The country's proposed reforms don't consider the two elephants in the room, an expert warns: below-mimimum-wage teacher salaries and goals for graduates.
CAIRO — Egypt ranks No. 136 on a list of 181 United Nations countries in terms of quality of education, and an Egyptian education expert believes the country's recently announced education strategy will do little to change that.
The strategy, still in an early phase and released this week after a five-hour meeting between President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Education Minister Mahmoud Abul Nasr, covers various issues relating to students and teachers, to the curriculum, and to goals for the employment of future graduates.
Education expert Kamal Mogheeth says the plan lacks a broader vision to radically reform the system. It includes micro projects, such as launching an educational satellite channel, supporting the education systems of other African nations through an exchange of expertise, valuing teachers and re-establishing Teachers Day celebrations, as well as building new schools and decreasing illiteracy rates.
Mogheeth describes the scheme as "naive and shameful" because it doesn't deal at all with the main problems within Egyptian education: teacher salaries and lack of general objectives.
Earning less than minimum wage
Teachers have held numerous protests, sit-ins and intermittent strikes over the past few years demanding increases in wages, all of which were largely ignored by previous governments.
A newly assigned teacher is paid 700 Egyptian pounds per month ($98), a salary that falls below the minimum wage and is "barely enough to cover a teacher's own personal expenses," Mogheeth says.
"Meanwhile, teachers have obligations towards their students as well as a future to build and consider. How do you expect teachers to be part of a modern education program when they have to work after school as taxi drivers and waiters, or even give private lessons? Their minds are too preoccupied to think about the educational process," he says.
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A school playground in Cairo — Photo: Martyn Smith
Education Minister Mahmoud Abul Nasr has said teaching is "one of the most sacred professions on earth," insisting that salaries would gradually increase in the future — though without mentioning any specific details.
But the annual Teacher’s Day celebrations have been widely discussed, with Sisi planning to meet distinguished teachers and students during the celebration that precedes every school year.
Mogheeth believes that the second main problem with education in Egypt is that no one is considering what kind of graduates the country wants to produce. He suggests the objective of education should be to teach students four main values: a sense of citizenship surpassing religion or ethnicity, a scientific approach to life's problems, general knowledge, and the mastering of a specific vocation.
In light of this, he criticizes the new plan to "qualify 50,000 to 60,000 technical education graduates over two years to meet the Gulf market's needs for skilled and well-mannered technical laborers." He compares it to controversial statements by former Minister of Manpower Aisha Abdel Hady about sending Egyptian women to work as maids in Arab Gulf countries.
Labor laws in Gulf countries, specifically the "kafeel" system (the control of workers by employment sponsors), has been previously used as a means of violating the rights of Egyptian workers in the Gulf.
"Instead of sending qualified Egyptian workers to a market you have no control over, you should be supporting the country's economy by giving fresh graduates tax concessions when they start initiatives," he argues.
The task of developing the country's school curriculum has been an issue for every education minister. Nasr suggested changing 30% of it and developing the remaining 70%, as well as supporting the development of technologies used in schools in collaboration with the United Arab Emirates.
Other controversial aspects of the plan include generalizing the school meals program. "We have 20 million students in pre-university education in Egypt, 10 million of whom don't financially need these programs," Mogheeth says. "Individual studies have to be conducted by social workers to determine the level of nutritional needs of each student according to their family's social status, among other things."
Sisi has emphasized the need for social contributions to guarantee the implementation of the school meals program, especially from those in charge of the Egyptian food industry.
But Mogheeth strongly disagrees, adding that education is a national sovereignty issue — which means that school meals and, consequently, the well-being of Egyptian children and students cannot depend on volunteerism or corporate donations.
Another debatable point involves the construction of new schools. The new educational strategy relies on encouraging civil society to fund the ministry's plans to build new schools with classroom capacities of 40 students or less.
The minister also announced that 1,150 new schools that were built last year would be ready at the beginning of the new school term. But Mogheeth says that informed sources have told him that only 125 of them are ready to receive students in September.
He finds the plans utterly unrealistic. "To reach these class capacities, we need to build 3,000 schools every year over a period of 10 years," he says. "Building a school costs around two million Egyptian pounds ($280,000). These plans cannot be left to the generosity of the rich. We need sovereign bodies that will guarantee such vital projects."