EGYPT: More funding needed to raise quality

Egypt's higher education budget has been increasing by 10% a year to reach LE11 billion (US$2 billion), Minister of Higher Education Hani Helal told a seminar recently. "But it is still limited compared to the growing numbers attending universities every year," Helal said, adding that shortage of money remained the "key challenge" to improving quality in universities.

Seminar participants were surprised to learn that state subsidies on energy products such as petrol and electricity - which help to make prices affordable to Egyptians, 40% of whom live below the poverty line - are considerably higher than the combined budget allocations for health and education.

Egypt has 18 state-run and 17 private universities. The former provide free education but are under-funded and students and lecturers have been complaining about a decline in education standards.

Helal told the seminar, organised by the government's National Council for Competitiveness and titled Education, Training and Competitiveness, that the budget of public universities was "mostly devoured by the wages of teaching staff and administrative employees".

Nevertheless, in recent years academics at government-owned universities have staged public protests over poor pay. In 2008 they went on a rare strike.

Efforts by the government to allay their anger have apparently failed as many lecturers have vowed to take "escalatory measures" to pressure authorities into substantially increasing their salaries. These will range from going on a symbolic strike to not marking end-of-year examination papers.

Teaching staff unions are expected to meet this month to discuss these and other measures.

"If you want to fix a [good] meal, you have to pay for it," said Helal, quoting a local saying.

"The Ministry of Higher Education is currently discussing with the Ministry of Finance the possibility of linking each university's budget to the number of students attending it, not to the number of its lecturers, which is the case at present."

Helal disclosed the government was working on a strategy to develop higher education until 2022. This was based on giving academic institutions greater independence and helping them run on an economic basis.

"This means the president of each university will be given the power to spend the budget of his institution in an efficient way designed to upgrade education and according to certain criteria leading to the fulfilment of this goal," he said.

"For example, how can the university continue to provide education free of charge for a student who fails to obtain his degree in 10 years? Free education should not mean waste or open-ended opportunities."

Mona ElBaradei, Chief Executive of the National Council for Competitiveness, agreed and suggested that free education be limited to poor students.

ElBaradei said only 9% of the poor attended universities and suggested wide dialogue over free education, "especially as 48% of people who can afford the cost of education attend governmental universities".

"Basically, I am not against free education. But people who can afford its cost should pay for it and voluntarily," she said.

Egypt's public universities were swelling with students, a fact that negatively affected the education they received.

"The highest student density is at Al Azhar University, which is attended by 398,000 students," ElBaradei said, referring to a Muslim seminary.

"It is followed by Cairo University, attended by 300,000 students. This enrolment rate far exceeds world-standard universities where attendance does not exceed 50,000 students each."