A lack of prioritisation has left its mark on the system

A third of a million students graduated from Egyptian universities in the summer of 2014, products of the largest education sector in the MENA region. Most of them began their higher education courses in the autumn of 2010, and during their four years at university they have seen Egypt undergo a tumultuous period. The education system now faces many challenges as it seeks to improve and better prepare the country’s young people to join the workforce.

One of the biggest component groups of Egypt’s jobless are graduates, who account for 33% of the total, according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS). This skills mismatch, resulting in a graduate unemployment rate of 19%, is shared by other North African economies, notably Morocco (17%) and Algeria (21%), according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Some fear that any changes that do take place tend to favour political expediency over pedagogical reform. “Policymakers are only focused on quick returns, and that does not happen in education,” Sherif Kamel, dean of the school of business at the American University in Cairo, told OBG. “You need five to seven years to start feeling the impact of change. Egypt needs to look at the curriculum and administration, and how it trains teachers. Instead, there has been this obsession with the figure we are going to say have graduated. We need a holistic approach rather than micro-management.”


Optimism was sparked by the new constitution, which came into force in January 2014. Article 238 stipulates that education must receive expenditure to the value of at least 4% of GDP each year. According to the Ministry of Finance, the budget allocation for education in 2013/14 was LE82.5bn ($11.7bn), with LE68.5bn ($9.7bn) of that earmarked for pay for teachers, administrators and government officials.

CAPMAS figures show that in 2011/12 state expenditure on education was equivalent to 4% of GDP and 13% of total public expenditure. In the five years from 2007/08, spending on education increased by 84% from LE33.5bn ($4.8bn) to LE61.7bn ($8.8bn) in 2011/12, with LE48.6bn ($6.9bn) spent on pre-university state education and the remaining LE13bn ($1.9bn) on state-funded universities. This is the equivalent of LE2792 ($396) per state university student, or LE2455 ($349) per state school pupil per annum. The decision to peg education spending to a percentage of GDP, rather than to a percentage of overall government spending, may in fact lead to smaller year-on-year rises, as annual GDP growth recently slowed to 2%.


Parents can choose between state, private and religious education for their children from kindergarten through to university, with the exception of agricultural colleges, which are entirely state-run. There are nine compulsory years of education between the ages of six and 15, divided into primary, preparatory and secondary. At the secondary level pupils can opt to attend vocational technical schools, which specialise in agriculture, commerce or industry. There are also pre-schools operated by both state and private providers for children from four to six years of age.


As with many state-run social welfare organisations in Egypt, the school system adheres de jure to the free model created in the era of former president Gamal Abdel Nasser, but many parents pay for an informal, de facto system of private tutoring, which takes place outside school hours. The tutoring system has developed organically as a response to decades of low wages for teachers in state schools.

“A typical teacher in a government school earns between LE480 ($68) and LE800 ($114) a month, and this has created the private lesson system,” Kamel told OBG. “The same teachers earn LE240 ($34) per student for a class of six private students, so in an hour they can earn more than their monthly salary. If you are teaching those classes back-to-back every evening you won’t have the focus in the classroom.” According to a former local development minister, Ahmed Darwash, quoted in Al-Ahram newspaper in 2013, $2.3bn is spent by parents every year on private tuition, the equivalent of 25% of the 2012/13 education budget. Lack of job security is an issue for many teachers, according to the same report, which said that government ministers were pledging to offer permanent contracts to 70,000 people already teaching in state schools.

According to CAPMAS, there were 17.8m pupils in state pre-university education in 2011/12, 700,000 in technical institutes offering post-school diplomas and 1.6m students in state-funded universities. In addition, 2m were being educated in religious Al Azhar schools, which are state-funded, but administered by the centrist Islamic Al Azhar foundation.

Regional Comparisons

According to the World Bank, 89% of Egypt’s 15- to 24-year-olds were literate in 2012. The gross enrolment ratio (GER) in secondary schools was 86%, compared to 98% in Algeria, 91% in Tunisia and 69% in Morocco, by the most recent figures. This represented a fall from 88% in 2002, but in earlier decades it had been much lower: it was 69% in 1992, 49% in 1982 and just 32% in 1972. The rate for primary schools was far more favourable in 2012, with the World Bank recording a GER of 113%. The figure is greater than 100% partly because some children are starting ahead of primary school age and partly because of students who are repeating years when they are older than the prescribed primary school age.

The standard of education received by these pupils, particularly those who cannot afford additional tutoring, has been called into question for many years, and attempts to tackle the impact of tutoring on school standards was a central tenet of the 2007/08 to 2011/12 reform strategy for education. A new strategy has not been announced since, but dissatisfaction persists and was evident when Egyptian business leaders were canvassed for the World Economic Forum’s (WEF’s) “Global Competitiveness Report”, which compared 148 economies around the world. Egypt was ranked 118th based on an aggregate of 114 factors affecting business competitiveness. Yet those interviewed reserved their harshest criticism for the quality of primary school education, in which Egypt ranked 148th. The overall quality of the education system was ranked 145th, and the same rank was given to the quality of maths and science education, and of school management.

The report was based on a survey of 71 businesses conducted by the Egyptian Centre for Economic Studies, and while the size of the sample has drawn criticism, it nonetheless represents dissatisfaction with the way the education system is preparing young Egyptians for the workplace. “The system has declined drastically in recent years,” Khaled Sewelam, the director of research and publications at the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt, told OBG.

Brain Drain

One of the sub-categories in the WEF report was labour market efficiency. Egypt ranked 133 out of 148 in the country’s ability to retain talent. Emigration as a means to gain a higher qualification, or to enhance career prospects, is an attractive option for many young Egyptians. A 2012 study by the International Organisation for Migration, for example, focused on emigration patterns among Egyptian medical staff. It found that doctors, nurses and other medical professionals tended to emigrate to Western countries for further education, training and career enhancement.

Private Sector

The private education sector has been struggling to attract further investment in recent years. However, a study by asset management firm Al Masah Capital – based on figures from the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, the World Bank, the IMF and others – predicts that Egypt’s private education market will be worth $3.5bn by 2015, making it the biggest in the MENA region, and worth 31% of the MENA private education sector.

According to CAPMAS, in 2011/12 there were 1.59m pupils in private schools and 86,784 students in private universities, representing 5% of the university population. A 2012 study by UK think tank Chatham House suggested that parents chose to move their children from state schools to avoid centralised policies, poor facilities and a narrow curriculum based on rote learning. The Al Masah study said that only two private equity deals had taken place in Egypt since 2003, compared to 10 in UAE in the same period. According to the state’s Information and Decision Support Centre, tertiary education could be more attractive to private investors than schools, as around 60% of the investment can typically be recovered within three years.

Pre-School & Primary Level

There were 874,730 pupils enrolled in pre-primary schools in 2011/12, according to CAPMAS, up by 86% on 2003/04. The number of children in Egypt’s primary schools had risen by 35% since 2001/02 to 9.6m, up from 7.1m a decade earlier. There was a 60% increase in the number attending Al Azhar primary schools, from 726,058 to 1.16m.

Preparatory & secondary

Between the ages of 11 and 14 pupils attend preparatory schools, in which there were 4.16m children in 2011/12. There was a 55% rise in the number of Al Azhar pupils at preparatory schools between 2001/02 and 2011/12. In general secondary schools the period saw a 14% increase from 1.16m to 1.32m, with 38 the average class size.

The number of pupils in technical schools fell by 24% between 2002 and 2012, from 2.15m to 1.63m. The same period saw a 17% increase in the number of pupils passing the exams at the end of general secondary schools and a 19% rise in the number of those passing their exams at the end of Al Azhar secondary school.

However, there have been significant falls in the numbers of students passing exams in technical schools. Students passing agricultural qualifications dropped from 60,938 in 2001/02 to 53,352 in 2011/12, and those passing commercial qualifications fell from 277,135 to 177,050. “Perceptions of vocational training have been poor in Egypt, and that has to be looked at,” Kamel told OBG. “It is not just about specific skills, but how they are educated. The culture has to change and vocational training needs to be appreciated as much as university degrees and certificates are.”

Higher Education

There are 23 government universities and 19 private universities in Egypt. In terms of the number of enrolled students, in 2011/12 the five biggest state universities were Al Azhar (269,017), Menia (239,184), Cairo (226,890), Ain Shams (166,543) and Alexandria (143,226). The total number of students in 2011/12 was 1.71m.

The 290,744 fall in overall student numbers between 2009/10 and 2011/12 may have been caused by a drop in the number of overseas students choosing to study in Egypt since the revolution, compounded by increasing numbers of young, wealthy Egyptians choosing to study abroad. Another contributory factor may be the high levels of unemployment among graduates, and the low salaries in some graduate professions. Teacher training itself has seen dramatic falls in student numbers. The number of students taking degrees in education fell by 62% between 2007/08 and 2011/12.

Many feel that reforms throughout the system are key to Egypt’s future. For Kamel, the three fundamental issues that need to be addressed are: training school teachers and university lecturers to move away from rote learning to more interactive approaches; the content of the curriculum; and the administration of education, including school and university facilities.


The long-term nature of education policy and development means it has not been a high priority for successive governments in Egypt. It remains to be seen whether the decision to peg education spending to a percentage of GDP, rather than to a percentage of government spending, will prove beneficial. Yet increasing funding cannot be the only solution, with the reform of curricula, implementation of technology and improvement in teaching urgent requirements.

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The Report: Egypt 2014

Health & Education chapter from The Report: Egypt 2014

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