Towards a new learning culture

Fadl Al Tarzi
Wednesday 1 Dec 2021

In order to improve Egypt’s educational system, there needs to be a whole new mindset regarding the aims and values of education.

Egypt’s education sector has undergone significant transformations over the past decade. The increase in private and public investments, the ambitious Vision 2030 Strategy, and the minister of education’s efforts to overhaul the current system have all given education a prominent position in Egypt’s national strategy for development.

A nation once plagued by chronic issues in its education sector is now on the cusp of a brighter future. The biggest challenge today is to create a new culture of learning.

Egypt’s education sector has long been hampered by a fast-growing population — now standing at over 100 million people — and a lack of resources. High rates of poverty have led to part of the population missing out on private and/or higher education. A lack of funding has caused insufficient capacity and infrastructure issues, leading to overcrowding and an unsuitable learning environment. In 2015, average class sizes were 45 students in primary schools and 40 in secondary schools.

All these factors have led to high illiteracy rates and a generation of graduates entering the job market lacking basic qualifications or the requisite skills needed for employment in a modern economy. This is despite the fact that university enrolment is nominally high in Egypt at 35 per cent among 18-to-22-year-olds. Of the 141 countries surveyed in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report for 2019, Egypt only just made the top 100 in most educational rankings and was 133rd in the report’s “skill set of graduates” category.

The underlying cause for statistics like these can be found in a culture that is overwhelmingly preoccupied with formal credentials. Education, in the minds of many Egyptian people, is largely a matter of social status. As a result, acquiring skills often takes the back seat.

For many Egyptians, the priority is earning a formal credential that can be hung on a wall and cited upon proposing marriage. The real value of that credential is often overlooked and remains largely unquestioned. Perhaps not surprisingly, Egypt’s primary education system does not encourage the concept of critical thinking. Studying with the primary aim of building practical skills and becoming employable in a transformed economy would seem fanciful to many in Egypt.

This mindset is today’s greatest impediment to Egypt’s progress. Its repercussions are felt throughout society, as it influences people’s educational decisions from school to university and beyond. For as long as Egyptians view education as a tick-box pathway and a matter of social status, the country will be unable to overcome its economic and developmental challenges which require a highly-skilled, technically advanced workforce.

Yet, signs of a notable narrative shift are beginning to emerge. The accessibility to, and quality of, education across all levels has risen in recent years in Egypt, reducing dropout rates and closing the gender gap. According to a 2018 World Bank study, the gender disparity at the tertiary level — in other words, education for people above school-leaving age, including college, university, and vocational courses — has decreased, with women making up 40 per cent of graduates in 2005 and increasing to 56 per cent in 2015.

Efforts by the government to reform the education system have intensified and structural issues are being overcome. In 2018, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi announced a major education overhaul programme and declared 2019 to be “the year of education”. Several initiatives were launched to accelerate technology uptake in the education system and shift society’s perceptions of education. Egypt’s Vision 2030 Strategy — an ambitious and exciting endeavour — was adopted in 2016. It seeks to improve the level of education and training in the country in order to drive productivity and prosperity.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also encouraged the Egyptian education system to catch up on digitisation and has kickstarted a wider adoption and integration of technology in the classroom. The government has also promoted various EdTech initiatives such as the Egyptian Knowledge Bank, a free digital library granting unlimited resources exclusively to Egyptians. The government believes that such measures will help Egypt achieve its Vision 2030 aim of turning the nation into a “global digital hub”.

With overcrowded classrooms an ongoing issue, the government is looking to more EdTech platforms and online universities to reduce classroom density. EdTech companies have the power to digitally enhance overall learning outcomes and thus represent a way forward.

Collaborations with start-ups like the exam-preparation company Noon Academy and the online learning platform Abwaab provide students with new learning opportunities and complement the time spent in class. While the government unfortunately still does not fully recognise online degrees, it is moving in the right direction, and one would hope it will only be a matter of time before the regulatory system catches up with market realities and consumer needs.

However, without the active support of employers, state initiatives alone will not suffice to tackle the deeper cultural roots of the problems affecting Egyptian education. Employers must invest in their employees by proactively encouraging, or even providing, upskilling and reskilling.

They should take a look at successful American companies spearheading the movement to become organisations with an inherent learning culture. A notable example is the online retailer Amazon, which recently announced that it is investing $1.2 billion to pay college tuition for its 750,000 employees in the US, enabling them to progress in their careers and fill in-demand job vacancies.

Professional services company PwC has also pledged $3 billion to retrain its entire workforce, and in 2015 the coffee chain Starbucks pledged to cover tuition fees for up to 140,000 of its employees earning college degrees 100 per cent online.

Hard problems do remain, such as poor infrastructure and pandemic-induced budgetary constraints, and Egyptian society has to internalise a new approach to what education should look like. But the government’s commitment to championing technology and welcoming private investment is clear to see —  and maybe one day it will even consider tax incentives for companies that invest in educating their workforce.

However, clear-sighted leaders in business and innovative EdTech platforms cannot wait for this to happen. They must assume their role as key drivers of change today.

*The writer is the founder and CEO of Nexford University.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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