Early school selection fuels higher education inequity

A highly selective system of tracking students into general and vocational secondary education quite early, based on high-stakes national examinations, has significantly contributed to inequities in access to higher education and learning achievement in Egypt, says a new World Bank study.

The report, Egypt: Inequality of opportunity in education, found socio-economic background, geographic location and gender to be the main drivers of higher educational disparities.

“Despite progress made in the last two decades, tertiary education in Egypt continues to be lower among children born in rural areas and those whose parents have low levels of education and are engaged in basic occupations,” says the report released last month.

The study’s principal researcher Dr Lire Ersado, a senior economist for the World Bank’s Middle East and North Africa Region, commented that the prevailing pattern was reflected in the profile and evolution of university graduates across the country.

He noted that over about 10 years, the share of university graduates among the most disadvantaged youth had been increasing by 1% compared to a 17% increase among the most advantaged youth.

Socio-economic factors crucial

Factors associated with socio-economic differences were critical to higher education access and academic achievement, with higher income households able to afford adequate educational inputs.

The researchers found striking differences between youth born in urban areas of Greater Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and Port Said and whose parents had secondary or university education and good jobs, and their counterparts from rural areas in Lower and Upper Egypt and whose parents were uneducated and had jobs as elementary agricultural workers.

“Only 5% of the least advantaged have attained a college education, 41% secondary education, 13% primary and 38% never attended school,” said Jeremie Gignoux of the Paris School of Economics, co-researcher for the study.

In contrast, 65% of the most advantaged youth had attained college education, 29% completed up to the secondary level and only 4% did not complete secondary education.

Learning inequalities start early

The researchers noted that inequalities in learning opportunities that emerge in higher education begin in the early stages of schooling.

For instance, about 83% of boys and 75% of girls from the richest wealth quarter who have parents with higher education, attend pre-school – but this is the case for only about 21% and 28% respectively from the poorest quarter and whose parents have low education.

The emerging picture is that inequities in learning achievement build progressively through the pre-school, primary and lower secondary stages.

Learning achievement in public schools supported by the government is lower than in private schools preferred by the rich.

Further, tracking students into general and vocational secondary schools explains significant drawbacks in learning achievement at the secondary level and limited access to higher education.

According to the study, the number of pupils tracked to vocational schools has increased faster than those tracked to general secondary schools whose graduates are meant to proceed to universities and other tertiary institutions.

Since admission to general secondary schools and tertiary institutions is based on performance in high-stakes national exams, the competition favours students from high quality private schools that are dominated by the rich.

“Through the tracking system, skewed socio-economic status has become a major catalyst to early learning gaps,” said Gignoux, an expert on development and agricultural economics.

According to Ersado, spending on private tuition in private schools plays a role in student performance in national examinations. In another World Bank study, Arab Republic of Egypt: Inequality of opportunity in educational achievement, a task force led by Ersado found schooling conditions and school resources affected educational outcomes and school continuation decisions.

Inequalities growing

Egypt is no exception to debates about educational inequality in Africa. But it appears that inequities may be growing. The expansion of enrolment in tertiary institutions has benefited more young people from privileged backgrounds.

“There is evidence that gaps in educational attainment in Egypt have increased between the least advantaged and the most advantaged youths in the 2000s,” said Ersado.

According to Egypt: Inequality of opportunity in education, most grievances are embedded in unequal distribution of public resources on education that tends to be skewed towards higher education.

“Unfortunately, most youth from disadvantaged backgrounds [have] very little chance of benefitting from such public outlays,” according to the report.

Gender gap reversed

Despite those challenges, Egypt is among seven countries in the Middle East and North Africa – others are the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Jordan, Morocco, Syria and Tunisia – that has a reverse gender gap in higher education, with more women than men joining universities.

According to Yasser El-Gammal, a sector manager in the social protection and labour unit of the World Bank, reversing the gender gap in higher education in Egypt was achieved after elimination of gender disparities in general secondary education in 2005.

“So far, girls are three percentage points more likely than boys to complete general secondary education and two percentage points higher in college completion rates,” said El-Gammal.

But the situation is complicated in that most girls who join general secondary schools and eventually proceed to university are from privileged backgrounds, whose parents have higher education.

“Indeed, the gaps associated with parental background, region of birth and even religion have not been reduced,” said El-Gammal. The analysis of attainments at higher education level shows a pattern that is based on location and family background, irrespective of gender.

Egypt may have made progress in achieving higher completion rates at all levels of education, but challenges that are beyond the control of students – especially in access to tertiary education – persist.