EGYPT: Universities reconsider borderline marks

Egyptian Minister of Higher Education Hani Hilal has announced the planned cancellation of a decades-old system that helps under-performing university students to pass year-end examinations. "The borderline mark system or what is known as 'mercy grades' is illegal and encourages students to be under-achievers," Hilal told academics at Beni Sueif University in southern Egypt earlier this month.

Hilal added that the Higher University Council, which charts policies for the country's academic institutions, is looking into the system to revoke it starting from next year.

"This system is an anomaly and contradicts the principle of equal opportunities," said Amr Salama, an ex-minister of higher education. "Having it in place has negatively affected the education system in Egypt. Cancelling it is a right step as students will become aware that marks they obtain in final exams are the result of their actual efforts and studies."

Salama said had he stayed longer in his post as education minister he would have met with presidents of universities "to reach a collective decision to axe this unfair system".

Proponents of dropping the system say that regulations governing Egypt's 35 public and private universities include no explicit stipulations for offering support marks to under-performing students.

In 2000 the public Helwan University, south of Cairo, unilaterally decided to revoke the controversial system. But the move was challenged by students in court, where the decision was invalidated because it had been adopted by a single university.

"The Higher University Council should take a unanimous decision to drop this system and order this be applied to all universities in Egypt," said Salama, who once also served at Helwan University as vice-president.

To Sherif Omar, head of the parliamentary education committee, said the decision to cancel the system was positive but its timing was surprising.

"Egypt is preparing for parliamentary elections in November and such decisions are non-populist," he said.

"Still, I fully support this decision, because this system cannot be seen elsewhere worldwide. Logic dictates that when students take exams, they all are equal and the grades they finally score should reflect their performance," he argued. "Under-performers should not be given a helping a hand or dealt with on an equal footing with those who study hard."

For students, the plan to scrap the 'mercy grade' system came as a shock.

"This move will be unfair to students in view of the big number of subjects they have to study each semester," said Abdel Halim Khater, a third-year law student at Cairo University, Egypt's largest public university.

"There are many students whose personal circumstances do not allow them to perform well. So the mercy grades help them pass," he said. "The situation would be worse if this system is removed."

Hanan Mahmoud, a second-year student in Ain Shams University's faculty of arts, has mixed feelings. "In theory, cancelling this system may promote the principle of equal opportunity. Many students exploit this system to be lazy," she said.

"However, I hope before making the system a matter of the past, the exam-marking system will be made more efficient so as to leave no room for grave blunders in the correction process."