EGYPT: Universities to scrap textbooks and go digital

To many academics and students in Egypt, Minister of Higher Education Hani Hilal is the minister of controversy. Months ago, citing security concerns, he banned female students wearing the niqab (full-face veil) from staying in low-cost dormitories or sitting exams. He triggered another uproar when he decided not to build new law schools, saying that the country already had sufficient. His latest controversial decision is to ban the use of textbooks.

The decades-long tradition of textbooks will end at the beginning of the next academic year. The minister's rationale is that depending on textbooks has become an outdated feature of higher education in this era of information technology.

Hilal, previously a university lecturer, has pledged to introduce sophisticated technological infrastructure into Egyptian universities in order to motivate students to go high-tech and diversify their information sources.

"In theory, this is a good decision. In practice, it isn't," said Yehia el-Qazzaz, a science professor at Helwan University, a government-run institution south of Cairo.

"University academics write these textbooks and oblige their students to buy them, as a way of shoring up their [lecturers'] paltry incomes," he explained. "I don't think lecturers can survive without the money generated from the sale of these books, unless their salaries are substantially increased."

Over the past two years, academics in Egypt's public universities have been pushing the government to improve their financial status. Last year they went on a symbolic strike for the first time in the country's academic history in protest against what they described as low, humiliating pay. They say that recent pay rises have fallen short of their expectations.

According to el-Qazzaz, who is a member of the 9 March protest group calling for the independence of the universities from government control, abolishing the use of textbooks is not an effective way to develop higher education.

"It is necessary to ensure the independence of universities and at the same time significantly increase academics' salaries so that they devote themselves to their jobs," he suggested.

Gamal Shaqra, chair of the history department at Ain Shams University, a public higher education institution in Cairo, said not all Egyptian universities would be prepared to do without textbooks altogether in favour of digital resources.

"This cannot be done in some disciplines. For example, in history studies, the researcher cannot depend on digital references because he needs to have access to authentic books, which are not readily available on the internet."

He added that there were academics who were still computer illiterate. "If lecturers themselves don't know how to deal with the computer, how can they or their students cope with the ministerial decision?" he asked.

While approving of ridding universities of textbooks Abdullah Sorour, a professor of education, had doubts about the feasibility of Hilal's latest decision. "Cancelling such books necessitates modernising the technological basis of our universities. This requires a lot of money, which is hard to come by. Therefore, the decision is easier said than done."