Research Project: Higher Education and Citizenship in Egypt // An anthropological critique of the crisis narrative

Emtpy classroom, October 6 University, Egypt, in 2012. ©Daniele Cantini

This project looks at the configurations of society, legitimacy, knowledge and power in Egypt, from the vantage point of the higher education sector, which Daniele Cantini has been researching since 2007. It focuses on the university as a fundamental institution in the contemporary configuration of knowledge and power – what universities are for, how they will be funded, what they will produce – in combination with the recent anthropological interest in global assemblages, in this case higher education as a ‘glocal’ technology of governance.

According to both local and international sources, the educational sector in Egypt has been in deep crisis for decades, and this is usually traced back to an even deeper crisis of citizenship. There are different versions of what the crisis is about: official studies tend to highlight an increasing quantitative burden on educational institutions, with a consequent decline in the quality of education and the erosion of educational infrastructures, or they focus on the inadequacy of the curricula and of teaching methodologies. Other, more critical, observers point to a break in the social contract between the state and the populace as the fundamental reason for the educational crisis, emphasising the mismatch between educational promises and the realities of the labour market. Notwithstanding differences of standpoint, most people involved in the educational sector would agree that the system is experiencing a crisis, and that the situation demands key questions be addressed: governance of the system and its institutions, possible reforms, the role of international cooperation and a spectrum of subjective choices and coping mechanisms. The prevailing sense of crisis imparts value (even if fading) to education and informs a historical narrative that uses education to exemplify differences across the decades. Moreover, the discourse of crisis seems to be used to justify a disengagement from the actual learning and research process while calling for appropriate policy reforms, e.g. supporting the introduction of private for-profit universities, increasing some forms of international cooperation and reforming public institutions, and it is a guiding force for actors, who, unconsciously, help to co-create the crisis.

Hence, this project analyses how the discourse of the crisis of education in Egypt is enacted by different authors, from different theoretical, political and moral viewpoints. The goal of this research is to discuss how significance is made by resorting to the crisis narrative – how different modes of organisation and reforms are introduced and how social actors adapt their evaluations to the changing context. In this sense, the project has a significance that goes beyond Egypt and the higher education sector, since similar processes are at play elsewhere. Ultimately, the project investigates the changes in the conception of what the state is and should be, between social and economic considerations, both locally and internationally oriented, through the lens of the higher education sector. Here, the attention lies in the structuring and governance of education and research, in the reforms discussed and (rarely) implemented (as the image suggests, despite promises of different learning and teaching methods, as well as air conditioning, the rooms in a private university look rather standard), a crucial aspect of the crisis itself, as well as in the international cooperation efforts, particularly (though not exclusively) with Europe.

This project, which is part of the research cluster Higher Education as Subject and Object of Critical Discourse, is led by Daniele Cantini. Daniele joined us as research associate for one year, from September 2016 until August 2017. You can read one of Daniele’s recent articles here: We Take Care of Our Students: Private Universities and the Politics of Care in Egypt” in Ethics and Social Welfare, Volume 11, 2017, Issue 3.


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