EGYPT: Minister calls for fees at public universities

A recent call by Egypt's Minister of Education Gamal Eddin Moussa to charge fees at public universities has triggered sharp criticism from academics. The minister said continued free education at governmental universities violated social justice.

"It means offering a free service to wealthy students at the expense of the poor," Moussa, who was reappointed as education minister after President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in a popular revolt earlier this year, reportedly told a recent seminar in Cairo.

He suggested that free education should be restricted to pre-university education, which serves large numbers of the Egyptians. The money saved, he explained, could be channeled into improving the national school system.

"This suggestion is bad for society," said Yehia el-Qazaz, a professor of science at Helwan University, a public institution in southern Cairo. "New financial resources should be found in order to upgrade the quality of university education, which should continue to be free of charge," he added.

According to el-Qazaz, many countries have adopted various methods to ensure that university education is free, or at least that students do not have to pay upfront.

"These methods take the shape of free scholarships offered by the state to students. Others offer loans to students who have to repay them after graduation and getting a job. A third way is to oblige rich students to pay fees for their education with these fees deducted from their parents' taxes," he argued.

To Shebl Badran, dean of education at the public Alexandria University, levying tuition fees at governmental universities would only harm the poor. "Children of wealthy families already pay for their education whether at university or school," he said.

"With the spread of fee-paying education in Egypt, those families prefer to enroll their children in private institutions. Thus, students from the poor and middle classes are the ones who attend public universities."

Badran went a step further to demand expansion of free university education in Egypt. "While only 25% of school-leavers in Egypt attend university, the ratio exceeds 45% in several Arab countries, surging to 81% in Lebanon."

Since the 1990s around 17 private universities have sprung up across Egypt, 40% of whose 80 million people live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank.

Egypt has 19 governmental universities, which are suffering from shortages of funding and adequate facilities. Students attending oversized classes continue to receive free education at public institutions. But critics say that the quality of their graduates is too low to meet the requirements of a tight local job market.

Fathi Salem, a retired engineer, recalled the gift given to Egyptians by Gamal Abdel Nasser, who ruled the country from 1952 to 1970. He ordered that all education should be free, including university education.

"Had it not been for this, I would not have got the chance to attend the engineering school of Cairo University," said Salem, whose four children also attended public universities. "However, I am worried [about whether] my grandchildren will have access to free university education of high quality like we had in the 1960s.

"In recent years, there has been a shift in this country towards creating private universities, whose fees can be afforded only by the rich."