Why Egypt’s higher education sector continues to improve

The Egyptian higher education sector’s achievement as the top producer of peer-reviewed journal publications in Africa – and its performance in global rankings – are the result of a focused strategy executed from national to institutional level.

According to experts, the next step should be to focus on both the quality of publications in which academics publish and the contribution of research output to social and economic development.

Egypt’s academic publishing performance was highlighted by the release of data by SCImago, a platform hosting citation and abstract databases of research output, which listed Egypt as the top producer of peer-reviewed journal publications in Africa, and in 30th position globally.

With a 23% share of Africa’s publications in peer-reviewed journals, Egypt increased its research output by almost 19% in 2020, as it produced 32,323 publications, compared to 26,223 publications in 2019, an increase of 6,100 publications, according to SCImago’s datasets.

Similarly, Egypt has been featuring strongly in global rankings. In the latest QS Ranking, released on 8 June, there are indicators of a rising Egyptian tertiary education sector that had not only three universities among the top 1,000 institutions, but also 13 universities out of the 31 African universities in the overall rankings.

The research output indicated by SCImago has served as a springboard for Egypt’s gains on the rankings front.

This is according to Professor Mostafa Mohsen Radwan, a higher education reform and quality assurance expert and the former vice dean of the faculty of engineering at Fayoum University in Egypt.

He told University World News: “The high research productivity led to the inclusion of about 14% of Egypt’s 63 universities in global rankings, which would empower the Egyptian universities’ contributions to the country’s ‘soft power’.

“[This] enhances Egypt’s ability to attract foreign students and facilitate educational exchanges which, in turn, extend Egyptian cultural diplomacy or ‘soft power’ in the service of political and economic agendas.”

Radwan said the increase in publication could be attributed to harmonised and integrated policies, plans and activities on different levels.

“[The] ministry and the Supreme Council of Universities, (which includes the minister and the presidents of universities, among others), coordinate higher education policy in line with national goals, [as well as individual] universities, single faculties and research centres.” These had all contributed to the achievements, he said.

“The training of staff, encouragement to publish in reputable international journals and the high premium placed on featuring in these publications for staff promotion purposes have all contributed positively [to the research output],” Radwan added.

“Also, financial prizes and awards for excellence in scientific publications during annual ceremonies are among the factors that are encouraging researchers,” he said.

Echoing Radwan’s views, Professor Mohamed Orabi, the head of the ranking committee and the deputy dean for postgraduate studies and scientific research at Aswan University in Egypt, told University World News: “The increase in publication output is a success for both the national higher education system and the individual universities as their plans have been aligned to achieve this.”

He added: “The improvement in the publication output comes in alignment with the ranking programmes initiated by the ministry of higher education and scientific research in collaboration with the Egyptian Knowledge Bank.

“This has been done through the establishment of the national ranking committee with membership of all Egyptian universities and in parallel with the establishment of each university’s own ranking office or committee to put a strategic plan [in place] for their universities to improve their outputs,” said Orabi, who is one of the 396 Egyptian scientists in the list that represents the top 2% of the most-cited scientists worldwide.

Expanding further, Professor Hamed Ead, the director of the Science Heritage Centre at Cairo University, told University World News that Science Up, a new programme launched by the ministry of higher education and scientific research, is also an important initiative and a long-awaited step in supporting and developing university research.

The Science Up initiative focuses, in its first stage, on capacity building and support development of infrastructure in research laboratories inside faculties of science across the country as well as providing research grants and visiting fellowships in the fields of mathematics and theoretical physics to build a strong scientific base.

Low social science productivity

SCImago’s datasets also indicated that researchers in the social sciences, arts and humanities in Egypt did not perform well, especially in gender studies, philosophy, political science, leadership and management, visual arts and performing arts, music, marketing and population studies.

Ahmed Shehata, a lecturer in the library and information science department of Minia University in Egypt, told University World News: “Our research titled ‘Publishing Research in the International Context: An analysis of Egyptian social sciences scholars’ academic writing behaviour’ reveals that scholars in social science and humanity at Egyptian universities are mainly publishing in local journals as they face several challenges in publishing in international outlets, including language barriers, lack of academic writing skills and lack of appropriate training.

“This could be a reason for the low publication record for Egypt in the social sciences, arts and humanities in SCImago’s datasets,” Shehata pointed out.

Productivity vs impact

While Egypt increased its research output by almost 19% in 2020, beating South Africa, which is now in second place, South Africa has the highest African record in the h-index.

The index captures research output based on the total number of publications and the total number of citations to those works, providing a focused snapshot of an individual’s research performance and provides an estimate of the importance, significance and broad impact of a scientist’s cumulative research contributions.

SCImago’s datasets indicated that Egypt has only 149 publications more than South Africa, which is 209 higher than Egypt in the h-index.

“South Africa is more advantaged in terms of citation index and h-index, probably because most of the South African journals are indexed in popular world citation databases,” according to a December 2019 study entitled ‘Comparison of Faculty’s Research Productivity (H-Index and Citation Index) in Africa’.

In addition to focusing on the volume of output, Egypt’s academic community may also start to target other aspects, for instance, the quality of journals and a focus on community and economic development.

Radwan, from Fayoum University, said that Egypt’s future “scientific research plans, policies and activities should target better quality publications for getting higher citations”.

Orabi supports this view. “Besides quantitative research productivity, Egyptian universities must also focus on quality along with [the] economic impact [of research] as well as achieving sustainable development goals [SDGs],” he said.

For Radwan, research should also target community development and “solving country and industry problems, along with improvement of social sciences, arts and humanities research and raising publications to international standards”.

Ead also highlighted this aspect. “Egyptian universities must bear profound responsibilities to increase the awareness, knowledge, technologies and tools to create an environmentally sustainable future through educational and research programmes,” he said.

According to Orabi, COVID-19 has shown the importance of scientific research and the value of focusing on sustainable development.

“Universities must pay more attention to their rules within their communities and regions to reflect world changes, especially with COVID-19 and the required SDGs and become leaders in using scientific research for developing a knowledge-based economy,” he said.

“I believe that Egypt now understands these challenges very well and is paying a lot of attention to improving its higher education and scientific research sector to reserve the right regional and global place for its universities within the near future.”

This article was updated on 13 June.