EGYPT: Falling quality prompts new law schools ban

The deterioration of once-elite law schools in Egypt recently prompted Minister of Higher Education Hani Hilal to announce a ban on the creation of new schools for the next 10 years and a drastic reduction in the number of students to be admitted to the country's 15 existing institutions. His decision met with mixed responses.

Until the 1950s, law schools in Egypt were elite institutions whose graduates held prominent posts, including in government. Later the schools experienced a reversal of fortunes, bursting with students who had scored low marks in school-leaving examinations. Their alumni now rank high among jobless graduates in the country of 80 million people.

"This decision is unconstitutional because it robs young people of the right to major in studies they want," said Ahmed Saad, chair of the civil law department at Cairo University, Egypt's most prestigious public university.

Saad believed it would be better to hold admission tests for students willing to study law: "It is important to give students the opportunity to choose what they want to study instead of forcing certain disciplines on them. This will not happen by slapping a ban on constructing new law schools."

Hilal's controversial move was based on the findings of a study conducted by his ministry. It revealed the number of law students in Egypt reached 244,000 in 2009, up from 169,000 in 2002. The students were taught by 500 academics - on average nearly 490 students per lecturer.

At Cairo University, the ratio was 965 law students per lecturer while at Alexandria University, another public institution, the figure rose to 1,200, according to the study.

"The Ministry of Higher Education has worked out a plan to develop the quality of education, the main aim of which is to produce highly qualified people," Hilal said recently.

"This will not happen without ensuring that the numbers of students inside classes are commensurate with the numbers of lecturers available."

He said the current status of law schools in Egypt made the quality aim impossible to achieve: "For example, the numbers of law students at Cairo University has reached 50,000. This leaves no room for applying quality standards or for effective student-staff interaction."

Supporting the ban on new law schools, Georget Qelini, an MP and a law expert, cited high unemployment rates among law school graduates in Egypt.

"What is the use of churning out more graduates unwanted by the labour market?" Oelini asked. "No more law schools should be built until the present law graduates get jobs. That said, it is important to make education job market-orientated."

The ban also stirred controversy among law students. "I am against this decision because it will deny students interested in law the chance to study it," said Ahmed Abbas, a second-year law student at Cairo University.

"The solution lies in raising the minimum grades required to attend this school, thereby reviving its glory days as the school of the elite."

Hana Hamed, a third-year law student at the same university, disagreed. "I support the ban because when the number of law students is drastically reduced this will ensure a better quality of education. After all, law studies are difficult and require hard effort."