EGYPT: Foreign universities to open amid controversy

With the impending launch of a Japanese university of science and technology in Egypt and a Chinese university in the pipeline, there has been heated debate over whether the country of 80 million people - 40% of whom are believed to live below the poverty line - needs more such institutions. There are currently only two foreign universities in Egypt.

The American University in Cairo was the first foreign university to open in Egypt, in 1919, under an agreement between the Egyptian and American governments. The Arab Academy for Maritime Transport was established through an agreement with the Arab League.

"Other universities which carry foreign names are in fact Egyptian private institutions, teaching foreign curricula," said Farouk Ismail, ex-president of the state-run Cairo University and chair of the education committee in parliament's upper house.

The new Japanese university will be located in Bourj Al Arab near Alexandria, Egypt's second biggest city.

Ismail, who also heads Al Ahram-Canadian University in Cairo, argued in favour of more such institutions. "Egypt needs around 70 universities in order to assimilate the annual increase in applicants. All in all, Egypt has now 35 universities - 18 governmental and 17 private universities. This is not enough," he said.

He contended that foreign universities have benefited Egypt's higher education system. "These institutions provide high quality education, which should inspire governmental and private universities to follow in their footsteps."

While supporting the creation of a Japanese university in Egypt, Ismail expressed reservations about the Chinese university. "The Japanese university will focus on teaching curricula badly needed in Egypt such as nanotechnology and other branches of high technology. Meanwhile, the chinese university will have no added value for Egyptians."

Mahmoud al-Naqa, a professor of methodology at Ain Shams University, Egypt's second biggest public university, balked at an expansion of foreign academic institutions, which he said reflected dissatisfaction among wealthy Egyptians - who can afford to pay high fees - with the public higher education system.

"It is important for agencies responsible for state-owned academic institutions to know why private and foreign universities are increasingly in demand in Egypt," he said - while admitting that these universities are good at qualifying students for the labour market.

Al Naqa warned of the impact of foreign education on the attitudes of Egyptian students. As time passed, he said, private and foreign universities "will produce a class of graduates who lose interest in their nation's problems and socio-cultural context."

William Ebeid, a member of the governmental National Council of Education, agreed. He is concerned that private and foreign education institutions will promote class distinctions.

"A rich student who attends such a university might not have the aptitude to excel in his education, compared to a poor, brilliant student who cannot afford the high fees," argued Ebeid, a professor at Ain Shams University's faculty of education. "The private and foreign education system might well make people look down on governmental education."

To Saeed Teima, director of Ain Shams University's Education Development Centre, it is too early to judge the impacts of foreign institutions. "There are only two foreign universities in Egypt. Similar universities are to be found in other Arab countries such as Lebanon, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates." However, he added, there are also countries that ban the presence of foreign universities, while allowing the operation of private institutions.

While denying that he is opposed to having more foreign universities in Egypt, Teima had a piece of advice for administrators: "You have to take into consideration the social and economic conditions of the countries where these institutions operate."