Higher education still suffering after the revolution

On 25 January 2011, millions of Egyptians took to the streets chanting, “Bread! Freedom! Social Justice!” Significantly, it was Police Day. Egyptians had long suffered under what they felt was a police state. On 11 February, just 18 days after the start of the revolution, former president Hosni Mubarak handed the governance of Egypt to a military council.

Ecstatic celebrations filled the streets and Egyptians felt they were on the brink of great changes to their country.

Two-and-a-half years have passed since that day and the general mood on the street is one of mounting frustration. The economy is in a stranglehold, violence and thuggery are commonplace and politicians, those in government and in the opposition alike, are finding it exceedingly difficult to get their acts together.

Shortly after the January 25 Revolution, protests erupted in Cairo and around the country led by labour unions and professionals in a variety of sectors demanding reform. Successive governments since then have been faced with decades of corruption and stagnation that require their urgent attention.

The Egyptian parliament, elected into office in early 2012, was dissolved six months later after the Supreme Constitutional Court of Egypt ruled that the election was unconstitutional. A date for new elections has yet to be set but is thought to be in October this year.

This general state of instability has affected almost every facet of Egyptians’ daily lives. It is thus not surprising that Egypt’s higher education sector is suffering along with the rest of the country.

Higher education landscape

Egypt currently has 23 public and 19 private universities in addition to 18 public and 81 private higher institutes of education. The country also boasts one of the oldest continuously running universities in the world: Al-Azhar University, founded in the late 10th century. The number of universities has increased since the revolution.

“One of our main priorities,” said Dr Ashraf Hatem, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Universities, “is providing access to higher education. We’re in the phase of access rather than the phase of quality at this stage.”

Hatem, who is also a professor of pulmonology at Cairo University and a former minister of health, explained that only about 25%-28% of high school graduates in Egypt go on to get a higher education.

“What government is trying to do now is to focus on making sure we have enough universities and to decongest the ones we already have,” Hatem told University World News.

About 2.5 million students were enrolled in higher education institutions in 2012-13. This number is expected to rise to 2.8 million in 2013-14.

Since the revolution, seven new public universities have been founded, largely by turning already existing university branches into fully fledged universities.

These new universities are located in governorates other than the densely populated Cairo, Giza and Alexandria and thus provide more opportunities for students based in other parts of the country to have access to a higher education within or near to their home towns.

This, said Hatem, would help to decongest the more centralised universities and student dormitories and would provide more university positions for students once they graduate.

Elections for senior jobs

From the early 1980s onwards, presidents and deans were appointed by the head of state based on recommendations by his ministers and after going through staunch checks by State Security. But since the revolution, elections are held to appoint university presidents, deans and department heads.

This is a significant change, coming after mass protests by academics for reform and independence, which started only days after Mubarak was ousted. The election process, however, still needs to be refined, many academics admit.

For example, teaching assistants and assistant lecturers, who are tenured in Egypt’s public universities, are furious that they are only given 10% of the total vote for department heads and deans. Also, university presidents are elected by an electoral college rather than by direct vote.

Public funding on the rise

Public funding of education in Egypt – at primary, secondary and tertiary levels – is also on the rise.

According to the Ministry of Finance’s 2012-13 published financial statement, just under EGP50 billion (US$7.2 billion) was spent on education in the 2011-12 fiscal year. This rose to EGP66.6 billion in 2012-13 and there are plans to increase funding to EGP82.5 billion in 2013-14, a hike of 23.9% from this year.

“This sector represents 11.9% of the total government expenditure, which is EGP692.4 billion, as well as is the equivalent of 4% of the GDP,” the financial statement reads.

This is indeed an increase in public expenditure on education, which according to the 2013 Human Development Report, was 3.8% of Egypt’s gross domestic product (GDP) in the period 2005-10. It is still quite low, however, if compared to a country like Tunisia, which in the same period spent 6.3% of GDP on education.

Public spending on higher education has remained at an average of 28% of total public expenditures on education over the past few years, according to World Bank data.

A 2012 study published by the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies said that 70% of public expenditure on higher education goes to wages. Even so, academic wages have been stiflingly low.

Low academic and support wages

Earlier in the current fiscal year, President Mohamed Morsi promised an increase in salary allowances for university academics over three phases. The first phase of this increase has already been implemented.

But many academics were angered by a statement made in February this year by the minister of higher education that, due to the current situation in the country, it would not be possible to implement the second phase of salary allowance increases.

And while faculty members in public universities have seen some increase in their salaries, university support staff have yet to see anything of the sort. Discussions are ongoing with the Supreme Council of Universities and with the government to establish a special fund within the Ministry of Finance that will support an increase in support staff salaries.

“The frequent cabinet reshuffles have become a problem,” commented Dalia El-Akkad, higher education reporter and Head of the Education and Science Department at Al-Shorouk newspaper. Since March 2011, the Ministry of Higher Education has had seven different ministers. Dr Mostafa Mosad, the current minister, was appointed in August 2012.

For example, university support staff, she explained, were on the verge of finalising an agreement with the former higher education minister to establish a fund for them. The minister was then changed.

“People in Egypt think it is good to change ministers,” said El-Akkad. “But it is a real problem even at the international level. It doesn’t help our international credibility. The problems of instability affect everything,” she added.

The student experience

Mohamed Badran, president of the Egyptian Students Union, paints a bleak picture.

“Nothing has changed,” he said. “Things have gone from bad to worse. It used to be that we talked about problems in education, research, curricula, and of graduates not fitting the needs of the job market.

“We still have the same problems but now add to those that we have a lack of security in our universities. We have thugs, bullets, and students dying. We have mass poisoning of students in student dormitories as a result of horrible negligence. Political polarisation in our universities has resulted in arguments and fights.

“It all negatively affects student life. What happens outside the university walls also happens inside,” he said.

State police had been stationed at Egypt’s public universities since 1981. Although this did provide an element of security, students and academics long complained about interference with universities’ independence, with accusations rampant over their roles in meddling with student elections, academic promotions, what research could be done, and the appointments of deans and presidents.

A court ruling ordered police to leave universities in October 2010, but this was not implemented until shortly after Mubarak was ousted. Although the police departure is considered a huge victory by students and faculty, it has left a large security vacuum – one felt not only within university walls but also widely in the country.

University administrators are struggling on limited budgets to employ private security personnel and to maintain a safe environment for students. Cairo’s Ain Shams University closed down for two weeks earlier this year because of repeated acts of thuggery within its walls.

Since the revolution, students have succeeded for the first time since the 1970s in changing the student bylaws. Student unions, as a result, have been given much more control over their budgets and activities.

However, explained current Student Union President Mohamed Badran, the new bylaws, drafted by a student union then largely controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, give too much control to the union over what activities students are generally allowed to organise within universities.

“The new student bylaws give the power to the student union rather than giving freedom to students,” he pointed out. Nevertheless, Badran admitted that students are generally freer to express themselves and to engage in political activities than before.

“We do have freedom of expression now,” he said, “but we have it as a result of the legitimacy given to us by the revolution. It hasn’t been granted to us by university administrations.”

Crisis of confidence

Despite a semblance of independence seeping into university life, much remains to be seen in terms of democratic, transparent governance within universities.

“In Egypt’s universities we have a crisis of confidence, whether it is in the state of education, or providing information, or in financial matters, or in personal relations, or in academic staff exerting control over those below them,” Mohamed Adel, a teaching assistant of commerce in Al-Monofiya University, emphatically said.

Although some positive change has happened within Egypt’s higher education sector since the January 25 Revolution, much remains to be seen and expectations of Egyptians everywhere seem to be higher than what governments are able to deliver.

Economic, political, and physical insecurity in the country make it very difficult for serious changes to be made.

There seems to be agreement on one thing, though. “There is no big difference between before and after the revolution,” said Ashraf Hatem, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Universities. “The problem is a laxness in all areas.”