Reforming Graduate Education in Egypt
A guest post by Sofia Rasmussen
The seeds of revolution have long been sowed in Egypt. Long before the media coverage and the Facebook groups, some Egyptians were fighting to reform an education system that was antiquated and leaving the country unable to compete in a globalizing economy.
This revolution did not yell, this revolution stayed inside and this revolution could potentially change Egypt, pulling many Egyptians out of poverty, and hopefully taking the rest of the world with them.
Egypt’s higher education system has undergone fundamental change in the past several years, but the government has discovered that true change will take far more than setting up a couple of accredited PhD programs online or mandating a shorter summer for students. This overhaul will take decades to accomplish.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, has published a report that details key areas of deficiency and proposes courses of action for addressing them. Among the chief problems identified are:
- Too many graduates in social sciences and humanities
- A shortage vocational and technical workers
- Market demanding more soft and practical skills
- Research needs to be connected to the market and national innovation
- Schools are crowded and underfunded
- Universities need to function independently of the state
The Technical and Vocational Education System, (TVET) was established and enacted a number of systemic changes to reform Egypt’s educational institutions and the ways they interact with the government and industry. The six-year project was co-funded by the European Union and began in July of 2005. The stated program objective was, “to contribute to improving the competitiveness of Egyptian enterprises on the domestic and international markets.”
TVET ran its expected course in the summer of 2011, having met great resistance within the academic community. Many of the program’s stated goals were left unmet, but TVET was successful in that it brought the underlying obstacles to fundamental change in higher education institutions into focus. Among them, academic resistance to governmental management.
The Higher Education Enhancement Project, set up by the Ministry of Higher Education, evaluated the success of TVET and Egypt’s overall approach to systemic change in academic institutions. Recommendations for continued advancement and successful reform included vast government involvement, despite the desire to produce institutional autonomy in academia. Three new governmental agencies were proposed:
- Quality Assurance and Accreditation Center
- Faculty and Leadership Development Center
- University Projects Management Unit and International Cooperation
Egypt’s quest for educational reform comes during a period of upheaval and modernization. In the post-revolutionary Egypt, young people—specifically under the age of 29—are vastly underemployed or unemployed, representing nearly 88% of Egypt’s unemployed. And with a recent boom in Egypt’s population, the country’s crowded and underfunded educational institutions are facing a crisis of growth pains.
Egypt is not alone in the need for education reform in the Middle East and Northern Africa. The Arab Spring of 2011 was undertaken almost exclusively by educated but unemployed youth. Lebanon, Jordan and many other countries are facing the same challenges: vast enrollment and low educational standards, producing what Lebanese Education Minister Hassan Diab refers to as a problem of “quantity over quality.” Like Egypt, other nations are turning out graduates whose skills are irrelevant in the current and future job markets.
The vast reforms undertaken in Egypt are representative of government initiatives by other countries in the region, and, like Egypt, the allocation of significant resources has revealed more problems than it has solved. The concerns about domestic educational institutions have become concerns for regional policies and attitudes toward university autonomy. Saudi Arabia’s demand for more science and technology graduates, as a ploy for relevance, is indicative of outdated, top-down policies that focus on ideals rather than practical solutions to current deficiencies in the workforce.
While Egyptian education reform seeks to overhaul the system for virtually all grade levels and effectually address shortages in vocational fields, the need for qualified PhDs in the labor force is a primary objective. Because education is free in Egypt, and because so many young people are underemployed or unemployed, the country sees large numbers of unqualified students pursuing and obtaining graduate degrees. But with unqualified staff and poor lab funding, universities bestow doctorates that mean very little in the real world, at least compared to western nations.
The pursuit of international cooperation and support in Egypt’s education reform has been a driving force in increasing the quality of education, but merely represents the first steps of systemic change that will take decades to accomplish—decades fraught with challenges compounded by a boom in Egypt’s population.
Belal, Ahmed and Irina Springuel. 2006. Research in Egyptian Universities: the role of research in higher education, UNESCO Cousteau Ecotechnie Chair, South Valley University Egypt. Available at: http://portal.unesco.org/education/en/files/51625/11634283495Springuel-EN.pdf/Springuel-EN.pdf (accessed 16 April 2012)