Schooling Egypt

The country faces an education crisis of what may well be historic proportions.

Egypt claims a proud heritage of intellectual advancement. The Library of Alexandria was the greatest of Classical antiquity, while Al-Azhar University in Cairo has been a revered center of Islamic learning for more than a thousand years. Today, however, the country faces an education crisis of what may well be historic proportions.

Of the 144 countries measured by the Global Competitiveness Report 2014–2015 put out by the World Economic Forum (WEF), Egypt ranked 141st in quality of primary education. In September, President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi formed the Education and Scientific Research Council to identify the country’s needs and coordinate government action. The task is nothing short of daunting.

The WEF ranking captured only a part of Egypt’s longstanding education deficits. Illiteracy rates are startlingly high, with some estimates at over 25 percent among the general population. A generation of university graduates—including doctors and lawyers—is entering the labor force without sufficient skills or qualifications.

Five members of El-Sisi’s eleven-member council come from the faculty of the American University in Cairo (AUC). The council’s head is Tarek Shawki, dean of AUC’s School of Sciences and Engineering and a dedicated innovator. The most pressing issue for Shawki isn’t just how to make Egyptian education more innovative—it’s simply how to make it work. “The [education] minister told us that over 70 percent of the people in vocational training at the high school level cannot write their name,” Shawki told me in a recent interview. “The question is: How did they get that far?”

Some of the problem is a half-century of gradual decay. President Gamal Abdel Nasser introduced free education for all as part of his social welfare initiatives, but during a time when Egypt’s population was roughly a third of what it is today. Population growth, inadequate spending, and unsuccessful reform efforts have created today’s Perfect Storm situation. Government officials as well as Egyptian citizens recognized the crisis long ago, but meaningful reform has faced two obstacles: a society that demands free education, and the Egyptian bureaucracy

El-Sisi’s council has already defined thirty-two short- and long-term goals, from amending a law that regulates higher education, to establishing a national entity that ranks universities. One of its most controversial ideas is a radically different approach to free higher education. To counter a prevailing culture of entitlement and emphasize the value of education, the council wants to limit free education to students who receive scholarships awarded on the basis of merit. Opponents, including liberal groups, educators, journalists, and some in the government, warn that such thinking will kill free education and harm society’s poorest.

Joyce Rafla, an assessment officer at AUC’s Center for Learning and Teaching and a member of the council, argues that there is no social justice in the current system. Upper- and middle-class children pay high fees to go to better quality private schools, she says, while free public schools sometimes run without teachers.

Welcome as it is, a presidential decree aimed at improving education doesn’t ensure smooth cooperation, even within the government. Some ministries, protecting their turf, have already resisted collaboration with the council. “What’s missing is the overall sense of having a national goal that we all work towards,” Shawki said.