On reforming education in Egypt

Mohammed W. Rizkallah , Monday 28 Jul 2014

Meaningful reform of education is only possible if the attitudes of policymakers change, catching up with the needs of the 21st century and investing in teachers and educational institutions

I was discussing the problem with Egypt’s basic education with a top government official this week and he surprised me by saying something shocking, yet rational: “People keep saying that we need to educate the illiterates, and that it is the government’s responsibility to do so. Well, guess what, these illiterates are the country’s biggest economic asset, and without them Egypt would have fallen another victim of the global economic crisis that happened a few years back.”

I did not quite get his eloquent chain of thought, but he seemed confident as he articulated his dismay at people’s negative attitudes towards the government’s performance. The military general, who holds a top office by virtue of appointment, had a sound point and reflected everything that is wrong with how education is viewed in Egypt today, and why the educational system in Egypt has failed.

The general’s argument aligns with the premise that education is political. While the Ministry of Education seems to be working day and night to solve some of the obvious problems of Egypt’s education, nothing will get solved if views on education remain the same.

The deterioration in education in Egypt did not happen overnight. While there are plenty of contributing factors, such as Abdel Nasser’s unsustainable model and Sadat’s commodification of education through neoliberalism, there seems to be satisfaction among the policymakers on the status of education in Egypt.

There have been hardly any real reforms on education in Egypt, and the 6th grade saga over the last 10 years suggests that any decision from the policy level is usually trivial and does not address the real problems in our education. It is indeed beneficial for the government, economically and socially, to have a huge sector of uneducated citizens that can serve as the gears of a neoliberal economic system that relies on the lack of social mobility. Improving education would result in smoother social mobility among the receivers of education, as they would have tools and resources to penetrate the rigid spheres of society's elite.

However, since the elite work closely with the government, social mobility would empower more citizens, weakening the elite’s stronghold on the country’s money making machines.

As Franklin D Roosevelt once said, “In politics, nothing happens by accident. If it happens, you can bet it was planned that way.” So, if a government official claims that the 40 percent illiteracy rate in Egypt is useful, and that there is nothing wrong with its education as long as the country develops economically, why should anyone bother to change the status quo? In fact, it seems that the plan is to indeed maintain the status quo.

The status quo is obvious and clear: you need to be really lucky (or extremely determined) to receive an “education” in Egypt. Luck would be the presence of financial capacity and support, from the family level and the societal level, in order to have access to some of the scarce educational resources that Egypt offers. A flow chart would be useful to highlight the educational opportunities for Egyptians from various socio-economic backgrounds and demographics, but this needs a whole doctoral dissertation to be justly expressed. In terms of determination, there are few Egyptians who were able to break free from the status quo, and who actually made it to the top within the parameters of Egypt’s educational system. The system cannot cater to everyone, and only exceptions make it through.

There needs to be a change in the culture of education in Egypt. Officials need to understand that the Thanawiya Amma is not a measure of students’ capabilities and intellectual skills. There needs to be proper assessment tools available to teachers. As for teachers, there should be extensive investment in their training and education. Unfortunately, teachers in Egypt do not get financially awarded in a fair manner, and they often resort to private tutoring, which is extremely inefficient and detrimental to education. Teachers should receive as much education and training as medical doctors, and oversight and accountability have to be rigorous and thorough.

Moreover, students should be able to learn various 21st century skills within their formal educational institution, and policies in the micro levels and macro levels have to foster such skills appropriately.

In a country where education should be free, parents pay 25-70 percent of their annual household income to ensure their children receive education, whether in private lessons, or expensive private schools, or both. The government spends around 3.7 percent of its GDP on education, which is among the lowest levels in the world. If we look at absolute numbers, the country spends around LE2,800 per student annually. Compare this number with the figure a parent would pay to send his/her child to an international school in Egypt (average tuition fees are LE40,000), or even a private national school (average tuition fees are LE8,000). The fact that expenditure on education in the private sector (private lessons and private schools) outweighs expenditure in the public sector is alarming, and reflects that dire situation Egypt’s educational system is in.

Teachers should have a higher status in society. Teachers should be financially awarded in accordance to their importance, while only the crème de la crème should be allowed to teach. Faculties of education can be postgrad oriented, where top graduates of respective content areas compete to be accepted to qualify as teachers. Their acceptance would give them access to appropriate training and knowledge on pedagogy, and they should report to an oversight entity that ensures they are indeed qualified to teach in a classroom.

There has to be research, qualitative and quantitative, on how education in Egypt functions, and where the gaps are. Such research should give academics and policymakers the opportunity to implement more sound policies. Moreover, there should be real job opportunities for those who can benefit the developmental scene, in the natural and physical sciences as well as the social sciences, to develop skillful human capital that can work in areas other than engineering, medicine, law and business. Schools should provide more non-academic learning environments to nurture creativity and more hands-on skills, as well as vocational skills and athleticism.

Right now, we have two main challenges in education in Egypt:
1. To improve education in order to give people the tools and resources to do whatever they want with their lives, and to give them the ability to learn how to learn;
2. To align people’s education with what benefits Egypt, and to motivate them to utilise their education in various ways to see improvement of the economy, in addition to creating spaces for more flexible societal dynamics.

The writer is a PhD student in STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math) at the University of Minnesota and an instructor in the Professional Educator's Diploma, and in the Core Curriculum department at the American University in Cairo.

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