EGYPT: Swine flu drives private tuition boom

Commerce student Ihab Lutfi stands in a queue outside a shop in eastern Cairo, waiting to have a bundle of papers he is carrying photocopied. "These are notes compiled by my private teacher to help me study business administration," said Lutfi, who admitted depending heavily on fee-paying private tuition as he has barely attended Ain Shams University since the spread of swine flu.

"Since the start of the new academic year on 3 October, I have shown up on the campus only six times to say hello to my colleagues. Like many students, I am not ready to run the risk of being crammed into lectures halls amid the threat posed by swine flu," he explained.

In recent weeks Egypt's 18 public universities have intensified efforts to keep swine flu at bay. Health authorities in the country of 80 million people have reported around 1,200 cases and three deaths. Some schools have been ordered closed after reporting swine flu cases.

The increase in H1N1 infections appears to have fanned parents' fears and persuaded them to send their children to private tuition classes - even though universities have reported only a few infections among students.

Last week, the Egyptian government denied widespread rumours that educational institutions would be closed in November. "Attendance rates at schools and universities exceed 90%," said the Information and Decision-Supporting Centre, a government agency.

Lecturers at public universities, however, cite high absenteeism rates among students.

Universities have rescheduled lecture timetables to cut class density and announced the adoption of additional preventive measures against swine flu.

"We have tasked medical teams in each faculty to check for early signs of swine flu," said Atef al-Awam, Deputy President of Ain Shams, where two infections have been reported and absenteeism is running at 25%. "We have also arranged health awareness workshops for students." He said students would not be allowed to sit examinations.

"We do encourage students to attend classes on campus, and not to depend on private lessons," al-Awam added.

Technically, private lessons are banned under Egyptian law. But in recent years private tuition has been mushrooming nationwide, costing Egyptians around LE16 billion (nearly US$3 billion). To circumvent the ban, private tuition centres set them up in residential buildings as recreational facilities or video game venues.

"These illegal centres are now doing a brisk business due to hysterical fears about the spread of swine flu," said Abdel Hafez Tayel, Director of Right to Education, a non-governmental organisation. "The centres are vigorously trying to replace official educational institutions."

Though exhausting their tight household budgets, parents defend sending their children to private teaching centres.

Tayel claimed that private tuition centres are owned by people belonging to Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party or the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned group seen as the nation's strongest political opposition. "Thus, they can beat the rap."

"Official statements about enforcing extra-hygienic rules at universities are lip service," said Mahmoud al-Abbasi, father of a law student at Ain Shams University. "Lecture halls are still poorly ventilated due to the large numbers of students attending them. It is better to pay extra pounds for my son's private lessons than put his life at risk."