EGYPT: Land of the Nile starved of agriculture students

Egypt's state-owned universities are bursting at the seams with students - except for students of agriculture. There has been a sharp decline in the number of agriculture students in public universities and there is no teaching of agronomy or other farming-related disciplines in private institutions established in the past two decades.

Abdu el-Sayed, an ex-dean of the faculty of agriculture at Ein Shams University, the country's second biggest state university, believes poor job prospects are to blame. "The situation is disgraceful for Egypt, which has been known throughout history as the country of the River Nile whose civilisation was based on agriculture," el-Sayed told University World News.

"The main reason for the severe shortage in the number of agriculture undergraduates is that they have no place in the job market. Anyone now can work in the field without being specialised in farming or other related sciences. Haunted by the ghost of unemployment after graduation, the bulk of secondary school leavers shun faculties of agriculture and opt to attend other higher education institutions, which can secure them a good job."

Officials at the state University of Alexandria, some 220 kilometres north of Cairo, complained that the faculty of agriculture affiliated with it attracted only 500 students in the current academic year, although the institution can accommodate four times as many.

Perceived in Egypt as the top professions, faculties or institutions of medicine, dentistry, pharmacology and engineering are able to lure students with the highest grades. Those who fail to clinch a place in state universities enrol in similar faculties at fee-paying universities. In sharp contrast, students with low grades or those who cannot afford the fees of private institutions are able to secure places in faculties of agriculture.

"I scored 55% in the secondary school examinations," said Ahmed Hatem, an agriculture student at Cairo University. With that paltry grade, he failed to qualify for any other faculty or institution. Hatem said he had found his studies very difficult and not prestigious.

"Agriculture undergraduates are widely viewed in society as mere peasants," he told me. "In the not too distant past, graduates from faculties of agriculture had the privilege of getting 50 acres (20 hectares) of reclaimed land from the government to start a project. The number has dwindled to a mere five acres at present. In addition, everyone can apply to get this land. Agriculture graduates no longer have this privilege. So why should high school leavers bother to join this faculty?"

The issue was taken up by President Hosni Mubarak in a speech to a conference on the development of national education held in Cairo late last month. Mubarak spoke about growing numbers of commerce and law graduates, and a sharp decrease in agriculture students.

"Narrowing this gap represents a major challenge for Egypt," he said. Egypt imports around 80% of the food it needs for its 79 million-strong population.

Samir Mohamed, a professor of agricultural genetics at Al Azhar University, an Islamic seminary teaching modern sciences as well, said that local and foreign companies were pumping investment into agriculture.

"These companies are suffering an acute shortage of local skilled employees in agriculture, especially in the fields of infrastructure planning, designs of irrigation networks, horticulture and garden landscaping," he told University World News.

Mohamed believes Egyptians are not aware of the disciplines taught at agriculture faculties, and are not properly informed that their graduates are actually in high demand in the job market.

"Students are unwilling to attend faculties of agriculture because they do not want to work in remote areas away from their families after graduation," he said.

To Osama el-Husseini, a professor of animal production at the University of Cairo, the main reason for high rates of unemployment among agriculture graduates is a decline in academic standards.

"They lack practical training, which is due to poor resources and the stress on theoretical studies in these faculties," he explained. "Basically, this is the result of the meagre budgets allocated to faculties of agriculture, a matter that makes it difficult for students to be adequately trained and qualified."

In a bid to reverse the decline in their student numbers and fortunes, faculties of agriculture in several parts of Egypt are introducing new specialisations required by the labour market, such as food processing and animal husbandry. They have also set up departments that use English and French as the languages of teaching, to qualify students to work overseas.

Meanwhile, other institutions are considering changing their names to faculties of resource management and-or bio-technology, in an apparent attempt to change perceptions of them.

Salah el-Guindy, a member of Egypt's Upper House and a professor of economics at the provincial University of Mansoura, recently presented parliament with proposals on how to revamp faculties of agriculture.

"My suggestions include modernising these institutions, increasing their budgets, equipping them with state-of-the-art facilities and giving their graduates priority to work in farming projects," el-Guindy said. "Agriculture graduates should also be the first to have access to reclaimed land at nominal prices."