In his book The Culture of Freedom and Democracy, the late Hamed Ammar, the godfather of Egyptian education experts, wrote: “Education is primarily a political process … If we were to understand the political regime and its sources of power in a given social context, a deep, critical understanding of the conditions, patterns, and policies of education would follow.”
I recalled these words when Tarek Shawki, head of the newly established Specialized Council for Education and Scientific Research responsible for setting policies for educational and scientific research development, announced that higher education is a grant by the State and not a right, thus defying the Constitution. After high-fee academic programs have been introduced in public universities years ago, such policies are now being extended to a new system that will charge fees for some students, in a blatant violation of equal opportunity. Under the new system, free education will only be provided to high achievers. Education will be available to low achievers and failing students in return for high fees—a measure that favors the wealthy, continues to limit the chances of the poor and destroys any hope for achieving social justice.
Egypt has adopted the slogan of social justice through decades of free education policy in schools since 1952. The abolishment of tuition for higher education in 1963 embraced the right to education that has been stated in all Egyptian constitutions from 1923 until 2014.
But after the economic openness policies officially announced in 1974, bias towards the elite began. Private schooling expanded and the State encouraged that. Investment in private education increased and the voices for equal opportunity and social justice subsided.
In the 1980s, the numbers of enrolled students in higher education were reduced on the pretext that their supply exceeded labor-market demands. The ministry of education occasionally suggested that the government was committed to free education at the school level only. All that seemed to be in preparation for Law 101 of 1992, which introduced private universities in Egypt, despite the warnings of those who believed they might harm social stability.
Today, Egypt has 22 public universities and 20 private ones. While 5 percent of students attending universities in Egypt attend private universities, the expansion of smaller private colleges that exceed 230 in number, meant that private institutions absorb a bigger percentage of students. Over 35 percent of young people of university age enroll in higher education, with approximately 20 percent of them attending private higher education.
What impact does this have on social justice?
With a declining GDP per capita in Egypt and the poverty rate rising from 16.7 percent in 2000 to 26.3 percent in 2013, social justice becomes a legitimate concern.
Ten percent of Egyptians share 73.3 percent of the wealth. That ten percent also has much easier access to private education, compounding the inequality, for the following reasons:
First, expansion of has been in favor of private schooling, which provides more chances to the rich. While 31.3 percent of general secondary schools are private, they cater to 11.5 percent of students only according to formal statistics. The number of private general secondary schools has increased by 49.5 percent between 2008-2009 and 2012-2013. Public general secondary schools only increased by 14.1 percent in the same period.
Second, Egypt signed on to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights where equal access to higher education on the basis of merit should be guaranteed. But current policies on higher-education access allows the economic factor to play a central role, especially given the low quality of education at public schools and spread of private tutoring.
Third, public and private higher education have two distinctively different academic requirements. In 2013, the minimum required score to study medicine in the private universities was 92 percent compared to 98.2 percent in the public ones. A poor student with a score of 95 cannot go to medical school: A rich one can. Similarly, the minimum required score to study engineering in the private universities was 75 percent compared to 94.3 percent in their public counterparts. A student was given a chance to study mass communication, applied arts, economics and political science with a score of 60 percent in the private sector, whereas the public sector required scores in the low nineties. In addition, the part of the country a student comes from restricts his or her access to public institutions but those restrictions don’t count for private institutions.
Under the newly proposed policies that would impose high tuition for public institutions, access to higher education would also be controlled by two scores. Students who score above the higher bar will not have to pay tuition while those who score below the lower cut-off will have to pay tuition even for public education. This system will just amplify the privileges of the wealthy.
A study, conducted on Egyptian data, shows that those Egyptians in the top 20 percent of the country in terms of socioeconomic status occupy 53 percent of the places in universities. The bottom 20 percent only have 3 percent of the university places. Some research has found that expansion of the capacity of public universities is most likely to serve the middle class. Expansion in the capacity of private universities, on the other hand, would feed the enrollment growth for wealthiest 20 percent.
The new 2014 Constitution says the State is committed to spending a minimum of 4 percent GDP to school education and 2 percent to higher education. Those are low percentages that reflect a gradual withdrawal of the State from the educational scene. But research has found that public spending on higher education has been highly inefficient. Public universities are not allowed to independently manage their own resources or create revenue-producing activities.
In Egypt, the number of people in the age range of 20-24 is expected to increase from 7 million in 2005 to 9 million in 2035. The demand for higher education is expected to expand, creating additional pressure to finance it.Strategic planning prescribes taking advantage of having a high proportion of the population in their most productive age and providing efficient public employment for the extra labour force to increase public income in order to face the expected funding challenge. Meanwhile, a couple of important questions come to mind: if limited funding is the cause behind such policies, why are private universities tax-exempt? Why are the vast majority of the private higher institutions in Egypt for profit?
Placing the financial ability as admissions criteria has provided a channel for low-achieving wealthy students to buy an opportunity that they would not otherwise have managed to obtain, privileging one sector of the society. That privilege harms the entire society. The current regime does not seem to have the intention to deal with this challenge. Instead, it is capitalizing on policies that continue to limit the chances of the poor through uprooting the right to free education. The result would be more social injustice which would make development—or even stability—impossible.
* Amal Abou-Setta is an educational research Ph.D. candidate at Lancaster University, UK. You could follow her on twitter @Clever_Flower.
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