With a looming demographic bulge and a need for higher youth employment, Egypt’s education sector is the focus point of much attention. Egypt’s public education system is the largest in terms of student populations in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), yet its levels of public spending have only seen nominal increases in the last five years. In 2011 3.5% of GDP (around $9.5bn) was spent on education, which equates to around $300 per student each year. In 2013/14 fiscal year this amount had risen only slightly to 3.9% of GDP, equal to $11.1bn.
In order to help make up for the resulting shortfalls in quality, around 42% of family expenditure on education is allocated to private tutoring and after-school courses, according to the MENA Out-of-School Children Initiative (OOSCI).
This trend contradicts the free education agenda that has been in place in Egypt since the founding of the modern republic and is, therefore, at the heart of present efforts to dramatically overhaul the country’s educational framework. Following the 2011 revolution, which highlighted socioeconomic grievances among other things, the current government has prioritised reform of the country’s education sector. This includes expanding accessibility and raising quality; training teachers and raising their salaries; and boosting vocational and technical offerings. It will also entail support from the private sector, including through the use of IT and in construction and maintenance, among other things.
Size & Structure
More than 20m students are the recipients of pre-university education, according to OOSCI’s Egypt report 2014. The Ministry of Education (MoE) is the primary education provider, accounting for over three-quarters of all K-12 students. A smaller, parallel programme is run by Al Azhar, which operates a network of around 9000 schools, is overseen by the state, and educates an estimated 10% of pre-university students in secular subjects and religion.
The third component of Egypt’s education system is private education, which accounts for around 8% of all students attending school at the primary and secondary levels, and for 6% at the lower-secondary level. The MoE is responsible for regulating most of these private schools. There are around 51,000 public schools and at least 8000 private schools in Egypt, including more than 100 international-affiliated schools, according to UNICEF/OOSCI, with the latter providing US, UK or French curricula.
The gross enrolment ratio in Egypt’s secondary schools was 89% in 2013, compared to 98% in Algeria (in 2011) 91% in Tunisia and 69% in Morocco (2012), by the most recent UNESCO figures.
Among the obstacles facing access to education at a pre-university level includes parents prohibiting their children from attending school. According to research conducted by UNICEF and OOSCI this factor alone is prevalent for 54% of young Egyptians who do not regularly attend school. Demand-side barriers to education are mainly economic in nature, and “may include poverty and child labour, and the relationship between these economic constraints and social and cultural factors”, according to UNICEF/OOSCI.
In 2013, in an effort to achieve total enrolment of children at school age, Egypt joined the OOSCI, which was launched by UNICEF and the UNESCO Institute for Statistics in 2010. The initiative works to identify and expand on information analysis methods, policies and strategies that address the common profiles of out-of-school children, including those who have never enrolled and those who have already enrolled but dropped out or are at risk of dropping out.
By 2013 the expected number of years spent in school had grown to 13.0 from 7.6 in 1980 (13.3 for males, and 12.7 for females); these figures are relatively better than Morocco’s 11.6 and the Arab states’ average of 11.7. Yet inequality in education was 40.9% in the 2014 Human Development Index, with gender equality levels showing 43.4% females achieving at least some secondary education, and 59.3% for males.
Official illiteracy rates appear to be falling. In 2014 the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) put the number of illiterate Egyptians at more than 25%. For men the number was 18.5%, and for women over a third. The illiteracy rate was highest overall among Egyptians over 60 years old (64.9%), and lowest for Egyptians aged 15-24 (8.6), pointing to gains made in education and social benefits for the younger generations.
Moreover, “disguised illiteracy” is cited as a further problem, with around 30% of students enrolled in school estimated to lack basic skills for reading and writing, according to the Egyptian Authority for Educating Adults (EAEA). Illiteracy was 30.7% for rural populations in 2012, while in urban populations the figure was 17.7%. The Greater Cairo area has an estimated illiteracy rate of 15.9%, according to the EAEA’s research. It estimates that at least one-fifth of females and around 11.3% of males in Greater Cairo are illiterate. The highest estimated rates of illiteracy are found in Asyut, in Upper Egypt, where the overall illiteracy rate is 30.3%. The Red Sea Governorate is lowest, with an overall rate of 6.8%.
The findings from the 2015-16 “Global Competitiveness Report” by the World Economic Forum (WEF) illustrate the impact of Egypt’s education and literacy levels on the country’s economy. Categorised by WEF as a stage two, efficiency-driven economy, it is ranked 116 out of 140 countries compared to 119 out of 144 countries in the 2014-15 report. Although this does not show an improved performance, the report gives a generally positive assessment of the country’s institutions, noting, in particular, the higher levels of physical security, a more efficient judiciary in settling business disputes and improved protection of property rights. In terms of higher education and training, WEF ranks Egypt at 111. In addition to policy instability and inefficient government bureaucracy, the WEF report notes that the poor work ethic in labour force and the inadequately educated workforce are amongst the most problematic factors for doing business in Egypt.
In 2014 Mahmoud Abou El Nasr, the then-minister of education, unveiled a reform programme for the period 2014 to 2017, with further planned reforms up until 2030. The scheme includes introducing a nutrition regime in all public schools; eliminating illiteracy; reducing the number of student drop outs; and improving the curriculum. New educational buildings are to be constructed and class sizes reduced to 40 students per class in primary schools. Free extra classes will be offered, and efforts to prepare graduates for domestic teaching jobs will be renewed. In cooperation with the UAE, the ministry is also working on a programme to extend technology use in schools, known as the Million Student Project.
The current push by the government to improve the education sector will result in a jump in spending. This will counter a trend in which the allocated percentage of the budget going to education dropped from 16-17% of total state expenditure to 10-12% in the past five years, according to the Ministry of Finance. Egypt’s new constitution stipulates that government spending on education must be no less than 4% of GDP. Under the 2014/15 budget, public spending on education will reach LE94.4bn ($12.9bn), up from LE81.3bn ($11.1bn) in 2013/14. This is seen as an encouraging commitment in principal, yet there remain multiple capacity restraints.
The government is also now overseeing private school fees more closely. Regulation passed in 2014 restricts the raising of fees for private education. Rising annual tuition rates for private and international schools will now be curtailed by amendments to a 2013 ruling that had allowed those institutions to raise fees every two years. Instead, schools will now be permitted to do so every five years. According to Al Ahram, yearly tuition rates for private and international schools range from less than $85 to $12,000. As part of the efforts to reign in fee hikes, caps have been set at 3% for schools that charge fees of more than LE4000 ($545) per year and 17% for schools charging less than LE600 ($81.78) per year.
Perhaps the single biggest task for the education sector is ensuring the employability of new graduates, a challenge that schools and universities across the MENA region often face.
In an encouraging turn of events, unemployment levels in Egypt have flattened out over the past year. However, these remain high and present a formidable challenge for the education system, which continues to struggle to produce skilled graduates. By late 2014 CAPMAS recorded a nominal third quarter decline in the unemployment rate by 0.2%, to 13.1%. That number was still much higher than the 8.9% recorded in September 2010. It had dropped further by the fourth quarter of 2014 to 12.9%, the first time that level had been reached in three years. This included an increase in the workforce of some 353,000 workers, or 1.3% over the year before.
Unemployment among youths aged 15-24 has been estimated at 42%, a figure which puts Egypt in 84th place in WEF’s “Human Capital Report 2015”. The report also rates the country as “second to last overall” in terms of education quality, ranking 123rd out of 124 countries, which is a slight improvement after coming in last in the previous years’ report.
Youth aged 15-29 account for more than 63% of the country’s unemployed, according to local press reports. Perhaps more concerning is the fact that many of these are university graduates, highlighting the disconnect between post-secondary curriculum and the job market. This is not unique to Egypt – Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia face similar challenges. According to CAPMAS, at least three-quarters of the unemployed hold diplomas or university degrees. In August 2014 CAPMAS found the unemployment rate among female college graduates to be 57.2%, compared to 25.4% for mid-qualified and 13.7% for illiterate. The unemployment rate for male college graduates at the time was 36.4%, according to CAPMAS, down only slightly from 37.4% the year before.
In Egypt the transition from school to work takes seven years, according to the Egypt Country Report for the 2014 Ministerial Conference on Youth Employment prepared by the MoE, the Association for the Development of Education in Africa and international development firm GIZ. This causes many school-leavers to seek work in the informal sector. Only 10% of the workforce is employed in the former sector.
Meanwhile, enrolment rates at the tertiary level reached an estimated 32% in 2010. The Egypt Country Report states that among university students, around two-thirds specialise in the humanities and social sciences. This trend has resulted in a mismatch between the output of the education sector and the needs of the labour market. Now, however, some institutions are beginning to address this imbalance. “The Egyptian education system is trying to build up more specialised academic programmes as well as training courses for entrepreneurship and innovation to ensure a more real-world, effective applicability of curriculum,” Professor Ahmed Mohamed Hamad, president of the British University in Egypt, told OBG. Increasing numbers of university applicants could also pave the way for more private institutions to enter the market. “Given the large number of students looking to attend university and the limited capacity of public institutions, there is considerable room for growth for private players,” Ahmed Seida, president of October 6 University, told OBG.
Teaching & Infrastructure
The country’s effort to expand access to education at primary school age has come, “in many cases… at the expense of quality”. The push to boost capacity has limited investment in teacher training, course curriculum and infrastructure and, according to UNICEF, has led to overcrowded classrooms and poor performance. According to a survey conducted by non-governmental organisation CARE Egypt, illiteracy rates were found to be as high as 80% in some schools.
In response, the MoE’s strategic plan includes improving the learning environment in schools through teacher training and – in a departure from the tradition of rote learning – new, active learning techniques to help students develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, A priority has been placed on reducing classroom sizes, building new classrooms, curbing double shifts for teachers and increasing the number of new hires. According to UNICEF estimates, less than 10% of schools in Egypt meet the national standards for quality education and 20% of buildings used for educational purposes are not fit for use and lack functional water and sanitation facilities.
In late 2014, the MoE noted that it had increased the number of classes by 44,000 in 2014 to ease the density of students in each class in accordance with the ministry’s plan. Current primary school classroom density, according to UNICEF (2013/14), stands at 43 in rural areas and 42.7 in urban locations. A UNDP report in September 2015 found that primary school density in private schools averages 32 students per class, while the figure is 44 in public primary schools.
The MoE reported in March 2015 that 30,000 new teachers would be drafted in for Egypt’s schools. The hiring programme came as part of a call by the president, Abdel Fattah El Sisi, for new recruits and as many as 1150 new schools, and resulted in more than 300,000 applicants.
The ministry is reviewing curricula, and together with UNICEF, is supporting professional development. It is also looking to enhance support for the disadvantaged. Specialists in the field highlight the need for giving particular attention to human resource gaps, improving governance and helping teacher morale.
One notable initiative is Intel corporation’s successful training of over 500,000 teachers in skills development, as part of an agreement with the MoE, in place since 2006. The agreement entails training teachers on the use of IT in the classroom to enhance the educational process and improve outcomes.
A crucial part of the government’s development drive includes increasing teacher salaries. LE18bn ($2.5bn) was initially required to raise salaries gradually by LE1000 ($136) per month. While teaching salaries vary, they are generally very low and are a factor behind existing low morale, the proliferation of tutors (caused by the need to supplement salaries) and underperformance. A 2012 study by the UK’s Chatham House found that teacher salaries rarely surpassed LE1600 ($218) per month).
Implementing raises, promotions and professional development for teachers aims to curtail the need for (and the supply of) private tutoring. Of the LE87bn ($11.9bn) allocated ahead of 2015 for the MoE’s budget, 90% was set aside for employee salaries. Yet salaries are expected to rise only gradually. Furthermore, spending on wages and compensation per capita is currently lowest in governorates where the student- teacher ratio in primary school is highest.
With new constitutional obligations, Egypt’s current public spending campaign, if executed correctly, should support the improvement of education levels, in terms of quality as well as access. The country’s broader stability should also help to increase attendance figures.
Moreover, with its substantial population, sizeable middle class and interest in education, Egypt makes an increasingly attractive prospect for a broad range of private education providers going forwards.