By Hania Sobhy
In its 2013-2014 Global Competitiveness Report, the World Economic Forum ranked Egypt as the worst country in the world in term of the quality of primary education. The measure is not perfect and relies significantly on the subjective assessments of respondents especially in the business community. In that sense, however, it captures rather vividly Egyptian sentiments about the state of public education in the country. Schools show us something fundamental about the functioning of state institutions catering to the majority of the population as they developed throughout the Mubarak era. They show us state institutions becoming thoroughly privatized and characterized by both growing disengagement and heightened repression. Despite billions in public and private expenditure, the quality of schooling has declined to the extent that Egyptians routinely remark that there is simply ‘no education’ in the country: mafish ta’lim. For the majority of more disadvantaged students, the public school, if frequented, is a place where one learns nothing, is routinely humiliated, cheats on the exam and is forced to actually pay for this ‘service.’
Privatization by Tutoring: Rising Costs and Declining Public Spending
The vast majority of Egyptian students attend public schools, and free universal education is a constitutionally-enshrined right. The first point to note however is that ‘free public education’ is not in fact ‘free’. Across the different educational stages, 50-80% of students enroll in regular private tutoring in most subjects. Private schooling has also grown considerably in its own right over the past decades. This places a huge financial burden on poor and middle class households alike. Various estimates have placed spending on education between one fifth and one third of all household expenditures; and private spending on education now exceeds public spending. Public expenditure on education as a proportion of total expenditures has actually been steadily declining; from 5.6% of GDP in 1983 to 4.9% in 2003 and 3.8% in 2011. Unfortunately, the cost to families and children of this mode of privatization is not only a heavy financial burden, but also a serious emotional one.
Physical and Emotional Punishment, Low Teacher Pay and Corruption
Private tutoring enrollment is driven by systematic physical and emotional coercion by teachers in the low quality technical education track, in which almost 60% of secondary students are enrolled, and more generally in schools outside of affluent neighbourhoods . This contributes to student drop out, aversion to schooling, contentious unmanageable classrooms and sometimes counter violence by students and parents. A large proportion of teachers are still hired on precarious contracts and paid real wages below poverty line estimates (although some of these contracts have been regularized onto the Teachers’ Cadre since 2011, where starting salaries are closer to minimum wage levels with incremental increases based on years of service). There is widespread acceptance across the system of teachers’ ‘right’ to ‘supplement their incomes’, formal and informal mechanisms for distributing this additional income across the system and in fact an endorsement of beating as an appropriate and effective disciplinary technique, at least for the poor. Despite clear official regulations prohibiting physical and emotional punishment, teachers in low-end schools are rarely penalized for beating students or in fact humiliating their parents if they should come forward with any complaints.
This impunity and the curriculum and assessment realities that perpetuate tutoring are more generally the result of educational policy-making throughout the past decades, and arguably of the ‘special interests’ affecting it. To give one example, official textbooks are so poorly presented as to force students to rely on expensive auxiliary textbooks (rendering the printing of official textbooks another substantial waste of public resources). Furthermore, the volume of material in the textbooks is usually inappropriate to the available time slots and the very short school year, so that it becomes impossible for schoolteachers to cover the material. This cements the need for private tutoring in order to complete and revise the centrally mandated curriculum. These are issues that have been known to insiders to the system for decades. One could perhaps understand that teachers would not act as a major force for curricular reform as many benefit from this situation by meeting the demand for tutoring. The lack of curricular and assessment reform could only be understood either as very poor policy-making or as related to conflicts of interest that seem to tie officials in key committees (that set exams, commission the authoring of official textbooks and approve auxiliary ones), to the powerful multi-billion pound tutoring and auxiliary textbook industries.
Quality: Assessment, Cheating and Illiterate Graduates
It could be argued, however, that effectively compulsory tutoring, its financial and emotional costs and the corruption that may be perpetuating it, do not necessarily translate into poor quality. In fact, the supposed function of tutoring is to enhance student mastery of the material and it is a phenomenon that has swept across many other parts of the world. Unfortunately, however, tutoring in Egypt is mostly structured around memorizing only what is sufficient to pass the exam, which is very little indeed in the low-end technical educational tracks and basic education years. In fact, the students in those tracks often rely on cheating or ‘lenient’ assessment to pass regardless of their actual exam performance. If this seems difficult to imagine, one need only refer to a 2010 official report [Conditions of Education in Egypt] that estimated – many would argue ‘seriously underestimated’ – that 35% of students who complete the 9 years of basic education are effectively illiterate. In fact, in a candid move, the new minister of education has just announced that about 30% of 3rd and 4th primary students have failed a nationwide diagnostic literacy test – again with experts arguing that the real failure rates are higher because teachers and administrators had incentives to lower their schools’ failure rates). These students could have only passed from one year to the other without being able to read and write through systematically tolerated cheating as well as deficient policies such as those that forbid schools from failing students for two consecutive years.
In a highly tracked and unequal system, the situation is decidedly better in terms of literacy, overall learning and transparent assessment in the public schools catering to more middle class families and in the general secondary track leading to university. Tutoring enrollment is however sometimes higher among students in these schools and is essentially universal in general secondary. Ironically, this high level of ‘private’ tutoring enrolment is to be found among ‘private’ schools students as well. However, the quality of education remains low and largely amounts to intensive ‘teaching to the exam’ in a limited number of ‘key subjects.’ The main focus remains on memorization, not on the development of knowledge and skills; be they analytical, communication, language or computer skills. In fact, in the 2007 TIMSS international ranking, 53% of Egyptian students (often chosen from the best schools) did not satisfy the low international benchmark in Mathematics. This was already 5% lower than Egypt’s 2003 rank.
Low Investment in Basic Education
This poor quality is especially driven by policies relating to the early years of education. In fact, the state has no formal commitment to providing pre-school education and largely relegates it to (mostly religious) NGOs and the private sector. Furthermore, poorly paid and unqualified teachers are concentrated in primary education and in rural and disadvantaged areas. Official figures estimate the shortage of qualified teachers in the primary stage alone at 70,000 teachers; mostly in the key subjects of Arabic, Mathematics and Science. This creates a weak knowledge base that becomes very difficult to remedy in higher grades. Class densities that can exceed 80 students per class simply cannot lead to satisfactory outcomes in the primary stage. The state has attempted to cope with this through the institution of multiple shift schools, whereby two or three school populations use the same building at different times of the day. Here, the already crammed curriculum must be covered in even less time. Shift schools operate for a mere 4-5 hours/day (and often even less) and allow very little opportunity for either teachers to teach or students to learn. They represent 61% of primary schools and 63% of preparatory schools.
It is therefore not just that public investment in education is low and declining, it is also distributed in a way that disadvantages the lower grades that are critical for developing a learning base and disadvantages the poor, especially outside of urban centers. In fact, the aforementioned 2010 report revealed the great variations in teacher salaries across the country from an official average of 8,500 EGP (1100 USD)/year to 21,000 EGP/year in urban governorates like Cairo and Giza, where more teachers are hired on the Teacher’s Cadre and not on precarious low paid contracts. Any meaningful improvement in the quality of education could therefore only start from allocating the necessary resources to improving the learning conditions in the early stages and from the rigorous design, consistent monitoring and continuous revision of any such improvement efforts. Such improvement could only succeed however if it encompasses all aspects of the school experience and not only the instruction of ‘key subjects’ and enhancing literacy; that is, if it brings the school itself back to life again.
Alienating, Empty and Violent Schools
Due both to poor resources and the focus on exam preparation, there has been an effective elimination of ‘activities’ subjects that are not included in student grades, such as music, sports, art, theatre and civics; subjects that are essential to almost all school systems worldwide. Apart from the development of student creativity, talents and essential skills, these are arguably the more engaging subjects that could balance the barren and poorly constructed curricula and mitigate truancy and school dropout. As students obtain their education on the market and attend school irregularly, the public school is being eliminated altogether as an arena for youth socialization. It also ceases to perform with any success the key goal of education policy-makers of nurturing a sense of national loyalty and civic virtue among students. Many schools have become abandoned facades and alienating violent environments; where yet again in March 2015, an 11-year old child has died after being beaten by a teacher.
The Way Forward
Remedying the collapse of education in Egypt would require years of concerted reform. This is a colossal system catering to 17.7 million students, which is crumbling in part under the weight of its impressive expansion. With most of its allocated budget going to the salaries of almost 1.7 million employees, the ministry of education has had to rely on reform initiatives supported by various international agencies to infuse some resources and expertise into the system. These initiatives have sometimes generated important lessons learnt, valuable expertise and a wealth of research and analysis. They have also proven to be a drop in the sea of needed reform.
Handing education over to the market and religious charities and relegating reform to limited donor programs have failed Egypt so far; and they have been tried for several decades now. Real recovery from the current state of collapse requires a new modus operandi and charting a new path. There is no substitute for an overhaul of the ministry’s own systems. What is needed as a first step is not only to allocate more resources to the system, but more importantly to bring to leadership positions the kind of staff that is able and willing to take the necessary measures for reform.
Hania Sobhy was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Orient-Institut Beirut from January to April 2015. She completed her PhD at SOAS on education and citizenship in the late Mubarak era and is currently working on a book project on the management of social services and discourses of official nationalism in Egypt since 2011. She has been working on education and development policy, research and project evaluation since 2004.