The poisoned air of Egypt’s education system
People in Egypt are arguing over the dramatic change in the country’s education system, which will take effect in the next academic year.
Egyptians have been complaining about the existing education system and demanding change for decades, yet the government today is facing strong resistance. Ceasing to teach science and math in English and ending the use of textbooks have raised controversy. There are also doubts that a country with only about 2 percent of its resources allocated to education can solve the chronic problems that the sector faces.
Yes, Egypt is a nation at risk and not much effort is needed to realize this. The state of our education system implies that, if we continue in this same manner, a hazard will happen sooner than we imagine.
In the 1950s, Egyptian writer and intellectual Dr. Taha Hussein said: “Education is like water and air, the right of every human being.” This statement later became a slogan adopted by successive governments and was the gateway to free education.
We have “practiced” education for many decades in a manner that resulted in the decline of standards in the country. The educational process has mostly become bilge water and poisoned air. The nation’s enemies could not have caused more damage than what we have done to our education system.
The United States, the greatest power in the world, was not satisfied with its education system at a certain stage, so what did it do? In the early 1980s, studies began to emerge that warned of a decline in the US education system. The famous report “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform” was released in 1983 and was a cry of alarm that emphasized the dangers facing education in the country and the decline in the quality of teaching, which led to a decline in students’ academic levels and achievements.
The report concluded that “for the first time in US history, the educational skills of one generation would not surpass, nor would they even equal, those of its predecessors.” The report also stated: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.”
Many problems need to be addressed in Egypt’s education system, particularly the amount of money it is allocated.
There is no doubt that, for any nation, education is a strategic issue that takes precedence over the government’s agenda and domestic policies. By taking a look at any government’s expenditure on education as a percentage of the country’s GNP, we can learn how developed that country is.
The only positive linked to education in Egypt in recent times is that a crisis has been recognized and acknowledged. Having the courage to admit the deterioration in the standards of education is a very important step, and recognizing the importance of developing a scientific strategy for education is another important step.
We must also keep in mind that reform does not happen overnight, nor does it happen by making mere changes to the curriculum or the exam system, which isn’t the scientific reform method.
I felt optimistic as I recently followed the work of Education Minister Tarek Galal Shawki and saw him develop the strategy announced last week. My first positive remark on the strategy was that it did not try to find excuses for the current situation but was focused on the future instead, and this is the role of strategies. Finding solutions for the current situation is the role of the government.
What I wish to point out at this early stage is that one of the biggest challenges that face implementing any change — even positive change — is society’s resistance. When it comes to education, this resistance is at its highest so, in order to overcome this barrier, the correct scientific approach would be to develop another strategy for communicating with society and winning allies. Hiding behind statements like “we have held many social dialogues” or “we have held many press conferences” is not enough.
There are many structural problems that need to be addressed, and one of the most serious problems in Egypt’s education is the budget borne by the public treasury. The budget allocated to education does not exceed about 4 percent of Egypt’s gross national income. This is a very small proportion compared to the budget allocated for law enforcement.
Moreover, this percentage is largely consumed by the salaries and bonuses of the Ministry of Education’s administration. Salary items account for about 85 percent of the education budget, which means spending on the educational process itself does not exceed 2 percent of the government’s total budget. The budget for fiscal year 2017/18 allocated about EGP 106.5 billion ($5.9 billion) for education, compared to EGP 103.96 billion the previous year.
In the budget’s financial statement, the Ministry of Finance pledged its commitment to allocating the proportion specified by the constitution toward education. The constitution stipulates the allocation of 4 percent of GNP to pre-university education, 2 percent toward tertiary education, and 1 percent toward scientific research. However, data analysis of the new fiscal year’s budget indicated that spending on the education sector in Egypt needs to be fully reassessed.
Among the chronic problems in Egypt is the state of educational buildings and their small number compared to the number of students. This diminishes the possibility of employing modern educational methods due to the large class sizes. Another problem is teachers’ low pay, despite the amendment of the Education Act that raised their salaries.
The general economic situation of the country and high inflation rates have made this act a dead letter. In other words, the pay increase specified for teachers does not meet their daily needs, leading them to resort to private lessons that negatively impact the efficiency of classroom learning and wastes the resources of Egyptian families, who end up spending a larger percentage of their total income (more than 60 percent in some cases) on their children’s education.
If you want success, there are important and legitimate questions that need to be answered. There are also real concerns that must be addressed and enemies of change that must be turned into allies.
- Abdellatif El-Menawy is a critically acclaimed multimedia journalist, writer and columnist who has covered war zones and conflicts worldwide. Twitter: @ALMenawy