EGYPT: Students angry over admission curbs

Hossam Safwat has just passed secondary school certificate examinations with flying colours, scoring 92%. But he is not sure if he will be allowed to attend his dream college - a medical school - after Egypt's minister of higher education announced that minimum admission grades for the new academic year would be based on the average of those of the past five years.

University admission in this country of 80 million people is usually calculated on the annual average of grades of secondary school leavers.

"This is unfair," protested Safwat. "I studied hard and despite the fact that this year's exams were tough, I passed. So why should my dream and that of my family to join the medical school be dashed?"

Safwat is one of around 70,000 students who took secondary school certificate examinations this year in what the local media dubs the 'gap year'.

In the late 1980s, for economic reasons, the Egyptian authorities cancelled the sixth grade in schools - but reintroduced it in 2005, admitting that the cancellation had adversely affected the education system and the performance of pupils.

In theory, Egypt should have no students in the final year of secondary school in 2010. The 70,000 students who sat the certificate exams this years had either failed them last year and had to resit, or could not write last year for 'compulsory' reasons - because they were ill.

Some 35,379 of the students passed this year's examinations, according to official figures, and around 1,919 scored 90% to 95%, a meagre figure compared with previous years.

Last year, Egypt's public and private universities admitted around 400,000 new students. Public universities, which are often under-funded and over-crowded, have said the sharp drop in the number of new enrolments this year would give them breathing space to revamp facilities.

Officials at the Ministry of Higher Education said the decision to change the rules of university admission for the next academic year was aimed at applying the principle of equal opportunity.

"The gap year has created an exceptional situation, which should be handled in an exceptional way," said Moustafa Argawi, chair of the law department at the state-run Al Azhar University. "Without laying down special rules, ill-qualified students would this year get the chance to attend top colleges. This is unfair and counter-productive."

But Abdullah Sorour, a lecturer at the public Alexandria University, dismissed the restrictions as violating equal opportunities. "This decision is a doomed way to limit the number of fresh students at universities. All students should be given the chance to attend universities depending on the grades they collected this year.

"Gap year students who scored high in the exams should not be deprived of attending top colleges as a result of ill-planned education policy in Egypt. They should not pay the price."

Disappointed students have said they will go to court in protest against the new admission rules. "I am not a failure or a procrastinator," said Mahmoud Abdel Ghafar, a student who scored 91% in this year's scientific section tests.

"The fact that I did not take last year's exams was because I fell ill. This is officially certified. Why should I be punished for that?"

Ghafar hopes the court will rule in his favour and force the minister of higher education to revoke his 'unfair' decision.