a country carrying out a lot of scientific research it will be the faculties of science that are the top colleges.

Such factors thus include community perceptions, expected financial returns and career prospects. But the community should not despise a profession just because it comes lower down the list or over-value another because it comes at the top.

The ranking we have in Egypt is based on societal outlook, then professional future, and then material returns, the proof being the high unemployment rates among engineers and doctors.

Many university graduates also accept jobs as teaching assistants at universities with little financial return because these jobs have a glamour attached to them despite their lack of financial rewards. 

The advice we often give to students is “do what you love as a hobby but enter a college in the footsteps of your father or relatives.” My opinion, however, is different: enter the college you love and not one of the so-called top colleges.

If you study what you love, you will study with pleasure on the condition that you love this area of knowledge and are willing to spend part of your life on it.

Your enthusiasm will gain the acceptance of the community, and your success in it will be accorded respect. As for the material factor, creativity lies not only in the field of specialisation itself, but also in way in which it is marketed.

In short, it is time we speak not about the development of education but about self-development and what we need to do in order to escape from the web of customs and traditions that still holds us back.

We need to talk more about openness to the rest of the world and the technologies of the future, including artificial intelligence which could eliminate many careers and create new ones.

Excellence is a positive thing in any field, and we have to be careful to achieve it. But excellence means developing skills in fields that have been chosen for good reasons, and not just because they are offered in top colleges.  

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

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 22 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The culture of education in Egypt

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