Population and attendance growth provide opportunities for Egypt's education sector


Since the socialist reform era of the 1950s under President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt has engaged in a decades-long effort to provide equal access to quality education across the country. Now, as Egypt seeks to jumpstart the economy after the political turbulence of recent years, educational reform is to play a vital role in preparing a skilled and educated workforce. Although challenges persist – especially as institutions and personnel are struggling to meet the needs of a rapidly growing population – the increased demand has created opportunities for a variety of players to fill critical gaps.

Basic Indicators

As outlined in the World Economic Forum (WEF) “2017 Global Competitiveness Report”, Egypt is trending positively on certain key educational indicators, making strides in primary education and higher education and training from previous years. According to the most recent data from UNESCO, total literacy for Egyptians 15 years of age and older stands at 75.06%. This rate is higher among the large youth demographic at 92.02%, for those between 15 and 24 years of age.

However, there is room for improvement. Research from the Egypt Network for Integrated Development cites Ministry of Education (MoE) figures that place out-of-school children at the primary level at 15.9%, with net enrolment rates at the public primary school level reported at 87%. The same research highlights the inequality of access across income levels, with only 20% of children from the poorest 20% completing basic education, compared to 80% of the wealthier students. Once children are in school, 23% of the poorest children fail at these basic levels, compared to only 9% of children in the rest of the population. The urban-rural divide persists as well; as noted in a 2016 paper from US-based think tank the Brookings Institution, at 43%, more than twice as many women in rural Upper Egypt are illiterate compared to urban Upper Egypt at 20%.

Government Updates

As a start to improving these indicators, Egypt’s constitution, updated most recently in January 2014, commits the government to spending no less than 4% of annual GDP on education. According to UNICEF, in FY 2014/15, 4.7% of GDP and 12% of total government expenditure went towards education. In 2015 the minister of finance announced the government aimed to further increase spending on education, up to 6% of GDP during FY 2016/17. This target – if fully achieved – would make Egypt one of the higher spenders on education as a proportion of GDP in the region; World Bank data lists 2013 spending levels for Lebanon at 3% and Qatar at 4%, for example.

In a parallel effort to stimulate innovation and advance higher education, and as part of the knowledge, innovation, and scientific research pillar of Egypt Vision 2030, the government has announced plans to build a Knowledge City in the New Administrative Capital. With branches of foreign universities and research centres, the city would follow the model of cities in the region like Doha and Abu Dhabi. This would be a critical step for Egypt to achieve its stated goal of becoming a regional centre of innovation; in the WEF “2017 Global Competitiveness Report” Egypt ranks 128 out of 138 countries when it comes to the quality of research institutions and 135 for capacity for innovation.

University Placement

One of the notable shifts in education was the August 2017 announcement from the minister of education, Tarek Shawki, that Egypt plans to replace the longstanding Thanaweya Amma university placement exam with a new evaluation system, scheduled to begin in September 2018. Currently, in most of the Arab world, university placements are decided by a single, final exam, with the score determining who receives prestigious placements at universities and who will have to pay for a diploma at a lower-tier, often costly institution. Instead, as reported in regional higher education platform Al Fanar Media, Egypt’s new system would consider students’ performance throughout their three years of secondary school, culminating in a certificate that could be used for university admission. Much like in the US, universities would set selection criteria – which could include grades, interviews or demonstration of extracurricular interest – to select students based on a holistic assessment. Ideally, the new proposed system will relieve pressure on students and parents, who often pay costly tutoring fees focused on preparing for the current placement exam. The change to a new evaluation system would also incorporate the use of technology, allowing for multiple-choice exams that could be graded electronically. Regardless of the well-intentioned rationale for the proposed changes, some are sceptical of this approach.

Ghada Barsoum, associate professor at the Department of Public Policy and Administration at the American University in Cairo told OBG, “We don’t yet know the details of this new system. This shift, if implemented, could mean increased tutoring costs associated with an even longer process and students could end up with three years of extended pressure.”

Private Costs

Private tutoring, long a controversial solution for both children in Egypt’s underresourced public schools and teachers earning low salaries that they often supplement with tutoring income, faced further resistance in 2017. As has been the trend in recent years, the most up-todate figures from Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) note that in 2015 households with members enrolled in educational institutions spent a larger percentage of income on private tutoring (39.4%) than actual school fees (31.9%). The British Council estimates the country’s annual expenditure on private tuition at over $2bn each year. The need for supplementary education, particularly for children in public schools, is unlikely to change soon, especially given the July 2017 announcement from Shawki that international school fees – already up to $24,000 each year – will be increased by 14% for the 2017/18 school year and another 7% annually starting from the year after that. The fact that the MoE even sets the price for private school tuition has been a source of frustration for some, who argue that this can deter additional private players from entering a space that desperately needs more facilities and investment. This lack of autonomy over fees was felt especially acutely given operating cost increases in 2017, including water and electricity. However, the MoE has remained firm on maintaining control, closing schools that do not adhere to standards.

Primary & Secondary Schooling

As of 2015, UNESCO reports that children aged 14 and younger made up 33% of the total population, translating into almost 4m pre-primary-aged students, 10.9m primary students, and 9.7m secondary-aged students. UNICEF’s 2017 “Children in Egypt Statistical Digest” reports Egypt has made significant strides in expanding access to basic primary education to meet this sizeable demand. The latest figures estimate a net enrolment rate in primary education of 92% and 60% in secondary school. While it is promising that more children are attending school, it creates a challenge of overcrowded classrooms and a lack of resources. According to CAPMAS, primary classroom density was 45.4 students per class during the 2015/16 school year, up from 44.2 in 2013/14. In these same primary schools, there was one teacher for every 25.4 students in 2015/16. For general secondary school classrooms, density was 39.6 in 2015/16, up from 37.3 in 2013/14.

Part of the challenge in addressing this issue, as outlined in the MoE’s “Strategic Plan for Pre-University Education 2014-2030” and echoed by private players, is that the population distribution makes it difficult to acquire land for new facilities in highly populated areas near the Nile, as much of it is currently for agricultural use. This overcrowding means that the percentage of students repeating grades in early years is low. This issue may have rippling effects. As Barsoum told OBG, “The existential problem you have in the system is that there are so many students in a classroom each year that you cannot allow children to repeat. When repetition is not a part of the culture and passing is guaranteed, it hurts the overall quality of the education system.”

Religious Studies

Each year, Egyptian students may choose to participate in the 12-year Al Azhar system. Students enrolled in the Islamic studies-focused programme, which is separate from the national school system, are taught in single-sex classrooms and automatically admitted for study at the Al Azhar University upon graduation. According to CAPMAS, in 2014/15 there were 1.9m students enrolled in the pre-university Al Azhar system compared to 19.9m enrolled in other pre-university education. The Upper Egypt provinces of Shuarqia and Suhag had the largest percentage of students in the Al Azhar system, with 11.7% and 8.9%, respectively.

Higher Education And Research

Despite the presence of historically prestigious institutions like Al Azahar University and Cairo University, WEF’s “2017 Global Competitiveness Report” ranked Egypt 112 out of 138 countries for higher education and 137th in university-industry collaboration in the field of research and development. Science graduates make up only 10.2% of graduates, social sciences, business and law graduates (36.2%), humanities and arts (14.6%), and health and social services (14.%).

Increasing the availability of resources and encouraging student interest will be important to advancing the scientific sector. In the 2015/16 academic year, 1.8m students were enrolled in public universities across the country compared to 83,423 across 19 private universities, with a split of 36,347 women and 47,076 men. A British Council report lists 24 state universities with 51 state non-university tertiary institutions focused on technical education. In the private sector there are 105 institutions, including private universities and lower-tier private institutions that cover trades like computer science, administrative services and accounting.

Outside Engagement

Education continues to be an active sector for international investment and engagement, through both traditional donor-based initiatives and private sector investments.

In February 2017, the MoE announced the piloting of Tokkatsu – the Japanese Tokubetsu Katsudo ”whole child” education model – in 12 Egyptian schools, building on trials ongoing in elementary schools since 2015. In the 2018/2019 academic year the ministry announced its intention to expand the programme by establishing 100 new Egyptian-Japanese schools. In addition, February 2017 saw the UK’s secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs, Boris Johnson announce – through the British Council, – that the UK would sign 70 new UK-Egypt university partnerships, adding to the 30 signed in 2016, bringing the total to 100.

In July 2017 regional press announced a three-year, $2m project under the umbrella of Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives, targeting the development and improvement of the educational environments for 15,000 students and their teachers in Upper Egypt by supporting and funding extracurricular activities and teacher training.

Recently, the door has also opened to increasing private sector involvement. In 2016 the Ministry of Finance’s Public Private Partnership Central Unit released a call for submissions for contracts to “finance, design, build, operate, use and maintain” schools on land provided by the government for 40 years before ownership was transferred to the MoE.


With the pressure Egypt’s large and growing population places on physical classroom space, recent years have seen a turn toward technology, seeing the implementation of digital education in line with international trends. For example, global education company Discovery Education has been working closely with the MoE on standardising digital educational content being provided as part of the Egyptian Knowledge Bank, the online library archive and resource project that is free for all Egyptian citizens. In addition, start-up online platforms like Tyro and Tutorama connect students with instructors for individual online sessions – despite geography – and have received funding for expansion.


The demand for quality education continues to rise and Egyptian families have demonstrated a willingness to pay, providing opportunities for public and private players to enter the sector. In particular, the ministry of education’s February 2017 acknowledgement that a free education for all Egyptian students may no longer be sustainable further opens the door and conversations to private providers. As Barsoum told to OBG, “this is a country with so many children – with this demographic profile, education will always be a sustainable business.”

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The Report: Egypt 2018

Health & Education chapter from The Report: Egypt 2018

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