Concern over freedoms as university curbs thesis topics

An Egyptian state university has said that thesis proposals for masters and doctoral degrees must conform to governmental development plans, raising concerns about academic and research freedoms in the country.

The decision was made in late November by Alexandria University’s Council for Postgraduate Studies and Research, which demanded the dissertations presented to the institution comply with Egypt’s 2030 Vision, a long-term development scheme launched by the army general-turned-president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, in 2016.

“We have taken this decision because scientific research should be based on the state [development] plan so that our work should be geared towards meeting society’s needs,” the council’s head Mokhtar Youssef said in a press statement.

Alexandria University, Egypt’s second oldest state academic institution, has 23 schools that offer degrees in a wide range of disciplines, including medicine, dentistry, nursing, science, pharmacology, agriculture, engineering, law, arts, tourism and commerce. Established in 1938, the university is headquartered in the Mediterranean Sea city of Alexandria with branches in other Egyptian cities. The institution grants hundreds of masters and doctoral degrees every year, according to Youssef.

“Failure to base research on the state development plans has rendered degrees useless,” he said.

It is not yet clear when the new rule will come into effect. No other institution of Egypt’s 25 public universities has said it will follow suit.

Several Egyptian academics have criticised the decision.

“It is impractical to link scientific research to Egypt's Vision 2030, which is still being developed,” said Aliaa el-Mahdi, a professor of economics and political science at the state-run Cairo University.

“The state’s strategic vision is not sacred and can be changed,” she told the Egyptian English-language newspaper Al-Ahram Weekly.

Egypt’s vision 2030 eyes sustainable development in this Middle Eastern country of more than 100 million people by cutting joblessness from the current 12% to 5%, according to government officials.

The plan seeks to reduce Egypt’s poverty from 27.8% to 15% by the year 2030. It also aims to raise Egypt’s rankings in world competitiveness and transparency indexes.

“Government plans should be the result of scientific research, not the opposite,” said el-Mahdi, who urged Alexandria University to revoke its decision. “The basis of research has always been openness and diversity," she said.

The university's decision has also alarmed some Egyptians outside the academic community.

Mahmoud el-Werdani, a well-known writer, condemned the step as a "catastrophe". He argued that the university could have asked researchers to give a priority to Egypt's Vision 2030 in their dissertation themes. "But to make the state vision the main condition for registering their planned theses is a real catastrophe," el-Werdani wrote on the Arabic-language Egyptian news portal Masrawy.

"The only condition for any research plan should be giving complete freedom for the researcher in choosing the theme as long as academic terms are met. The university's role should be to safeguard this freedom and provide the favourable environment for it."