EGYPT: Lifting curbs on open learning attacked

A recent decision by the Egyptian higher education authorities to remove curbs on applying for open and distance learning has drawn vociferous criticism and lawsuits.

"This move undermines the principle of equal opportunities," said Ahmed Ismail whose son scored 95% in pre-university examinations. Ismail, a lawyer, has filed a lawsuit against the "unfair" decision.

"I spent a lot of money on private lessons for my son who, at the same time, did his best in order to get this high mark in the exams to major in media," Ismail said. "Now that restrictions on open education have been removed my son, who gained 95%, will be treated on a par with a student who passed with 50%."

This year, regular students who scored at least 94% have been accepted at the college of mass communication - the institution concerned - against 50% for students who applied at the same college through the open learning system.

Last month, the Higher Council for Universities, a governmental agency responsible for regulating higher education, dropped a key restriction on open education.

Formerly, students wishing to apply for open education had to have completed their secondary education at least five years earlier. This condition has been dropped, opening the way for school leavers to enter the open learning system straight away.

Open education originally started in Egypt, a country of 80 million people, in 1987 with the aim of helping people who did not get the chance to undertake a university education.

At the time, open education was made available for nominal fees at the state-owned universities of Cairo, Alexandria, Ain Shams and Assiut. These institutions receive 80,000 applicants annually. But after the controversial decision to ease restrictions on open education, the number is expected to surge to 140,000.

Under the system, students are allowed to apply for colleges of law, arts, mass communication and Arabic language.

"University admission should be based on skills of students, not merely their aggregate marks," said Awad Abbas, Director of the Open University Centre at Cairo University. Abbas denied the recent decision undermined the principle of equal opportunities.

"The regular media student, for example, has the chance to meet his or her teachers for six days a week and make friends among colleagues. This is not the case for the open education student who communicates with instructors through the internet and has the chance to meet them only one day every week."

Abbas said open education motivated students, especially girls in remote areas of the country, to complete their education. "This type of education helps the idea of women's empowerment, especially in areas where they face restrictions on freedom of movement."

Meanwhile, enhancing open education has raised worries among Egypt's 17 private universities.

"Many students will favour the open education, whose fees hardly exceed 1,200 Egyptian pounds (US$200), over private university enrolment that costs thousands of pounds," said Farouq Ismail, head of the education committee at Egypt's Upper House of Parliament.

In Ismail's view, expanding open education "unjustifiably" diversified university education in Egypt. "It is still limited to theoretical studies and is not guided by the labour market needs."

For his part, Minister of Higher Education Hani Helal denied claims that boosting open education was unfair or aimed at raising money for public universities.

"The objective of easing conditions for applying to open education is to encourage students to complete their education and raise the quality of learning," Helal said in press remarks. "Open education is still the most inexpensive and as such its expansion is not meant to generate profits."

He contended that the decision to remove curbs on this kind of education had been made after "thorough studies".