ALEXANDRIA— Egypt plans to sharply expand the enrollment of Arab and African students in its higher education system in the next three years.
But the government’s ambitious plan faces great challenges in light of the unstable security situation in the country, poor university infrastructure and the out-of-date curriculum, some analysts say.
The new Egyptian international student recruitment strategy seeks to increase the number of foreign students from 55,000 to 200,000, according to a statement by the Supreme Council of Universities.
“We have to develop the international dimension of the Egyptian universities by creating an attractive market for Arab and foreign students,” said Abdul Hakim Abdul Khaliq, president of Tanta University and the head of the committee formed by the Supreme Council to develop the new strategy.
The strategy will focus on improving the country’s international and regional higher education profile and on enhancing teaching, research and residential infrastructure on campuses.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, together, have 4 percent of the global share of mobile students, as indicated by the Global Flow of Tertiary-level Students initiative of the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.
To increase Egypt’s share of the student market, universities will lower the required examination scores for international students, create entertainment clubs, and offer dormitories and health care, Abdul Khaliq said. “We will also help in easing the security procedures for entry and residence,” he said.
“The new strategy will increase state’s hard currency, which can be later used in developing higher education,” said Abdel-Hamid Abu Naa’m, the director of Cairo University’s Center of Open Education.
Egypt’s latest constitution commits the state to spending at least 4 percent on pre-university education, 2 percent on higher education and 1 percent on scientific research. In reality, about 70 percent of the higher education budget goes to wages, according to recent statements by former Minister of Higher Education Moataz Khurshid.
“Students from Arab and African countries will pay in dollars or sterling according to the major they want to study,” said Izz al-Din Abu Stitt, vice president of Cairo University for Education and Student Affairs. He said the students would have low travel costs and be in a familiar culture. “The security situation in 2011 caused a decline in the number of foreign students. But today the situation is much better,” he said. The number of student demonstrations is lower, and there have been no interruptions to the academic year.
Nevertheless, putting the new policy into place will be difficult, many people said. “The Supreme Council of Universities plan is far from the reality,” said Mohamed, a third-year student in medicine faculty at Alexandria University who did not want his full name to be used. “Our current classrooms cannot even accommodate the existing Egyptian students,” he added.
Khalid Al-Sayed, third-year student in the media department at Alexandria, expressed his fear of reducing the number of Egyptian students in favor of foreign students. “We already struggle to find a seat in the university,” he said.
Egypt already has one of the largest student populations in the Arab region. The country has 23 public universities with about two million students and 19 private universities with about 60,000 students, according to the higher education ministry’s statistics.
“Our students do not enjoy a lot of practical training due to their huge numbers,” said Hassan Mahdi, an engineering professor at Ain Shams University. “Targeted Arab and African students can be easily enrolled in private universities, but in public ones, I doubt it.” he said.
Egypt was the top-performing country in the U.S. News and World Report’s 2014 Best Arab Region Universities Rankings, with 21 universities in the overall rankings—accounting for 23.1 percent of all the ranked institutions. Still, many say more efforts are needed to develop curriculum.
“Most of the current programs are static and do not match the world scientific development,” Mahdi said. “We need to create first a convenient curriculum to meet the needs of local and international labor markets.”
A Saudi student at Alexandria University said he liked being close to his home country and studying in Arabic. But the teaching left something to be desired, he said, “It’s traditional and based on memorization.”
Some students as well as policymakers said they would welcome more foreign students. “Arab and Africans like Egypt and we have qualified professors,” said the head of Alexandria University students union, Mahmoud Radwan. “We just need to work hard to meet their expectations and needs.”