Egypt: Growing call for higher education reforms

The large and comparatively diverse higher education sector is expected to see an encouraging increase in demand in the years to come, but a mismatch between the courses chosen by Egypt’s university students and the market’s requirements has highlighted the need for wide-ranging reforms across the university system.

About 55% of Egypt’s population, which numbers over 82m, is aged under 25. However, despite young Egyptians graduating in the hundreds of thousands every year, data from the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows the country had 600,000 unfilled job vacancies in 2012.

This is not a situation unique to Egypt; Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia are all facing similar problems as labour force growth outpaces employment growth. Nor does it look as though the supply-side pressure will change significantly any time soon, with the International Labour Organisation predicting an additional 10m youth will have entered the region’s workforce from 2010 to 2020.

The challenges are further complicated by the limited range of employment opportunities currently available, with a report by the AfDB in conjunction with a 2010 Gallup poll having indicated that less than one-fifth of young men in North Africa are in full-time wage employment. A large informal sector and a prevalence of part-time and underemployment also deepens the challenge.

While formal job creation is crucial to overcoming these hurdles, there is also a marked push by education sector representatives and leaders to improve youth prospects for employment, urging Egypt’s universities to upgrade, modernise and find ways of meeting the labour market’s needs.

Writing in the local press in early April, Anthony J Perzigian, an advisor to the Future University in Egypt (FUE) and Provost of the University of Cincinnati in the US, set out a number of ideas for enhancing higher education, while warning that the country’s economic future hung in the balance.

Perzigian said reform should encompass the curriculum, methods of instruction and a restructuring of the system itself. His suggestions for changing the university curriculum included the need to steer more students toward science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine, which he said could help equip Egyptians with the skills required for the high-tech industries the country was keen to nurture.

Other suggestions included promoting foreign language learning, which Perzigian said would improve students’ ability to interact on an international level, and fostering entrepreneurship, known to be an area of weakness in Egypt, through the curriculum. The need to make greater use of ICT in education was also highlighted, although the government’s broadband rollout strategy, which gives schools and hospitals a priority, should help address this issue.

Perzigian called for “democratising and liberating Egypt’s higher education system”, saying that government control of the current system, which he described as “too centralised”, made it difficult for institutions to change curricula in response to market demands.

The last major changes introduced in the higher education system date back to 1996, when a presidential decree making the 1992 Private Universities Act law paved the way for the opening of the first Egyptian private universities to run alongside international private institutions, such as the American University in Cairo (AUC). Since then, over 20 private universities have opened their doors, adding breadth and competition to what was previously a state-dominated market.

However, Sherif Kamel, dean of the School of Business at the AUC, told OBG that some public schools, including the state-owned Mansoura University in the Nile Delta and Assiut University in Upper Egypt, were already making an important contribution to the education sector.

Even with the influx of new institutions, and the resultant expansion and diversification of course offerings and curriculum, over-enrolment, limited extracurricular activities, and scarce resources are also weighing on their performance.

Kamel believes both public and private universities could improve the sector by rolling out initiatives such as student exchange programmes, which he said would help promote research and encourage alternative sources of funding. Endowments, partnerships with business and sponsorships are still rare in much of the sector, and government resources and public income remain limited.

With its large population, sizeable middle class and interest in education, Egypt makes an attractive prospect for a broad range of private education providers. Liberalisation and modernisation of the higher-education segment should also bring additional benefits to Egypt’s wider investment community, with ICT companies interested in equipping institutions and businesses looking to form partnerships among those who stand to gain.

 

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