Egypt’s Generation Lost

Why fixing a broken education system is one of the biggest challenges facing President Sisi.

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CAIRO — Egypt has many dysfunctional institutions, but its educational system may be the worst of them all. An astonishing number of Egyptian 11- and 12-year-olds complete primary school still not knowing how to read or write. A recent survey administered by CARE Egypt, an NGO that collaborates with the Ministry of Education, found illiteracy rates in some schools as high as 80 percent. Amira Hussein, the organization’s Education Program Director, fears for the future of these children: “By the time they reach middle school, they will drop out and join the illiterate masses,” she says.

Illiteracy isn’t the only problem. Speak with high school-aged Egyptian kids and they’ll invariably complain about inept teachers, bad textbooks, and the need to memorize impossibly vast swathes of material. Though primary school enrollment rates surpass 95 percent, children can be seen sweeping the streets during school hours. (Presumably, schools are recording pupils who don’t really attend.) In middle schools, enrollment rates average around 85 percent; the number for secondary schools is even lower. And then there’s the funding.

Though Egypt’s public education system is the largest in the region, it has one of the lowest rates of public spending. In 2011, 3.5 percent of the country’s GDP, roughly $9.5 billion, was spent on education — an amount that translates to roughly $300 per student per year. Other estimates put that number substantially lower, from $250 to as little as $129. In 2013, spending on education rose to 4 percent of GDP, with promises for additional future increases.

Meanwhile, teachers working for government schools receive unlivable wages, driving them to supplement their income by offering private lessons. With urban classrooms at times topping 100 students, and teachers incentivized to under-teach, parents who can afford to do so often resort to this type of supplemental education. It should come as little surprise that Egyptian teachers often take to the streets to demonstrate for higher wages and better working conditions – protests that continued even after former President Hosni Mubarak instituted a wage increase as part of his 2005 election campaign. Recently, parents and students alike have expressed anger over a recent series of accidental deaths in schools due to deteriorating infrastructure.

Nor is the problem limited to primary education. Egyptian universities, plagued by myriad problems of their own, are notorious incubators of discontent. Amid continuing protests, over 300 students have been arrested since the beginning of the fall semester. At least 16 students were killed by security forces at Cairo University alone in the course of 2014.

The four-year anniversary of the start of the Egyptian Revolution on Jan. 25 comes amid escalating tensions. In 2014, fall university classes started on October 11, two weeks behind the official schedule; the start of the new school year was accompanied by the controversial introduction of government-hired security firms to maintain order. Education officials resorted to these measures in response to persistent student unrest. The 2014 spring semester barely took place due to security concerns that resulted in postponement after postponement. When classes finally did resume in the second and third weeks of March — a full month later than the scheduled start date — clashes broke out across several campuses, forcing a premature end of the semester for many students. Some classes met as few as three times. A sophomore at Ain Shams University in Cairo told me, only half in jest, that he and his friends describe themselves as “the uneducated generation.”

The anecdotal evidence attests to systemic problems, a culture of corruption, and a laisser-faire attitude among many teachers and administrators. The rot that gradually ate away at educational institutions over Mubarak’s three decades in office has, in the last four years, been compounded by the political instability that has exacerbated existing problems. In 2013, Egypt came in dead last for quality of primary education in the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Competitiveness Report. The 2014 report showed a tiny improvement; this time, Egypt came third from the bottom of the 144 countries ranked.

Egyptian experts are desperate for meaningful reform. “The time is now,” says Nagwa Megahed of the American University in Cairo, a key figure in recent education reform initiatives. “If you continue to do things the same way, you’ll continue to have the same problems. We’re trying to tackle them with security measures, which are needed, but at the same time you need to change what has led to this need in the first place.”

Hussein agrees that the reforms attempted so far have brought few results. “There are many progressive decrees about boards of trustees and student unions and their roles, and the money allocated to maintenance,” she says. “You have teachers, principals, supervisors, the ministry; everything is there, but nothing is working.”

The need for change could not be more urgent. Government sources show youth unemployment numbers near 30 percent; roughly another 30 percent are probably under-employed. New generations of unequipped young people entering an already struggling labor force could have a disastrous impact on the country. “It’s killing a generation in front of our eyes and nobody wants to acknowledge that,” laments Hussein.

Part of the difficulty has been Egypt’s political turmoil since the ouster of Mubarak. The last four years have seen four different education ministers, and the materials used in schools have changed almost as often to reflect the rapidly evolving political situation. Books praising Mubarak were replaced by those favoring the Revolution. Following the election of Mohammed Morsi in 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood was described in the curriculum as a positive force, and now, after their reversal of fortune, the curriculum has changed again. In August, Education Minister Mahmoud Abou el-Nasr announced a complete overhaul of the school curriculum to be implemented gradually. The initiative, in partnership with the European Union, is intended to “review the curriculum for more specific development” of teaching methods and learning in order to reduce reliance on memorization and reproduction, and encourage critical thinking. In October, he confirmed that 30 percent of the curriculum has been changed.

While Megahed acknowledges that the political will for reform exists, she criticizes an ingrained tendency to address the problems by creating new bureaucracies, increasing the burden on public budgets and undermining accountability. But she also stresses the need for citizens to assume greater responsibility. “We tend to blame the government, we tend to blame the Ministry of Education and as parents, or teachers, or students, or community leaders,” she says. “We don’t see ourselves as responsible for the quality of education despite being key players in the process.” For her, this accountability must come in concert with a gradual relaxation of government control.

In August, the new government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi introduced a long-term plan for educational reform, to run through 2030 after an initial three-year rollout. So far, public discussion of the strategy has been vague at best. Plans to hire 30,000 new higher-quality teachers have not been accompanied by sufficient concrete measures to improve their skills. President Sisi also announced a plan to raise teachers’ salaries by 1,000 Egyptian pounds per month (about $140), but conceded that the money to do so had not yet been allocated, imploring teachers to “stand by Egypt.” For his part, El-Nasr has had strong words for teachers who fail to fulfill their duties, threatening strict punitive action for misconduct.

Despite its problems, the initial draft of the reform program at least shows that the administration acknowledges the extent of the challenge. It recognizes high dropout and repetition rates, absenteeism, and fraud. It identifies deficiencies in government-issued textbooks and emphasizes the importance of nonacademic school activities for child development. It also addresses the flashpoint issue of private tutoring, something El-Nasr has been outspoken about.

Acknowledging what is broken when your predecessors are responsible for the destruction is one thing, but successfully pushing through a plan to fix the problem is another matter entirely. If the administration succeeds, it has a chance to dramatically improve the prospects of the next generation. The consequences of failure, though, will be disastrous. On September 30, President Sisi announced the formation of an Education and Scientific Research Council to help coordinate efforts to improve the system; the new government does seem serious about tackling the issue. But it remains to be seen whether the new initiatives will be enough to reverse decades of decline and neglect. The future of Egypt — and of President Sisi’s government — may well hang in the balance.

Photo by Mohamed Hossam/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Sarah El-Shaarawi is a Cairo-based writer, and editor of the journal Arab Media & Society

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