CAIRO– Law students sat in large canvas tents, hastily erected on Cairo University grounds earlier this month, taking their final exams in poor light. Because the final exams fell this year during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting and prayer, many students felt weak.
“Some students faint every day because of the high temperature, the poor ventilation in the tents, as well as their fasting,” said Ahmed Ali, a third grade student. “Performing exams in such a way is an insult to the students and the university itself.”
The tents have become a focal point of a broader student criticism about the facilities at the university, which with 207,853 students, according to its website, is one of the largest universities in the world. The university administration says it has to be careful with money given the country’s poor economic situation and tight government budgets.
The university presidency said it used the tents because there weren’t enough places for students to take exams on campus, especially since students needed to stop taking the exams before Iftar, the evening meal when Muslims break their fasts. But the students don’t care for the tents, especially after a ceiling fan fell down from the roof of one of them last week.
The tents are also far away from toilets, and the tent floors are full of insects, students say. Turning on the fans raises dust and makes many students cough.
“The atmosphere inside the tents is stifling and does not help us to adequately focus on answering the exam questions. Most of us try to answer very quickly to get out of the tents,” said Mohammed Tariq, a second-year law student.
Conducting exams inside tents coincides with a significant decline in the standard of facilities on campus, according to students. Students say hygiene in campus bathrooms and cafés is declining. Science students say they face a shortage in equipment needed to perform experiments.
“Many of the basic instruments are not available in the lab,” said Minnat-Allah Waheed, a fourth-year pharmacy student. “Some wealthy students can afford to buy the tools they need to finish the experiments, but the majority of students can only watch others, because they can’t afford to buy what they need.”
Cairo University is one of the most important Egyptian universities. The university’s spending on services was 361,553,00 Egyptian pounds ($4,061,270), which constitutes 3 percent of the university’s annual total budget of 2,268,398,000 Egyptian pounds ($254,806,000).
“I am working on my graduate project, but I did not find any sources in the faculty’s library,” she said. “So I primarily relied on external libraries.”
The deteriorating university services reflect the decline of Egypt’s higher education system as a whole, some experts believe.
“The educational system in Egypt is collapsing,” said Hossam Eisa, a professor of international law and the former minister of higher education. “The number of students is increasing a lot and there are no clear plans to accommodate them effectively within the university buildings.” He said most students do not attend their lectures. Instead of encouraging students to attend, the university administration makes its plans based on the poor attendance.
“The actual number of students is more than double the capacity of classrooms,” Eisa said.
Egypt was ranked second to last among the 140 countries worldwide in education in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2015/2016. Meanwhile, the Egyptian education sector is witnessing a major crisis with the continuing leaks of secondary school final exam questions (Read the related article: Leaked Questions and Answers Disrupt National Exams.) Egypt’s educational position was worsened by the government’s recent decision to reduce the scientific research budgets in a number of ministries and specialized bodies, especially agricultural research centers whose budgets were reduced from 70 million Egyptian pounds ($7,863,000) to 3 million Egyptian pounds ($336,986) and water research centers whose budgets declined from 40 million ($4,493,140) to 5 million Egyptian pounds ($561,643).
Earlier this month, Gaber Nassar, president of Cairo University, told local media that the university is preparing its budget for the 2016-2017 academic year. He added that the university administration seeks “financial reform.”
“We do not want to burden the state budget with new burdens; instead we seek to increase the financial reforms,” said Nassar. “When we started the process of financial reform, the budget was sufficient until January 30. In contrast, it was sufficient until May 30 the last year, and it will be sufficient until June 30 this year. We have become an ideal university.”