CAIRO—Mohammed Yousif, 43, was keen to obtain a Ph.D. in history from Cairo University, believing that it would open the door for him to work at the university. But his belief was misplaced. He was unable to find work as a professor and now teaches history at a secondary school in Sharqia Governorate northeast of Cairo.
“All my hard-working studying years went without getting anything in return,” he said. “I have the right to be appointed at university, but I could not get in.”
Egypt, like many countries, is seeing an increase in the number of university students seeking master’s and doctoral degrees in the hope of securing a prestigious academic post, while the number of such positions is dwindling. Public universities must get government approval before adding positions, and private universities are increasingly hiring faculty members as part-time lecturers instead of as permanent professors.
That means many new Ph.D. holders, like Yousif, end up taking jobs as high-school teachers or entering other careers that don’t require the level of training they went through years of graduate study to obtain. Or they accept part-time, adjunct positions at private universities that pay less than what permanent faculty members make and offer little job security.
In 2016, about 158,000 students earned postgraduate degrees from public and foreign universities in Egypt, compared to 127,000 students in 2015—an increase of 24 percent, according to a November 2017 statement issued by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics.
The number of graduates far exceeds the number of potential job opportunities at public universities, which evaluate their needs for new faculty members every three years and must go through multiple levels of bureaucratic approval before they can hire. Requests must first be approved by the University Council, and then sent to the Supreme Council of Universities, which approves them according to available budget.
Motaz Khorshid, a former minister of higher education, believes the problem worsened after the 2011 uprising, when many master’s and Ph.D. students held demonstrations calling for jobs at universities. “There are not enough vacancies at public universities,” Khorshid said. “The majors of graduate-degree holders often do not meet the needs of the university, which necessitates reconsidering the appropriateness of these disciplines.”
Uncertainties for Adjuncts
Graduates also face bleak prospects at private universities, where lecturers are often hired on a temporary, part-time basis. Contracts stipulate that the lecturer will teach a course or two for a limited period without being able to conduct research. Adjuncts typically have no social or health insurance, and are paid considerably less than permanent faculty members.
“My job at the university is very limited,” said an adjunct lecturer who has worked under temporary contracts at the American University in Cairo for seven years.
“I have no role outside my classroom and the university administration does not deal with me as part of the faculty,” said the lecturer, who asked to remain anonymous. “I do not feel integrated or belonging to the place I have been working in for more than seven years.”
An Egyptian professor who works under a temporary contract at the British University in Egypt expressed similar frustrations.
Adjuncts’ pay is calculated by the hour, said the professor, who holds a master’s degree from a prestigious American university and also asked not to be named. “We are required to attend from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, even if we have no classes. In addition, our wages are deducted if we are late or absent.”
The professor also objected to being required to help obtain funding for university research as a condition of keeping the job.
“The university seems like a profitable company seeking to increase the number of students without paying attention to professors who are the core of the quality of the educational process,” the professor said. “Personally, I’m not happy with my job because I have to look for additional work to secure my livelihood, which certainly affects my performance.”
Ahmed Hamad, president of the British University in Egypt, said it was not surprising that professors with contracts that set their work hours would also be asked to seek funding for research.
“There is no difference between the role of the professor in teaching and his role in securing funding for university research, especially when the university is not a public one,” Hamad said. “This happens in many universities outside Egypt.”
Difficult Work Conditions
Hania Sobhy, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, in Germany, follows education developments in Egypt. She believes that the difficulties faced by graduates with doctoral and master’s degrees will only increase, as their numbers continue to rise while opportunities for full-time academic jobs become more limited.
“Many people agree to work under temporary contracts, but they soon find out the difficulty of doing so,” she said. “So, some resort to seeking additional work, which negatively affects the quality of their performance.”
The unstable nature of adjunct employment, with contracts by the semester and low pay, “might force others to give up their academic dreams,” Sobhy added. “This is undoubtedly a great loss.”
Private universities deny that their treatment of adjunct professors is unfair.
“Non-permanent professors at the university are part of the university’s academic life,” the American University in Cairo says in a statement on its website. The evaluation of educators and decisions about renewing their contracts depend on their years of work, educational classification, and the evaluation of the head of their department.
“The problem is that most of the adjunct professors want to work permanently, but there are not always enough opportunities for that,” said Ehab Abdel-Rahman, the university’s provost and chief academic officer.
He acknowledged a significant difference between the wages of permanent and temporary professors, but said the disparity was justified by their differing workloads and responsibilities.
“A full-time university professor is required to conduct research and provide administrative services to the university, besides teaching three courses in a semester,” Abdel-Rahman said. “A temporary contract educator is asked to teach a course or two at maximum without any other assignments. The pay gap is big but fair.”
The American University in Cairo has about 452 permanent professors, compared to 150 adjunct professors. But its hiring of adjuncts is not due to a financial crisis or austerity policy, Abdel-Rahman said. Instead, the university is making decisions and changing and developing goals “at close intervals,” he said, and “temporary contracts help us achieve that.”
An International Phenomenon
Egypt is hardly unique in the trend toward hiring more professors on temporary, part-time contracts. In the United States, The New York Times recently reported, government figures show that about half of all higher-education faculty members work part time. That figure rises to about two-thirds if other nontenured positions, such as lecturers, are included.
Adjuncts at American universities also face difficult work conditions, lack job security, and have trouble finding enough teaching assignments to make a living wage. But some academics who have experienced adjunct life in both Egypt and the United States say they were better off in America.
Mohammed Ezzeddin, a Ph.D. student at the City University of New York, worked as an adjunct lecturer at CUNY and at Rutgers University before going back to Egypt last year and taking a position in the American University in Cairo’s department of sociology as a temporary assistant professor. The appointment was for one semester only.
“The working system is the same here and there,” he said, “but the financial return is better in America, with a health-insurance system for temporary academics at some universities.”
Ezzeddin believes that the biggest problem is the lack of a professional union to advocate for the rights of temporary professors, who may not learn until the last minute whether their contracts will be renewed. University officials did not tell him his own contract was not being renewed until he asked them about it, he said.
“We work as taxi drivers,” he said. “If there are no passengers (students), we will be fired immediately without warning.”
Hany al-Husseini, a professor at Cairo University’s Faculty of Science and a member of the March 9 Movement, a group that calls for greater independence for universities and freedom from political interference, agrees on the need for a professional union to improve conditions for adjunct lecturers at Egypt’s universities.
“The Supreme Council of Private Universities is the official legal institution affiliated with the Ministry of Higher Education, which is supposed to follow the affairs of professors,” he said. He added, however, that he believes the council’s members “work for the heads of private universities.”
Al-Husseini himself had worked as an adjunct professor at the French University of Egypt and the American University in Cairo for many years, alongside his main job at Cairo University.
“Egypt’s private universities are exploiting the surplus in the number of doctoral and master’s degree holders to dictate their conditions on them,” he said. “There must be a legal basis to protect professors and their rights.”