Egyptian Universities: Toward a Hopeful Future

February 1st, 2011 | by MuslimScience
Egyptian Universities: Toward a Hopeful Future
By Ahmed Sultan-Salem
Assistant Professor – Alexandria University, Egypt
Published on OnIslam.Com on 22 February 2011
Politicians and financial elite in Egypt don’t seem to understand the importance of science and education.

Universities are social institutions that impart knowledge, train researchers, scientists and specialists, inculcate self-esteem, forge a solid national identity, and teach people about their rights. Sorrowfully, several decades of tyranny in Egypt have left the Egyptian universities in ruin.

The decline of education in Egypt has been part of the decline of almost all aspects of life. The poor quality of university and preuniversity education systems has posed major hurdles to the social, economic and political development of the country.

After the revolution of January 25th, the majority of Egyptians have gained hope for a bright future. It is necessary to emphasize that what has systematically been devastated over decades will not be reformed overnight. The process of change will take considerable time, and it requires extreme patience, diligence, and persistence. Its fruits will mostly be seen by future generations if we act now with faith, determination and resolve.

This article is divided into two parts. In the first, we provide a diagnosis of the higher education system in Egypt detailing its current predicament. In the second part, we present several solutions to reform the university system and allow it to function properly and realize its objectives.

Current State of Affairs

– The state has forfeited its responsibilities toward the whole education system. The Egyptian political and financial elite do not seem to understand the importance of science and education.

– Universities are severely underfunded despite the country’s resources which go to futile endeavors or are used in increasing the capacity of the repressive regime.

– The salaries are so low that all university professors seek a second job to be able to support themselves and their families, thereby making it impossible to engage in high quality teaching and research.

– The university administrators are appointed by the government to which they remain subordinate. They mostly ignore the basic needs of the universities and seek only to appease those who give them their posts and shower them with outrageous privileges.

– The number of enrolled students in various colleges exceeds their capacity. This overwhelms the system and lowers the academic standard significantly.

– The pre-university education system, which constitutes the pool of college students, is highly dysfunctional. The system is based mainly on rote learning and does not promote any king of creativity and critical thinking. Students try to accumulate the greatest amount of information without thought so that they can pass the exams and acquire certificates. Cheating is widespread so that students move to higher grades without actually acquiring the required knowledge. Most of the teachers are incompetent and are the product of the same deteriorating system, thereby closing the vicious cycle.

– Private universities do not fare any better than public universities. Most of them are for-profit and seem to sell certificates without providing any actual education.

– The prolonged period of tyranny in Egypt has produced a cultural milieu in which knowledge and wisdom are despised and a good education is not appreciated. Students and their families grow up to see that a good education does not necessarily mean a decent life or a higher standard of living. This has significantly reduced the value of education in the contemporary Egyptian culture.

– Universities are in the grip of security apparatuses. They have a say in the appointments of teaching and research staff. They even need to be consulted regarding the travel of university professors to technical conferences.

– There is a severe brain drain due to the inability of the Egyptian universities and research centers to attract the highly educated citizens abroad because of the aforementioned issues.

Improving Higher Education


– The state should reassume its role in reforming the pre-university ducation and higher education systems in Egypt making education and research a national priority. Despite all the capitalist talk about the role of the state, the state in all developed countries has played an indispensable role in promoting the educational system and achieving technological progress and economic prosperity.

– The funding for research and development should be increased to at least 2% of gross domestic product (GDP). The government and the private sector should work to establish new, and enhance the efficacy of the existing, research funding agencies. The mismanagement, lack of transparency and accountability, and stifling rules prevalent in some existing agencies should be eliminated.

– The salaries should be increased to ensure that the university professors and other staff can live decently without recourse to a second job.

– The number of admitted students to each department should be limited to match the capacity of the department and its faculty.

– The political patronage system must be dismantled by instituting elections as the means for filling the high administration posts in all schools in the Egyptian universities. Elections must also return to student unions and bodies in order to create politically aware, well-educated youth.

– Scientific research must be prioritized to focus on the most urgent issues facing Egypt such as medical research concerned with the diseases prevalent in the Egyptian population.

– Universities must dedicate significant resources to basic science, which lays the foundations of future innovations. Although demand-driven science is of utmost importance and basic science may not have visible or tangible short-term impact, it is crucial for long-term technological advancement.

– Universities must promote an education system which encourages problem solving, creativity, and critical thinking rather than rote memorization. Curricula must be in a continuous process of change to adapt to the state-of-the-art in all fields.

– Universities should establish stronger ties with recognized international research and science institutions. Post graduate students should be helped to pursue their studies in the top universities throughout the world. Financial instruments should be available to students who are admitted to world-class universities without financial aid.

– Promotions in Egyptian universities must be based on high-quality research that is published in recognized international journals and conferences. The local publications must elevate their standards and fight strongly against plagiarism and mediocre research.

– The presence of state security forces in universities must come to an end.

“Scientific research must be prioritized to focus on the most urgent issues facing Egypt such as medical research concerned with the diseases prevalent in the Egyptian population.”

– Improving the state of the Egyptian universities and research centers would help reverse the brain drain and create incentives for the return of Egyptian scientists.

The toughest, albeit probably the most important, action is to change the culture to make decent education as important to Egyptians as freedom, water and food. Reforming the education system will contribute directly and indirectly to changing the cultural attitudes toward education.

Establishing constitutional democracy and the rule of law in Egypt will help create a meritocracy in which appointments are made based on competence and education. This in itself enhances the value of education and makes it central to the “Egyptian dream”. Seeking knowledge must also be emphasized as a religious and moral obligation in school curricula and in the religious public discourse.

I finish this essay by an excerpt from the article “How does Culture Matter?” by Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen about the evolution of the education system in Japan. This is to emphasize that both a public policy and an affirmative cultural climate are needed to reform the whole education system in Egypt. It also shows how considerable resources must be directed toward education.

[In Japan] the Fundamental Code of Education issued in 1872 put the new educational determination in unequivocal terms: “There shall, in the future, be no community with an illiterate family, nor a family with an illiterate person.” Kido Takayoshi, one of the most influential leaders of that period, put the basic issue with great clarity: Our people are no different from the Americans or Europeans of today; it is all a matter of education or lack of education. That was the challenge that Japan took on with determination, and things moved rapidly forward. Between 1906 and 1911, education consumed as much as 43% of the budgets of the towns and villages, for Japan as a whole. By 1906, the recruiting army officers found that, in contrast with late 19th century, there was hardly any new recruit who was not literate. By 1910, it is generally acknowledged that Japan had universal attendance in primary schools. By 1913, even though Japan was still economically very poor and underdeveloped, it had become one of the largest producers of books in the world—publishing more books than Britain and indeed more than twice as many as the United States. Indeed, Japan’s entire experience of economic development was, to a great extent, driven by human capability formation, which included the role of education and training, and this was promoted both by public policy and by a supportive cultural climate—interacting with each other. The dynamics of associative relations are extraordinarily important in understanding how Japan laid the foundations of its spectacular economic and social development.