How will Egypt reform its education system?

 

President Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s declaration that 2019 would be the year of education followed the government’s announcement in 2018 of a major education overhaul programme. The year 2019 thus saw a number of initiatives put in place, most of which were aimed at increasing uptake of technology in classrooms and ultimately creating a dramatic cultural shift in the way society views education. Many of these reforms are set to continue in 2020. While the global Covid-19 pandemic has brought negative economic effects, it has allowed Egypt’s school system to accelerate the use of technology in lessons. Persistent problems remain, however, such as high student-to-teacher ratios and poor infrastructure. Moreover, deficit-induced budgetary constraints have been deepened due to Covid-19, increasing emphasis on the need for private investment.

Structure & Oversight

Egypt’s education system is the largest in the MENA region. According to the latest figures from the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), K-12 enrolment stood at over 22.5m for the 2018/19 academic year. Article 19 of the Egyptian constitution ensures all citizens the right to free primary and secondary education. It also requires that government spending on the sector equal at least 4% of GDP; however, expenditure has fallen short of this target in recent years and may be further affected in 2020 by Covid-19. Expenditure on education in FY 2018/19 rose by 8% to LE115bn ($7.1bn), equating to a per-student expenditure of around $260. According to the Ministry of Finance, combined spending on health and education increased by 82% in the five years leading to 2019, growing from LE115bn ($7.1bn) in 2014 to LE210bn ($12.9bn) in 2019.

The Ministry of Education (MoE) oversees instruction at the K-12 level, while the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MHESR) manages the implementation of education policy at the tertiary level, working closely with the MoE to ensure the same principles are followed across the system. For the next decade the MoE will be focused on implementing a major new education reform programme known as Education 2.0 (EDU 2.0). The initiative, announced in 2018, is set to dramatically restructure K-12 schooling throughout the country (see analysis). The reform aligns with the targets outlined in Vision 2030, Egypt’s longterm roadmap for economic, environmental and social development. EDU 2.0 is set to be fully implemented by 2030, replacing the country’s traditional culture of memorisation for tests with one focused on student-centred teaching and competency-based learning for life, alongside mastery of technology.

Sector Composition

The education system is divided into four levels: pre-primary, from ages four to five; primary, from six to 11 years; secondary, from 12 to 17 years; and tertiary education, from age 18 onwards. Education is compulsory from ages six to 17. According to the latest data from CAPMAS, there were around 1.4m students enrolled in pre-primary education, 12.2m at the primary level and 8.9m at the secondary level in the 2018/19 academic year. Net enrolment rates for the same year sat at approximately 24.4% for pre-primary, 97% at the primary level and 82.5% at secondary. While dropout rates are low in Egypt, UNESCO reported that around 77,500 children and 221,000 adolescents were out of school in the 2018/19 academic year. UNESCO figures also show that the literacy rate among citizens 15 years and older sat at 71.2% in 2017. The rate was highest for the 15-24 age group, at 88.2%.

The government also operates a number of religious schools, known as Al Azhar schools. These offer a curriculum similar to secular schools, but with an emphasis on Islamic values and the Quran. According to CAPMAS, the 2018/19 academic year saw some 1.7m students enrol in Al Azhar schools, which numbered 9420. These schools had 170,000 teachers that year, and class sizes averaged 29 students across all levels.

Performance

Despite clear improvements in access to education, several challenges persist. Overcrowded classrooms and a high student-to-teacher ratio mean that teaching quality is impacted at some institutions, falling short of international standards and negatively affecting student outcomes. According to CAPMAS, the average number of students per class in the 2018/19 academic year stood at 23.8 for pre-primary, 27.4 for primary and 16.2 for secondary. Capacity constraints have led schools to conduct lessons in double shifts, especially in urban centres. According to the MoE, only 37% of students generally attend school for a full seven hours per day, while the remaining 63% attend morning or evening shifts which last four and a half hours.

Toka Al Wazery, equity research associate at Beltone Financial, highlighted the country’s wide range of class sizes, explaining that while private schools generally have class sizes of around 20-25 students, some public classrooms can have as many as 50. Ghada Barsoum, associate professor and chair of the Department of Public Policy and Administration at the American University in Cairo (AUC), reinforced this point. “The system has created an environment that does not allow learning to happen,” she told OBG.

Hard infrastructure is in need of investment and improvement as well. Local media reported in October 2019 that as much as 20% of the country’s school buildings are unfit for use or dilapidated. Serious accidents have occurred in classrooms with such frequency that the MoE launched an initiative in early 2018 to monitor maintenance across 48,000 public schools.

Recent Developments

The country closed schools on March 15, 2020 until further notice in an effort to slow the spread of Covid-19. This moved the entirety of the education system online. The government quickly made agreements with telecommunications firms to provide free internet access to relevant ministries’ websites, course materials and learning portals. In April the government announced that the Thanaweya Amma exams, which determine whether a high school student will be accepted to public university and what they will study, would proceed as planned in mid-June, albeit with strict social distancing measures in place.

Public Education

According to CAPMAS, in the 2018/19 academic year more than 89% of students attended public institutions. The figure sat at 90% among primary school students and at 93% among secondary school students. That year there were around 47,000 public schools across the country, with a student body of 20.1m. It is these students who are set to benefit most from the government’s EDU 2.0 reform programme, which includes comprehensive teacher training. In the 2018/19 academic year, more than 890,000 teachers worked in public schools.

The government has made significant strides in improving access to public education across the country. Among other programmes, it has been working with UNICEF for over 20 years to provide disadvantaged children and communities with access to education. By the end of 2019 the partnership had established approximately 5048 community schools serving 133,007 socially excluded children, including those with behavioural and developmental disabilities. These schools are located primarily in areas where the distance to the nearest school is greater than 2 km. To further enhance the reach of education to such populations, the government received €57m in funding from the EU to implement similar initiatives throughout the 2019/20 academic year.

In efforts to elevate the public education system to international standards, the government has worked with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and other international organisations to provide a growing number of opportunities for students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). As a result of partnerships with USAID, Cairo is now home to the country’s first two STEM high schools. In addition, in 2017 USAID pledged investment totalling $24.3m to support the government in STEM subject training for instructors at five universities.

Private Education

Private education accounts for approximately 11% of total school enrolment. Primary education accounts for the highest portion of private school students, at 52% of enrolment. In the 2018/19 academic year there were 8171 private schools offering Egyptian or approved international curriculum in Arabic, English, French and German.

Given the government’s concerted effort to reduce the fiscal deficit, public funding for private institutions remains relatively low. The government has therefore looked to private firms to increase investment in this segment, with tertiary education, in particular, being a recipient of private and foreign funds in recent years. In August 2018 the government issued Law No. 62 of 2018, allowing foreign universities to open international branch campuses (IBCs) in the country. This eliminated the requirement that Egypt have a treaty with a university’s home country in order for it to establish a branch in the country. Within a year of the law’s passage the MHESR announced that eight IBCs moved to set up in the New Administrative Capital, with two having opened in September 2019. This is set to fuel a trend of foreign university students coming to Egypt, with this pool growing from 2000 students in 2010 to 47,000 in 2017.

International Schools

According to the World Bank, there were around 200 international schools in Egypt as of 2018, including 23 offering the International Baccalaureate and others following the British, American, French and German education systems. Generally, these schools have utilised technology in the classroom to the greatest extent, and were among the first to offer online-learning after Covid-19 school closures.

In 2016 the government began an educational partnership with Japan that has led to the opening of several Egyptian-Japanese schools in the country. At the start of the 2018/19 academic year there were 35 such schools operating in 21 out of Egypt’s 27 governorates, with a plan to expand the number of schools to 200. In June 2019 the government announced it had received a LE7.5m ($462,000) grant from Japan for the schools, bringing total funding to $169m since the programme began. Egyptian-Japanese schools take a comprehensive tokkatsu approach to teaching, incorporating non-traditional subject matter such as hygiene and cleaning into the curriculum. These schools charge lower fees than private alternatives and are thus more accessible to middle-class families.

Staff

Facing an estimated shortage of 320,000 teachers, in October 2019 Tarek Shawki, the minister of education, stated that 120,000 teachers would be hired at a cost of LE1.6bn ($98.6m) outside of the MoE’s budget for the year. The MoE established an online application portal for the positions, attracting more than 40,000 applicants for year-long contracts in the first 24 hours.

Steadily increasing demand for education from a fast-growing population means that many schools have to rely on contract teachers who many not have the same qualifications or experience as formal teachers, Barsoum told OBG. These teachers also do not receive the same pay as formal teachers and may work in poor conditions. According to Barsoum, there are no incentives for such teachers to seek further training or improve their performance, and pay is based solely on the number of years worked, amounting to 1.4 times the starting salary after 15 years of teaching.

Higher Education

As of 2019 there were 28 public universities, in addition to Al Azhar University, and 25 private universities across Egypt. Public universities are large institutions that may have one or more branch campuses in their host city or throughout the country, whereas private universities are often for profit and much smaller, with less than 10,000 students. Total tertiary education enrolment for the 2018/19 academic year stood at 3.1m, with around 74% of those students studying at public universities.

According to a World Bank study from 2018, the gender disparity at the tertiary level has decreased considerably; women made up around 40% of public university graduates in 2005 and 56% in 2015. Enrolment in STEM subjects remains higher for male than female students, but only narrowly, at around 52%, according to the World Bank report. Admittance to medicine or engineering programmes at public universities can be highly competitive and is typically only open to students with grades above 95%. While such programmes at private universities may be more accessible to students who do not rank at the top of their class, the high price of tuition at these institutions means these fields are out of reach for most Egyptians.

Greater public and private investment in tertiary education would bring about many benefits. The government generally provides 85-95% of public universities’ budgets, but spending constraints have encouraged the authorities to seek private investment to further develop tertiary-level education. The establishment of eight new IBCs in Egypt’s New Administrative Capital is a clear step forwards in this regard.

More international universities in Egypt is likely to attract a greater number of international students, positioning the country as a leader in education in MENA. In September 2019 Khaled Abdel Ghaffar, the minister of higher education and scientific research, told local media that Egypt was among the top-20 countries in the world for international students, hosting more than 70,000 foreign university students in the 2019/20 academic year. A 2017 UNESCO report placed Egypt third in the region for international university students, behind Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Vocational Training

According to CAPMAS, the country had 2388 technical and vocational education and training (TVET) institutions in the 2018/19 academic year. Some 1.9m students were enrolled at public TVET facilities that year, and 120,000 at private ones – figures that a 2019 report by PwC suggested will grow to 2m and 140,000, respectively, by 2022. Instructors at TVET schools numbered 149,000 in the 2018/19 academic year, and class sizes averaged 9.6 students.

The country’s FY 2019/20 budget statement showed unemployment for the previous fiscal year standing at 9.6%. While gender disparity in the workforce remains an issue, with the World Bank reporting an unemployment rate of 8.2% among men and 23% among women in 2017, unemployment presents a problem for all university graduates. In 2017 approximately 34% of those unemployed held either an undergraduate or postgraduate degree, according to CAPMAS. In late 2018 local media reported that as many as 10% of graduates may have turned to working as street vendors due to a lack of professional employment opportunities.

What is seen as a chronic shortage of jobs in white-collar industries is leading more young people to pursue vocational studies. According to UNESCO, enrolment in TVET institutes represented 46.9% of all secondary enrolment in 2018, or 42% of female and 51% of male secondary students. However, according to Barsoum, some stigma still exists regarding vocational training at the pre-university level. UNESCO also reported that around 75% of the poorest youth were enrolled in technical education, compared to around 22% of the richest. Despite this, improvements are being made that are highlighting the importance and attractiveness of vocational studies.

In 2019, 700 students enrolled in three newly opened technology universities that are all located near industrial hubs. These universities provide vocational training centred around IT and related topics, and offer students the option of a two-year professional degree or a fouryear undergraduate degree. This is expected to be the first wave of more technical universities offering a variety of subjects including maintenance, building materials and aquaculture. To date, as many as half of Egypt’s vocational graduates have been unemployed after the completion of their programme, largely due to a mismatch of market needs. These new vocational universities will focus on the skills that are highly sought after in the country’s job market.

Technology in the Classroom

Prior to EDU 2.0 the government had undertaken digitalisation efforts in the country’s school system, but adoption had seen little progress, according to Al Wazery, and there lacked a clear and decisive strategy for students and teachers to follow. The spread of Covid-19 and the closure of schools, however, has resulted in accelerated and more widespread adoption of technology in the country’s education system, as social distancing measures limited nearly all traditional teaching methods.

Aside from EDU 2.0 other education technology (edtech) initiatives include the Egyptian Knowledge Bank (EKB), which the government hopes will aid in its Vision 2030 goal of turning the country into a “global digital hub”. The EKB was first introduced in January 2016 as a free source for learning and educational materials for all Egyptians. Following the outbreak of Covid-19, all content for primary and secondary classes was uploaded to the EKB for student access.

Additionally, in 2019 six public universities entered the first of a three-phase digitalisation plan that will ultimately see all curricula and interactive courses available online. The first phase saw these universities forgo textbooks for e-books. The plan will be completely rolled out among all public universities within two years, with the goal of saving students and families money on course materials. However, there have been concerns that the upfront cost of technology may be a barrier for a large portion of students.

To aid in overall digitalisation efforts, the government signed a deal with edtech provider Promethean in late 2019 to digitally enhance 26,000 classrooms across the country over three years. These new “intelligent classrooms” are expected to help reduce classroom density and bolster overall learning outcomes.

Outlook

While progress has indeed been made within the country’s education sector in recent times, the government’s digitalisation and transformation plans for the medium and long term are sure to make the coming decade considerably more fruitful than the last. However, overcrowded schools and poor-quality infrastructure risk stunting the sector’s progress. The Egyptian authorities’ increasing openness to international universities and private investment in education across all levels, coupled with a modern and market-based needs approach to degree programmes, mean the outlook for the nation’s students is bright.

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The Report: Egypt 2020

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