EGYPT: Tough challenges for new universities minister

He is Egypt's fourth higher education minister in 10 months. His predecessor held the post for four months and was forced to quit along with the rest of the government after clashes between pro-democracy protesters and security forces left 45 people dead. When named universities minister this month, Dr Hussein Khaled said he would handle the job regardless of when he might leave it.

"My immediate tasks are to re-establish good relations between lecturers and students and also among lecturers themselves after a period of turmoil in universities," Khaled (60), a former vice-president of the state-run Cairo University, said in a recent interview.

During and after a popular revolt at the beginning of 2011 that toppled President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years in power, Egypt's universities were gripped by turbulence.

Angry students and lecturers held mass, vociferous protests, demanding the sacking of all university leaders they deemed loyal to the Mubarak regime.

The military rulers who took over after Mubarak eventually bowed to academic pressure and allowed elections be held for new leaders in the country's 19 public universities.

"We are in the stage of democratic transformation. If the university community continues to see elections as the best mechanism, then it will be kept for choosing the leaders of universities," Khaled said.

A professor of medicine specialising in oncology, Khaled likened what is taking place in Egypt to a woman in the throes of birth. "I am optimistic that the newborn will be in good shape and that the short-term solutions will lay down a foundation for the long-term plans," he said.

In an apparent bid to defuse university tensions, Khaled promised to work soon on revising regulations for higher education institutions. The existing statutes have been in place since the 1970s and have been a source of constant complaints from lecturers, who regard them as outdated.

"We will embark on discussing proposed changes and at the same time adopt proposals already agreed on by all lecturers," Khaled said.

Another demand - this time made by students - is the issuance of new regulations for student union elections.

There have been tensions between students and administrators over rules for elections at several public and private universities recently. While students are pushing for more democratic rules, university administrators see the push as going too far.

Khaled said he would begin meeting representatives from different student unions to discuss their suggestions.

"The issue can be resolved in the mid-year holiday [due in late January] so that the elections can be held in the second half of the academic year," he told the independent newspaper Al Masri Al Youm.

In a cash-strapped country whose economy has been shaken by months of labour strikes and instability, Khaled's toughest challenge may be how to raise the salaries of teaching staff in public universities.

"Many university professors are underpaid, a matter that distracts them from devoting themselves to their job," he told a private Egyptian television last week. "I'll spare no effort to improve the financial status of those people to help them do a better job."

With public higher education institutions already underfunded due to meagre state subsidies, Khaled has promised also to look for non-governmental sources of financing. "We have other sources to which we can resort such as civil society institutions, business people and donations from the public," he said.


Modernisation of the curriculum and teaching methods is also imperative. Current approaches are out of date. Also, support for university research is critical. Finally, the government should allow greater management flexibility and decentralise the system.

Anthony Perzigian, University of Cincinnati