Education and Egypt’s New Constitution

This commentary first appeared on the Democracy in Development blog of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Last week, Egyptians approved a new constitution with a Mubarak-like 98 percent yes-vote in a referendum. Many observers have been critical of the constitution, noting that it gives unprecedented powers to the military and fails to protect important human rights. Others, however, see it as cause for celebration, citing the document’s provisions on gender equality, religious freedom, and secularism as important steps forward. A relatively low voter turnout of less than 40 percent combined with ongoing deep divisions in society over several constitutional clauses make it unclear how effectively the new constitution will be implemented or how long it will last. But one element of the constitution should have the strong backing of all Egyptians—the little-noticed new provisions on education.

Article 19 expands on the right to free education included in previous constitutions, dating back to 1971, and includes important new language about instilling the values of “citizenship, tolerance and non-discrimination:” ideals that are arguably more critical than ever in Egypt given the country’s deepening ideological and sectarian rifts. Article 19 also stipulates that the government “spend no less than 4 percent of the GDP on education.” Article 21 similarly specifies that no less than 2 percent of GDP will be spent on university education.

Some might complain that setting such specific numbers hamstrings the government’s fiscal decisions, perhaps preventing the government from allocating funds to more worthwhile investments. But the reality is that Egypt has regularly underinvested in education and has few resources other than its abundant human capital: 85 million people, half of whom are under the age of 25. On education, it has fallen behind other developing countries—both in terms of spending and outcomes.

Over the past twenty years, Egypt has made considerable progress in getting kids in school and closing a woeful gender gap. Today, more than 90 percent of children attend primary school, and there is rough parity between boys and girls. (USAID deserves no small credit for helping Egyptian girls get into school.) But teaching quality is poor, and Egyptian children still struggle with basic literacy and numeracy. Adult illiteracy also remains a significant problem and detracts from the country’s overall economic competitiveness. The International Labour Organisation’s 2014 Global Employment Trends report found that Egyptian schools “struggle to deliver graduates with the necessary skills for finding productive jobs,” which contributes to unemployment and economic stagnation.

Quality issues are not addressed by simply throwing more money at the problems, but the new spending quotas might help Egypt catch up to other emerging markets. Prior to the 2011 revolution, Egypt was an emerging market darling (investors dubbed it a CIVET country, grouping it with Columbia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Turkey). But several of those countries are investing considerably more resources in schools than Egypt is and, not surprisingly, are outperforming Egypt in education. In recent years, Vietnam has devoted more than 6 percent of its GDP to education and its dramatic Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results demonstrate the pay-off from this investment: it ranked seventeenth on the PISA tests, while the United States was ranked thirty-sixth. Columbia has similarly spent more than 5 percent of GDP on education. Egypt’s education spending, meanwhile, has hovered below 4 percent of GDP. Other developing countries have used constitutional provisions to ensure sufficient investment in education. Brazil, for example, made educational spending commitments in its 1988 constitution, and has enjoyed strong educational gains over the past twenty five years.

The new constitution also calls for expanded technical and vocational education “in line with the needs of the labor market.” This too is positive, although much depends on implementation. The Egyptian government has for years acknowledged the need for better vocational training programs (Egyptians love to complain about their lack of competent plumbers and auto mechanics), but has fallen short on delivering quality training. This is an area where Europe and the United States can assist. Indeed, establishing workforce development programs that provide Egyptian youth with technical training has been a focus of USAID efforts in recent years. Germany has also worked with the Egyptian government to establish a version of its vaunted apprenticeship programs. But more is needed.

In addition, the new constitution’s commitment to increase spending on scientific research is promising. Egypt has significantly increased the share of its GDP devoted to research and development in recent years, from .24 percent of GDP in 2009, to .42 percent in 2011. Article 23 commits the country to spending “no less than 1 percent of Gross National Product to scientific research,” which would entail more than doubling current levels. Egypt has produced many notable scientists over the years, but too many leave the country due to lack of world-class labs. Ahmed Zewail, for example, won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1999, but for research done in the United States, not in Egypt. It’s unclear to me if spending 1 percent of GDP on scientific research is the appropriate level for Egypt, but this should still benefit the country’s long-term economic prospects.

Given that the army controls the country’s purse-strings, setting out aspirational spending targets on education and research and development in the constitution might help move the budget in a productive direction. Over the long term, the new education-related provisions could be among the most positive developments for Egypt to come out of its new constitution.

Isobel Coleman is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, in New York, where she directs the organization’s Civil Society, Markets, & Democracy program.


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