As Egypt Struggles, Its Education System Struggles Even More

In a key international index last year, Egypt came in next to last ahead of Yemen. College graduates aren’t getting jobs, and funding is going elsewhere

Egyptian schoolchildren in El-Arish in northern Sinai, November 2018.

For days it was the busiest Twitter account in Egypt, one decrying the country’s education system. One highlight was a video showing an examiner marking the final high school exams; he can be seen writing a grade without having read the answers.

When colleagues warn him that he’s being filmed, he says “let them film, what do I care?” Education Minister Tarek Shawki has said that in the exams this year the success rate was 78.6 percent, “higher than last year.”

The diverse responses to the Twitter account show that many Egyptians appreciate the high school education they receive and believe that studying is vital to make it in life and become a better person. But many others have complained about low educational standards, a dearth of study aids and the hard time finding work after graduating from university.

Last year Egypt came in next to last, ahead of Yemen, in the Spectator Index, an international ranking on education. Education Minister Shawki promised that this year things would be completely different; he introduced a study program in which thousands of students would receive tablet computers.

But when 80 students have to crowd into a classroom, textbooks are outdated and teachers concentrate on getting private students on the side, maybe tablet computers shouldn’t be the top priority.

“Only people with money can afford a proper education that will serve their future,” one person tweeted. This isn’t a new argument, whether about Egypt or elsewhere, but in Egypt the problem has been going on for many decades.

Thus the Education Ministry decided this year to increase the number of scholarships it grants outstanding students to 1,500 from 900 last year. While this covers tuition, travel and pocket money, it’s still a drop in the ocean of students’ needs.

And it can’t strike a balance between the wealthy who go to expensive private universities and those who can’t in a country where about half the people live near the poverty line. Students who are accepted to technology studies have good job opportunities, but others are forced to wait years for a job opening in the civil service, and/or they work at whatever temporary job they can get.

Also, there’s a quality gap between students enrolled at military and police colleges and those at regular state universities. The military academies get much more qualified and skilled teachers, larger budgets and advanced learning aids, and in the end the students are ensured a job in the army or with the police.

A girl carrying her books after school in the Nile Delta village of El Shakhlub, Egypt, May 5, 2019.
Hayam Adel / Reuters

Too many pharmacists

The problem has been exacerbated this year among students angling for a place in once-promising professions like pharmacy work, engineering and even communications. The pharmacy unions have asked universities' pharmacy departments to stop admitting students for five years so that the current graduates flooding the market can get a job.

Abdel Nasser Singab, deputy president of Ain Shams University, said in an interview that per capita, Egypt’s supply of pharmacists is four times above the world average. “Egyptian universities produce around 17,000 new pharmacists every year and we don’t need so many,” he said. “On the other hand, there are only nine doctors for every 10,000 people compared with the world average of 20.”

Meanwhile, senior Egyptian journalists recently urged high school students not to study communications at university because this major doesn’t guarantee a good job in either the state or private media. All told, pharmacy studies, engineering and law are seen as the departments where Egyptian families want their children to study.

Majida al-Nasser, a member of the Egyptian parliament’s education committee, criticizes parents who push their children into these areas, dooming them to frustration because the prestige doesn’t translate into big money.

Faiz Barakat, also a member of the education committee, said “this culture has destroyed entire generations of high school students who despite their efforts haven’t gotten into these coveted departments and then are blamed by their parents. From here it’s a short path to suicide.”

As someone else on Twitter put it, “What good does education do me if I live in a dying country?”

A man holds a picture of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi after a soccer game against Unganda, June 2019.
Ariel Schalit

Bullish World Bank

This feeling doesn’t reflect the optimism of a World Bank report this year on Egypt. The World Bank predicts that Egypt will enjoy 6 percent growth and reduce both unemployment and inflation. But it also notes that the state reduced its investment in education from 3.6 percent of GDP in 2016 to 2.5 percent in 2018, with 2.2 percent set for next year.

And the independent online newspaper Mada Masr published this headline for its story on the World Bank report: “Not taking into account education, health, exports and inflation, Egypt is a successful country.”

In a report last month, the American research institute Global Financial Integrity said Egypt lost around $1.6 billion in 2016 tax revenue due to “trade misinvoicing.” These funds could have improved services such as education and health.

Instead, President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi preferred to reduce more fuel subsidies. This won him praise from the World Bank but sent the prices of consumer goods at least 15 percent higher.

A search for new funding yielded a bill under which Egyptian citizenship would be granted to foreigners who invest in projects, deposit large sums of money in Egyptian banks or buy a house. Similar proposals have been discussed before but failed because of the sum required to obtain citizenship – about 7 million Egyptian pounds ($420,000).

And now a number of legislators have come out against the proposal. One of them, Mustapha Bakri, said he would oppose it because “only those who fought for this country and spilled their blood in it deserve Egypt.”

“Egypt isn’t for sale,” said another lawmaker, hinting that the bill was meant to serve U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan. Egyptians fear that their country will be asked, as part of that “deal of a century,” to grant citizenship to thousands of Palestinian refugees.

In any case, even before the proposal was put to a vote, the government decided to charge $10,000 for the registration and handling of citizenship applications.

These fundraising efforts are pushing education to the bottom of the priority list, and Egypt is being forced to let other Arab states, mainly the United Arab Emirates, open private elementary schools in Egypt with low to nonexistent tuition. Many parents have complained about this, saying that these schools are teaching their children UAE history rather than Egyptian history and that their children know how to draw the UAE flag and not the black, white and red.

“What kind of citizens will be cultivated in these schools?” asked one parent in a media interview. “Who will they be loyal to?”

While letting the UAE use its own textbooks, Egypt is restricting the activity of nongovernmental organizations aiming to foster civil rights awareness and education about democracy, claiming that the NGOs serve the interests of other countries. Under international pressure, Egypt recently agreed to change its NGO law; for example, no more prison time for someone who breaks the NGO law. But at the same time it sharply raised fines for lawbreakers, which will range from 50,000 to 1 million Egyptian pounds.

Still, it has transferred the authority to supervise NGOs from defense officials to civilian ones, but the process for approving NGOs is still strict and the definition of offenses hasn’t changed. This includes the ban on receiving donations and grants without ministerial approval, and the limiting of donations from abroad. Yes, education isn’t the only problem.