October 10, 2008

Making the Grade in Egypt

By Golia, Maria

IN EGYPT, AS elsewhere, a higher education represents a ticket to a better life, and the possibility of breaking through class barriers. For hard-working parents who were unable to finish high school, much less go to college, putting their children through school is the top priority. Tuition fees for private colleges are prohibitive, so each summer, as high school students take the entry exams required by Egypt's 22 state-funded universities, the nation is enveloped in a wave of collective anxiety. This year at least two suicides were attributed to exam-related stress. During exam time, education-related cartoons appear in newspapers and scores of jokes make the rounds to help diffuse the tension felt by parents and children alike. One tells of a boy who equipped himself for his test with crib notes written on his shirt. To respond to the question 'who is the current president?' he was obliged to consult his collar; he copied 'Van Heusen' from the label. Since no one under the age of 27 has ever known a president other than Hosni Mubarak, this typically Egyptian joke is not as funny as it is biting, underlining the state's failure to provide citizens with proper schooling.

In 2008, around 800,000 students took their thanawiyya amma exams in the hope of scoring high enough to enter the faculty of their choice, knowing that even a decimal point's difference could turn years of hope into failure. The cost of private tutors, engaged for months in advance to help students prepare, is a major item on household budgets, costing as much as $2,500 per student and collectively amounting to an estimated $2.6bn per year.

Considering the emotional and material investments, parents will do anything to see their children score high, even if it means helping them cheat. Mothers have been known to stand outside classroom windows shouting answers to their children, and with the advent of mobile phones, SMS texting has probably improved many a student's exam performance.

This summer, the cheating issue took on a new dimension, when it was directly linked to a corrupt bureaucracy. A scandal erupted in June over revelations that exam samples were sold in advance for $150 to a select clientele in the Middle Egypt city of Minya. According to opposition newspapers, a member of parliament was one of those behind the leak, and his customers were the children of high-ranking police officials. Subsequent arrests, including that of a local headmaster, a police officer and several members of the Ministry of Education, have done less to allay public anger than to confirm the suspicion that honest efforts are worth little in a system that only rewards those with cash and connections.

It hardly helped when the author of a textbook on which the national physics exam was based told the press that exam questions were too complex and did not correspond to students' curriculum. Indeed, the prevailing belief is that college entry exams are less a test of abilities, than a system for disqualifying as many students as possible, since existing facilities can barely contain them.

Although university enrollment is high in Egypt, this is more an indication of the overcrowding of these institutions than an index of education's net improvement of society. Recent government schemes to 're-qualify' graduates for the job market through special training programmes only serve to acknowledge the system's inadequacies. In Egypt, a university degree is less likely to pave the way to a promising career, than unemployment. The fact that fresh graduates comprise the largest segment of today's jobless is not only the result of a mismatch between labour demands and college curricula, but the decline of Egypt's education system as a whole.

The problem originates with a Nasser-era tenet of 'free education' pursued to this day. In the 1950s-1960s this socialist policy made higher education available to Egyptians who would otherwise never have been able to afford it. But a burgeoning population coupled with inadequate funding and overall neglect has drastically reduced the system's benefits. Many schools are obliged to offer classes in two shifts, and while class size varies, those holding 90 students are not uncommon. The quality of primary and secondary school education is not only poor, it isn't really free. A third or more of household income is absorbed by education-related costs, clothing, books and supplies, but more especially tutoring. Teachers earning salaries of around $80 a month could not survive without the fees from private lessons.

Children learn largely by rote, obliged to memorise chunks of text to spew out whole for exams. Skills like problem solving are not emphasised, nor is independent thinking or creativity and, for the most part, initiative goes unrewarded. "A complete revolution of primary and secondary school education, where the emphasis has been on stuffing young minds with irrelevant material, is urgently needed" wrote one commentator - back in 1983. Twenty-five years later, the difficulties facing cumulative generations of inadequately educated young adults have only compounded. With 38% of the population aged 15 years or under, the need for comprehensive reform has reached crisis proportions.

In a 2004 speech delivered at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, President Mubarak acknowledged that Egypt's educational system "left much to be desired". He said that curricula, teaching methods and teacher skills needed improvement, that a culture of scientific research must be supported and that educational administration must be decentralised. Matching student skills to the job market was mentioned as another goal. In short, President Mubarak admitted the system required a complete overhaul, yet this summer's exam scandal and the surrounding controversy showed that in the ensuing four years, little has been accomplished.

For the last decade, the state's main focus has been boosting the GDP, and the resulting record 7% growth rates seem positive. But while economic reform has helped increase the ranks of the middle- class, world food price rises and unprecedented domestic inflation are pushing average Egyptians into poverty. With 600,000 new job applicants entering the market each year, Egypt's unemployment rate, despite official estimates of 8%, is probably at least double that amount. Under-employment is another problem; in Cairo you're as likely to find an individual with a degree driving a taxi as working behind a desk.

Meanwhile a large market for vocational skills traditionally looked down upon in favour of 'higher' professions, goes unsatisfied. The city's sidewalk cafes are crowded with men of all ages and backgrounds, with no outlet for their talents or insufficient skills to earn a living. Civil engineers are in greater abundance than qualified plumbers, carpenters and electricians, yet training for these unappreciated but vital trades has yet to attract sufficient investment. Those who opt to provide these services do so 'informally', without price structures or quality standards, and thus do not command the fees of licensed or certified tradesmen.

As Egypt grapples with economic growth, comprehensive educational reform seems to have been placed on hold. But with a population of nearly 80m, Egypt's resources are tightly stretched, with land, water and housing shortages as pressing as the need for jobs and education. Both the state and the people seem to know what they're up against. A recent magazine cartoon, featuring two men sitting in a cafe reading the newspaper, says it all. "I'm really concerned about my son", remarks one to the other. "I'm afraid when he grows up, he won't find a place to sit in the cafe."

A third or more of household income is absorbed by education- related costs, clothing, books and supplies, out more especially tutoring

Egyptian students demonstrate in support of the global walk against hunger. An educated and aware student body have high hopes of good jobs and a comfortable lifestyle - but that Is not always the reality

Copyright International Communications Oct 2008

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