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Shrinking Egyptian Economy Could Cramp Social Sciences

This article is published in cooperation with Mada Masr.

Millions of Egyptians have been hard hit by the government’s decision to float the Egyptian pound against the dollar and the partial lifting of energy subsidies, leading to escalating economic repercussions. In academe, social-science departments wonder if they will be the next victims of the economic troubles.

Students at the American University in Cairo, studying in Egypt’s elite university, are protesting a planned 40 percent increase in tuition fees.

Just like the rest of the country, the university is mired in a budget deficit that has tremendously affected it. Students and faculty have complained about escalating salary cuts, rising tuition fees, layoffs of 20 percent of staff, the sale of university property, severe restrictions on financial benefits for workers, and the demise of merit-based scholarships for undergraduate students, all significantly affecting the quality of education at the university

Students who study the social sciences expect to be severely impacted by the crisis. The number of students enrolled in these departments are traditionally few, so the departments are less financially beneficial for the university.

Ghadeer Ahmed is a feminist and founder of the “Girls Revolution” initiative to empower young women in post-revolution Egypt, and also a graduate student at the AUC’s Department of Gender Studies. She believes her academic future in the university is severely threatened.

Ahmed explained that she had to use all of her savings in order to be able to pay for prerequisite English and sociology courses, amounting to almost 51,000 Egyptian pounds ($2,900). When she applied for financial aid for one of her courses, she was only offered a 20 percent discount of 3,000 pounds. Before the crisis, financial aid could reach 50 percent of the cost of each course, she said.

“The fellowship I intended to apply for does not cover prerequisite courses, in addition to the fact that the fellowships in my department are very few. With the expected increases in tuition, it will be impossible for me to pay for the rest of the courses; it will be almost impossible for me to continue,” she explained.

Many of the social-sciences graduate students are self-funded, Ahmed said, due to the limited fellowship offerings in those disciplines. “Sometimes we are surprised when course offerings are canceled because students who would attend these courses are few, hence there won’t be enough money to pay for the professor and the teaching assistants.” she added. “This directly affects the quality of education we receive.”

She fears that with the escalating crisis, there won’t be enough funding for research. “The university looks at social-science departments as decoration.”

The dean of the Graduate School of Education at AUC, Ted Purintan, however, does not believe the crisis will severely affect the study of social sciences at the university. “I cannot see how the enrollment will be different, and I don’t see how it could be different from other programs like business,” he said.

“My perception is that all the programs will be equally impacted. However, we have a very impressive financial-aid system, we have fellowships for our students, we have funding and donors are filling that gap significantly. This will help sustain us, and I don’t envision that this crisis in the country will steer more people towards business and engineering more than there already are. I think one of the most amazing things about our AUC graduate program is that the ones who graduate in literature or all the other non-scientific fields are still the ones who are now CEOs and policy advisors. They are not less employable and in fact they make a lot of money,” he added.

A professor at Cairo University, Houda al-Sadda said that the study of social sciences in Egypt at large is severely affected by a global trend of corporatizing education, where education is no longer a means for the individual’s intellectual development, but rather tied to market needs. She referred to the closure a few years ago of the highly ranked philosophy program at UK’s Middlesex University as an example.

“Despite being a global trend, it is more difficult in Egypt. This is the effect of neoliberalism on universities. The effect of such a trend is more severe in Egypt because education’s conditions are already worsening. The problem of these trends on social sciences is that it affects the only spaces that develop critical thinking which is capable of challenging these trends in the first place,” she asserted.

“If all students are studying business or sciences, not social sciences, it will be difficult to see cultural critics who challenge the dominant status quo.”

In a previous article on “Neoliberalism and the Attack on Universities”, al-Sadda argued that the Egyptian state’s role in supporting education has dwindled since the 1990s, where steps were taken to further privatize education. In 1992, a law was passed enabling the building of private universities that al-Sadda referred to as “investment projects.” In 2002, another law was passed to enable the licensing of private foreign universities.

“Universities cannot be a profit-oriented project, ” she asserted.

Ahmed Khier is a master’s degree student in the newly established “Gender and Development” program at Cairo University’s Faculty of Economics and Political Science. He explained that the advanced study of the social sciences in Egypt is very costly. The tuition for his program is 27,000 Egyptian pounds (about $1,500), which is relatively high compared to other programs in the same faculty.

Khier believes that there is not enough funding for research in the social sciences in Egypt because it is not economically feasible. “Compare between the number of students enrolling in social-sciences master’s programs and those applying for MBAs. Graduating seniors at faculties of commerce apply for MBAs before their graduation because it grants them better pay,” he said.

A professor of social anthropology at AUC, Reem Saad, however, believes that the problem with the university’s crisis is not related to the university itself, as much as it is caused by the situation of Egyptian society at large.

“Normally the relative weight of departments like business or economics is much higher than social sciences, but this is also tied with the general atmosphere. There are fears about how the crisis will affect research in these departments, but they have not materialized yet. At least inside AUC there is still a space for negotiation and understanding that is much bigger than the margin outside the university,” she explained.

In this regard, Saad points to the outside political environment that threatens the continuation of critical research in the social sciences. She specifically pointed to an amendment in the Penal Code that imposes harsh restrictions on receiving foreign funds. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued an amendment to the Penal Code in September of 2014, penalizing the receipt of foreign funding with a life sentence and the payment of fines.

“Funding is very important to research. This amendment was tailored to target human-rights organizations, but it also affected scientific research. This will affect AUC and anyone wanting to conduct serious and critical research in social sciences,” she added.

Sadda agreed. Suppression of freedoms in any given society directly affects the study of the social science. “When we talk about threats against academic research, we are directly talking about political threats against research in disciplines like history, philosophy, literature, more than scientific studies. The public sphere is getting narrower, and universities are definitely a microcosm of the society,” she added.

The torture and murder of Italian researcher Giulio Regeni has sparked mounting concerns about the restrictions that the academic community in Egypt faces. Known for his extensive research on the labor movement in Egypt, Regeni is widely believed to have been targeted by Egyptian security forces due to his academic activity. Other similar incidents have raised similar concerns, like a decision to terminate the scholarship of Egyptian university psychology Kholoud Saber in Belgium. Saber, known for her activism in advancing the independence of universities and academic freedom, explained at the time that the decision was based on a recommendation by a security agency. Cairo University decided later to reverse its decision.

For Khier, the study of social science is the study of controversial issues. “There are huge restrictions on academic research. The space to move and conduct research, especially when the researcher is required to follow their subjects closely, is very limited and difficult.

With dwindling political freedom and dismal economic conditions, the social scientists are fearful of their future.


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