EGYPT: Revolution turns over new leaf for universities

Higher education in Egypt is set to become a model for Africa and the Middle East as a result of the popular revolution that removed former president Hosni Mubarak and his regime from power and ushered in a new era of improvements. So said Dr Alaa Ibrahim of the American University in Cairo at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Doha.

"Higher education has already been revamped, and changes are already being seen in the way of operation," Ibrahim, an assistant professor of space astrophysics, told University World News during the 27-30 June conference in Qatar.

"The past regime did not give due attention to higher education. They used to consider it as a financial burden to reward academics appropriately."

Reflecting on changes that have happened since the revolution - also referred to as the Egyptian Protests, Days of Rage or the Papyrus Revolution - Ibrahim said Egypt now had credible leaders with interest in advancing higher education.

The country's state-run universities began classes for the second term of the academic year in March following mid-year vacations, which were extended due to the pro-democracy protests that started in January.

"The bigger picture is that we now have people who are aware that higher education has long suffered from poor attention. More resources are being channeled to research and attempts are being made to make intellectuals happy and to stay in the country," he said

"We cannot expect quality educations and research with poor working conditions, not adequate training, and low pay. These are being changed for the better. Egypt's reform of education and research will be a model for Africa and the Middle east," said Ibrahim.

Among other things, Egypt's government has increased science funding by almost a third and has promised up to 50,000 new jobs in industry for young researchers, mainly to help with practical projects in the private sector.

Last month the cabinet approved a budget for the 2011-12 financial year that increases research spending to US$90.5 million, from US$66.5 million last year.

The Academy of Scientific Research and Technology (ASRT) and the Ministry of Scientific Research will share the money, Maged El-Sherbiny, ASRT President and Assistant Minister of Scientific Research, told SciDev.Net in June. The government expects ASRT to give graduates and young researchers appropriate research fields in industry by the end of 2011.

Amr Ezzat Salama, Egypt's Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology, has announced the government's intention to grow spending on research ten-fold in the next three years, from to 0.23% to 2% of gross domestic product.

Prime Minister Essam Abdel-Aziz Sharaf has lent weight to the cause, admitting that institutions of higher education and research are facing difficult challenges due to political circumstances, and stressing that developing the research system should be a top priority.

Ibrahim said promises were already being made to improve rewards for academics, and this would encourage academics to remain in the country and attract back others in the diaspora.

"One thing that we learned, even in our usual role as a merit-based institution, was that if our youths are not properly trained and their desires are not met they will demand answers from us," Ibrahim told University World News.

He said the future holds great promise for Egypt, as the revolution delivered people with good management skills to promote the growth of higher education on improved terms.

"In the near future, I think we will be a model for other countries," he added, "because all stakeholders are now working toward the same goal."