Children’s University opens doors to future students

Egypt has inaugurated the third phase of a 'Children’s University' programme which is aimed at enhancing children's scientific and innovation abilities, as well as preparing them for the transition from secondary school to university education.

Initiated by the Suez Canal University in cooperation with the Academy of Scientific Research and Technology, the third phase of the Children’s University was launched on 10 November.

The US$1.7 million project is an outcome of the ”Children for a Better Future" initiative, and is funded by the Academy of Scientific Research and Technology in cooperation with more than 27 public and private Egyptian universities.

The initiative is in line with the OECD's 2015 report entitled Schools for Skills – A New Learning Agenda for Egypt which calls for "shifting the orientation of Egyptian schooling from the acquisition and repetition of knowledge to the development and demonstration of skills".

During the nine-week third-phase programme, school children from ages nine to 15 are given a chance to meet university professors, be trained in laboratories and be exposed to university education in a number of faculties including medicine, agriculture, science, arts, education and computer sciences.

A July 2017 report from the UK entitled Reality Check, about university applicants’ attitudes and perceptions, shows the importance of preparing school children for university life.

At the end of the Egyptian programme, each child is required to work on a scientific research project. The winning child from each faculty will receive a certificate as well as a monetary prize. Top pupils will also be offered the opportunity to visit children’s universities around the world such as those hosted by the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, the University of Adelaide in Australia, and universities in Scotland and India.

The initiative has been welcomed by education experts in Egypt, inter alia, because of its potential to improve social mobility and widen access to higher education.

Hassan Moawad Abdel Al, former president of the City for Scientific Research and Technological Applications in Alexandria, Egypt, said: "This is only one step forward in a long rocky road for improving social mobility, widening access to higher education, and raising aspiration and attainment."

In particular, he said it would help to promote the importance of science education.

“It will help to increase the number of secondary school children who are enrolled in science programmes and decrease the dropout rate,” he said.

Official 2015 figures from the Egyptian Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics indicate that most university graduates have degrees in non-scientific fields, creating a gap between their qualifications and the needs of a knowledge-based economy.

The proportion of social sciences, business and law graduates is about 36.2% of total higher education graduates, followed by the humanities and arts at 14.6%, health and social services at 14% and finally science at 10.2%.

Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid, a professor at Cairo's National Research Centre, told University World News the Children’s University could be considered a sustainable and effective university-school partnership that should be based on schools’ needs and universities’ competences. “It should be encouraged to promote university engagement with the community," he said.

However, not everyone is a supporter of the concept.

Farouk El-Baz, director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University and a member of the presidential advisory council that advises Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, said: "It is like treating a dying patient by offering a piece of chocolate!"

El-Baz said the Children’s University was “inadequate” as a strategy for reform of a system that has been “consistently deteriorating for over a half century as teachers of all levels were not adequately trained”.

"Fixing an educational system is a long-term process, which requires thoughtful planning, hard work and sustained efforts for at least a decade; it does not happen by quick fixes here and there," he said.

Egypt’s higher education, science and technology performance levels are comparatively low according to the Global Competitiveness Report 2017-2018.

Out of 138 countries on the list, Egypt ranked 100 in higher education and training, 130 in the quality of education, 121 in research institutions, 122 in maths and science education, 123 in capacity for innovation, and 117 in university-industry collaboration in research and development.

"The education system needs to be revamped," El-Baz said.

"Egypt can become an example to follow in Africa if it embarks on long-term, sustained efforts of teacher education, preparation, training, and monitoring … The Egyptian universities had produced leaders in every field, including Nobel Prize winners … All those were the outcome of a great educational system in the past.

"Egypt can certainly do this again, through a thoughtful, sustained emphasis on improving education at all levels for all, not just for the few," El-Baz said.