Interview: Lisa Anderson, Hossam Kamel
What can be done to improve teaching quality and retain staff at the tertiary level?
LISA ANDERSON: Ultimately, there needs to be a more realistic salary scale for faculty, especially in the national universities, so that staff can put in the time and effort they need to devote to their teaching and research. There are faculty who find themselves required to spend time as consultants, adjuncts elsewhere, or in business merely to make ends meet, which means that even if they are on staff, they are not giving their positions 100% — and many very talented people ultimately decide not to pursue academic careers because it is too costly.
HOSSAM KAMEL: The national universities face these challenges the most because there are many alternative financial opportunities for our staff. Many of our staff who go abroad to get a PhD take a sabbatical when they return or leave to work in Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Europe or the US. This deprives us of the best-qualified staff we have. There is also competition from the private universities in Egypt, so many of our staff from Cairo University now teach at the AUC and so on. This is a challenge that we have to meet and there is no way to do so except by raising salaries.
To what extent are universities able to engage in partnerships with the private sector?
KAMEL: This model is becoming more prevalent in Egypt; public universities, however, are behind on this trend because there was no law regulating how a national university could engage with the private sector to generate new technologies or businesses. The law changed about a year ago and it allows us to engage in such a partnership if it is related to science and education. This represents a huge opportunity for universities and should be encouraged, especially at public ones, where significantly more funding is needed.
We thought to solve this problem by initiating what we call Cairo University International Branch. We have a very big piece of land in 6th October and we already signed agreements with many universities in Europe and the US to give joint degrees in business, nursing, science and engineering. We are planning to create a type of public-private partnership to finance the centre, and are also planning to have an academic park, science park and other facilities which can generate income. For example, we are going to offer a degree in hotel management together with a German university, so while offering this degree we are going to build a hotel where the students can be trained while generating income. We are also planning to have a large sports facility and hospital. We think that this model is the only way we can increase the salaries at public universities.
As part of this model our staff will be there to teach the curricula, which we have in common with other the universities. I have signed the agreements and am going to offer them high salaries, but under the condition that they have to teach the same curricula to my students at the main campus. This model has been very successful in China, Malaysia and Turkey, where businesses are financing a university expressly for educating the staff they need for their industry. It has proved successful, especially for universities in a financial dilemma similar to what we have, with a limited public budget for higher education. In this model, public universities can compete with private ones and offer internationally competitive pay packages for their professors.
ANDERSON: This is an area of enormous opportunity. The private sector should be funding university-based research and training in almost every domain. This would provide firms with access to talented and suitably trained young people and good applied research, while providing much-needed funding for the universities. These kinds of partnerships are one of the solutions to the problems facing Egyptian universities, but they should be run through the universities and not drain faculty away into private consultancies. I would also like to see more US aid invested in educational development, mostly in entrepreneurial research. Many new apps made for the Apple iPhone are coming from young Egyptian talent, and this should be utilised more.
How adequate are current secondary education matriculation requirements?
ANDERSON: In technical fields, secondary school graduates can be quite well-informed and prepared, but they are rarely encouraged to be imaginative, creative or reflective. Unfortunately, those skills are not as highly prized in Egyptian universities as they should be. The mismatch between secondary and tertiary level expectations is not dramatic, but both are misaligned with Egypt’s needs in the 21st century. Conversely, Egypt is considered to have some of the best engineers in the world, which is a mark of considerable distinction.
KAMEL: They are unfortunately very inadequate. The system is largely based on private tutoring. Those who have the highest marks have a photographic memory so the system is producing students with very little analytical skills and changing that at the university level is a real challenge. We also have capacity challenges with the number of students that we can educate and a widening teacher-student ratio. Students still depend on lectures and physically being in the classroom; however, in the future new multimedia technologies will help alleviate these challenges with remote learning.
What can be done to close the higher education access gap resulting from income disparity?
KAMEL: Besides injecting more government funds into the education system to support broader participation in Egyptian universities, we must find alternative sources of revenue, which include partnering with the private sector for commercial agreements. Our new international campus, for example, should be a strong revenue generator, as government spending on education will be reduced in the upcoming budget.
ANDERSON: Access is a global challenge and is hardly unique to Egypt. Unless governments are prepared to invest taxpayer money in high-quality universities, someone else will have to pay. Sometimes the private sector will find it in its interest to support some programmes, but the market should not determine what disciplines are well supported. So the challenge of providing high-quality university education to deserving students remains in Egypt, as everywhere.
How effective is higher education regulation?
ANDERSON: This is an area in which Egypt is beginning to develop standards and processes, such as those of the National Authority for Quality Assurance and Accreditation of Education (NAQAAE), which will prove quite useful as they are rolled out in the next few years.
KAMEL: There are, of course, regulations and the university is bound by the rules of the NAQAAE. In three years all faculties will have to be accredited, but the greater challenge is the widening student-teacher ratio. For instance, Cairo University’s faculties of arts, business and law account for a large number of students. In the business school we have over 60,000 students, 40,000 in law and 30,000 in the arts. To do a graduation ceremony we have to go to Cairo Stadium. We have to find solutions for this. We tried to solve this problem by accepting a limited number of students on campus and sending the others to distance learning programmes, but after the revolution there was an extreme pressure from students to reverse this. This is still something we are grappling with today.
Is there room for increasing collaboration and cooperation with foreign universities?
KAMEL: Yes, and we have agreements with 600 foreign universities. Some of the agreements are very active, so we exchange students and staff from around the world, which creates mobility. We think there is space for expanding this. We have an office for foreign students, which was successful in attracting students even in 2011. The number of students who came to Egypt wasn’t affected by the revolution or Arab Spring.
ANDERSON: We are trying to increase our network links with foreign institutions. We are also trying to expand our PhD programmes, which will help attract even more foreign students seeking higher education in Egypt.
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