Educational shortcomings across Arab nations were widely discussed following the publication in 2002 of the inaugural Arab Human Development Report. Written by international and Egyptian experts under the auspices of the UN Development Programme, the report offered a scathing review of the state of education in the Arab world. Egypt was no exception. The overall quality of education was undermined by large class sizes and under-qualified teachers, along with outdated curricula and pedagogical methods.

CATCHING UP: For some in Egypt the report only confirmed their suspicions: Egypt had fallen behind in numerous respects. For others, the report was a galvanising wake-up call. A renewed emphasis on education already had been under way in Egypt, but the report added momentum to the authorities’ reform efforts and underscored the urgent need to modernise the nation’s educational system.

Ten years later, Egypt has made real progress. Pilot projects in private schooling, technical and vocational education, and greater community participation have shown real promise. But considerable work remains to be done. Egypt’s current and future leaders would do well to consolidate the gains from the past 10 years and build on them with further innovation and targeted investment.

In the early 1990s the Egyptian government redoubled its efforts to improve education as a critical ingredient in a broader initiative to spur economic growth. Financial resources were committed to building new schools, increasing access and boosting enrolment rates. Critics argue that while the education budget was increased, relatively little trickled down to the students, whose performance on standardised testing has not improved when gauged internationally. Egypt continues to rank in the bottom one-third of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement’s “Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study”, a global test of fourth- and eighth-year students. Discouragingly, while the average international scores improved between 2003 and 2007 from 467 to 500, Egypt’s scores fell from 406 to 391.

RENEWED EFFORTS: Every Egyptian is guaranteed the right to free public education, but according to a three-year survey completed in 2011, 11% of those between the ages of 18 and 29 had never been to school. The non-governmental Population Council research institute’s Survey of Young People in Egypt (SYPE) identified gaps between the genders and between students in urban and rural settings. Four-fifths of those who have never attended school are female, and children from rural areas are more likely to drop out of school or never attend.

While these numbers illustrate that more work still needs to be done, Egypt has made significant progress over the past quarter century. According to UNESCO, about 95% of eligible children are now enrolled in primary school, which marks a significant improvement on previous years.

Egypt has also made strides in combating illiteracy. The literacy rate for Egyptians above 14 years of age improved from 44.4% to 71.4% between 1985 and 2005. For those between 15 and 44 years of age the literacy rate improved from 73.2% to 86.2% between 1996 and 2007.

LITERACY PROGRAMMES: Despite this progress, Egypt still has the highest rates of illiteracy in the MENA region after Morocco. A number of initiatives, both public and private, seek to rectify this. One programme funded by telecoms firm Vodafone and organised by Sonaa El Haya (Life Makers, a non-governmental organisation focused on volunteering) seeks to eliminate illiteracy in Egypt within just five years. Given the size of the challenge and a budget of just LE22m ($3.7m) that may seem overly ambitious, but the programme has enlisted some 9000 volunteers, 4000 classrooms and has already enrolled 50,000 students. The programme’s organisers are taking their lead from successful literacy campaigns in other populous countries, such as Brazil and India, where the challenge also once seemed insurmountable. As the programme’s operations manager, Mahmoud Abdel-Meguid told the Egyptian Gazette, “In India, 5m illiterate people are taught to read and write every year.” There is little reason to believe Egypt cannot do the same.

EARLY CHILDHOOD: While Egypt has boosted its education budget, early childhood learning remains underfunded and is available to just 20% of Egyptians. Studies show that children exposed to formal learning even for just a few hours per week benefit throughout their lives. Early childhood education is also a cost-effective means of combating intergenerational poverty, which continues to plague Egypt’s poorest citizens. With this in mind, international aid agencies, including the World Bank, UNICEF and the Canadian International Development Agency, have provided financial assistance and advice on extending pre-school services across Egypt.

Primary schools have received more attention from the Ministry of Education, but some parents remain concerned about the quality of instruction. Many of those with the financial means send their children to private tutoring after school. Others have taken matters into their own hands and created community schools in underserved areas. An estimated 5000 classrooms have been established in this manner and the Ministry of Education is facilitating pilot programmes in the seven governorates where gender gaps remain the highest.

Egypt is also witnessing strong growth in private schooling. Several factors are driving this expansion, including concerns about the quality of education in public institutions, greater disposable income for members of the upper-middle class, and legislation that has made it easier to establish private schools.

TERTIARY EDUCATION ROOTS: For all the evolution occurring in primary and secondary schooling, the biggest changes in Egyptian education are occurring at the tertiary level. Between 2002 and 2006, the Egyptian Ministry of Higher Education and the World Bank joined forces in the Higher Education Enhancement Project, which laid a foundation for improving the quality of higher education in Egypt. The three-part programme addressed legislative issues, institutional reform and quality-assurance mechanisms.

Beginning in 1961, universities have been managed by the Ministry of Higher Education, which remains distinct from the Ministry of Education. The specialised attention for higher education began under Gamal Abdel Nasser, who championed a rapid expansion of university education as part of his economic development agenda for Egypt.

In 1952 on the eve of the Free Officers Coup, 42,485 Egyptians were attending institutions of higher education; by 1977 more than 500,000 Egyptians were attending universities. Within a generation, Egypt had produced tens of thousands of doctors, engineers and lawyers, who were to lead Egypt into the ranks of the great powers.

QUANTITY VS. QUALITY: However, Nasser’s well-intentioned scheme was not without its unintended consequences. Perhaps most troublesome, Egypt’s economy did not create enough new jobs to absorb the all these new graduates, which left lawyers driving taxis and engineers sweeping floors.

Another legacy of Nasser’s reforms has been overcrowding. At present, more than 2.5m Egyptians are attending university – or nearly one out of every three university-aged Egyptians. While the number of public universities has increased from four to 18 over the past 60 years, this has not kept pace with the surge in enrolment numbers.

The student body at the University of Cairo, Egypt’s largest university, now tops 250,000. With approximately 11,500 faculty, that translates into a student-to-faculty ratio of 22, which is two or three times the figure at leading universities in the US and Europe. Quantity has not translated into quality. College campuses are presently crammed with students, and faculty lecture to thousands of students, too overwhelmed to tailor their teaching to their students’ needs. As the quality of instruction has suffered, the number of students seeking a university education abroad has increased. The US, Europe, Singapore and China are among the most popular destinations.

And the problem is not merely one of losing students for four years. Those who study abroad are far more likely to remain abroad where they can earn much higher salaries. The resulting brain drain is a critical issue not just for Egyptian schools, but also for the economy and the wider society.

In an effort to ease the burden on public universities, the Ministry of Higher Education began, in 1996, allowing independent, for-profit universities in Egypt. There are now 16 such universities, some of which include foreign participation, such as the German University in Cairo or Université Français d’Egypte. These universities tend to focus on career-based curricula, such as business administration, engineering or medicine. An estimated 50,000 students attend these universities and the number is growing rapidly as those students with the means seek higher quality education.

AMERICAN UNIVERSITY IN CAIRO: However, not all public universities are overcrowded and underperforming. The American University in Cairo (AUC), established in 1919, stands apart for its consistent investment in its faculty, student body and facilities. Indeed, with the exception of Cairo’s thousand-year-old religious institution, Al Azhar University, AUC is perhaps Egypt’s best-known and most-respected institution of higher education.

In 2009 AUC completed a multi-year move from its historic but cramped downtown campus, to a 105-ha campus on the outskirts of the city in New Cairo. AUC now has the largest English-language library in Egypt and international-standard research facilities. With just 5000 undergraduate students, those resources are not spread too thin.

In addition to the new facilities, in autumn 2009 the university made headlines with another first by opening the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy (GAPP). As the first and only school of its type in the Arab Middle East, GAPP carries a particular responsibility, according to its founding dean, former ambassador Nabil Fahmy. “We try to have an effect here in the region and to raise the voice of the region internationally,” he told OBG. As a longtime diplomat and former ambassador to the US and Japan, Fahmy has sought to infuse an international flavour in the school’s curriculum.

The 2011 revolution has raised both the school’s profile, as well as the demand for its services. “We got a tremendous boost with the revolution,” Fahmy told OBG. “Even beforehand, it was clear to people that you needed to understand how to develop policy, navigate your way through the system, and implement public policy. But after the revolution, this all became very topical.”

FACULTY SALARIES: Outside of AUC, limited budgets and enormous class sizes put a serious strain on public university professors’ daily work. Some of their concerns are addressed in a new law drafted by the Consultative Committee of Universities. The draft law consists of 15 articles addressing everything from professors’ salaries and assessment to larger research budgets. The law has been sent to Egypt’s 18 public universities for approval. A final version will soon be taken up by parliament and could come into force during the 2012/13 academic year.

Public university faculty are severely underpaid in Egypt. Lecturers currently receive a monthly salary of only LE1500 ($251), LE2000 ($335) for assistant professors, and just LE3000 ($502) for full professors. Unable to afford even a middle-class lifestyle with such a salary, most professors hold a second or even a third job. Many must set aside time to give private lessons to students who can afford to pay them an hourly rate. This, of course, limits the amount of time they can devote to research, writing, travelling and preparing their lectures.

The draft law would change all of this by ensuring significant increases in monthly salaries of academic staff to LE3750 ($628) for lecturers, LE17,450 ($2921) for assistant professors and LE25,500 ($4268) for full-time professors. Such remuneration would put professors on par with judges, but would be granted on condition that they do not accept work outside their universities.

LABOUR FORCE: Even those Egyptians who graduate from university are finding their opportunities in Egypt are limited. This has as much to do with the evolving job market as the inability of the educational system to adjust to the modern, global economy. While Egypt’s economy grew rapidly under Hosni Mubarak, the number of jobs has not kept pace. Part of this relative shortfall can be attributed to more efficient production, but much of the growth has come in sectors of the economy that are less labour-intensive, such as energy, financial services and IT. Twenty years ago a university degree guaranteed a profitable career; that is no longer the case, nor does a university degree secure a job in government. While the government remains the nation’s largest employer, it is oversized and cannot afford to absorb hundreds of thousands of graduates every year.

These factors have left an estimated 3.3m Egyptians unemployed. This translates into 12.4% of the approximately 27m-strong labour force, and unemployment rates are higher among youth. Just to keep unemployment at the same level, Egypt needs to add some 700,000 jobs every year.

SKILLS: However, the problem is not simply one of insufficient jobs. Employers complain of a mismatch in the skills they seek and those employees have to offer. The Egyptian educational system has not evolved with the needs of a modern economy and is not producing the right kind of graduates.

The best prospects for university graduates may lie in Egypt’s productive small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). SMEs account for 70% of jobs, but most have stopped hiring, waiting to see how the political transition unfolds and whether the economy can rebound from a difficult past 18 months.

Even when it does, many university graduates will have difficulty in finding work. Employers are looking for specific skills, many of which are in short supply among new graduates. Speaking to local media in March 2012, Mohamed Hanno, a board member of the Alexandria Business Association, explained that employers complain principally of the “difficulty in finding the right recruits, especially in the blue-collar market”. Indeed, while Egypt has a glut of college graduates, it suffers from a dearth of qualified technical workers.

Some of this problem has to do with status. A university degree conveys a certain social cache, but many college graduates cannot find work commensurate with their educational status. They may have been better off attending a vocational or technical school and gaining a skill they can apply immediately after graduation. According to SYPE, just 36% of Egypt’s youth between 18 and 29 years of age attend or have attended a vocational or technical school.

While it would be politically difficult to remove government support for higher education, there are ways to alleviate overcrowding at universities, such as limiting the number of spaces open to new students each year. Another option involves expanding vocational training within the country by transferring some resources from universities to technical and vocational programmes.

Before that can happen, however, oversight at vocational and training centres needs to be improved. Depending on the type, training centres can fall under the administration of three different ministries. Some have called for a single government body to supervise and accredit the centres. Greater collaboration with the private sector would allow for vocational schools to tailor their curriculum to the demands of the marketplace.

EDUCATION, POST-REVOLUTION: While Egypt’s educational system must be retooled to produce graduates whose skill sets match employers’ needs, educators should not focus solely on providing workers to drive Egypt’s economy. As the UNDP has stressed in its reports about human development, the ability of a people to read, write and learn is a worthy end in itself. The benefits of a more critical and aware population will invariably spill over into the wider economy and help improve the life of the country. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Tahrir Square in early 2011. Egypt’s youth were at the vanguard of the uprising and drew great praise and admiration from their elders, instilling hope that they can bring about a more progressive future for Egypt. Candidates for Egypt’s parliament and presidency all professed a deep commitment to education, reflecting the public’s interest in devoting more money and improving Egypt’s schools.

OUTLOOK: But there remain stark differences in different parties’ views of education. In an interview with OBG, Bruce Lohof, the outgoing executive director of the Binational Fulbright Commission in Egypt, stressed that the outlook is still unclear. “The bad case scenario is if higher education is managed more by ideologues than by academics. That would mean that an awful lot of the already scarce resources are ferreted away on issues related to gender, religion, or security.” But Lohof was quick to point to the positive things that can come from the revolution. “The pleasant scenario is an Egypt that better understands the economic and commercial significance of education, in addition to the social and cultural.” He also noted higher education’s potential: “If they can address the quantity issues, they can begin to address quality as well. With fewer students and better paid faculties, they can offer a better product.”

As Egyptians continue to debate the future of their country – and debate more openly than they have in decades – education will be at the heart of discussion. At the core of the revolution lie a widely held hope for a better life, more accountable government, and more prosperous economy. In this regard, the experience of other emerging markets is unequivocal: a central ingredient for realising the promise of the revolution is a well-educated population.