A Costly “Free” Education

Ismail is thrilled with his grades in high school. Finally, his dream will come true and he will become a doctor. Finally, he will enroll in the faculty of medicine. The house is filled with happiness and it is not just because this achievement means that everyone will call him “Doctor” or because it is an opportunity for his mother to make their lousy neighbor Om Alaa jealous. It is because it is time for the son to enjoy the benefits of free education provided by the state.

Even though his school education was also free, for some reason that Ismail cannot remember clearly, his primary and secondary education finished off all his father’s savings. There was the private tutoring in secondary school, which had to be paid for or else he wouldn’t be able to get the required grades. In his middle-school years,  Ismail was also forced to get private tutoring or he would totally drop off from his teachers’ radar.

Ismail recalls how he used to negotiate the price of after-school group tutoring, which was forced upon students or else they would risk failing one or two subjects.

But all that is over now. He is now on his path to become a ‘big shot’ doctor taught by fellow ‘big shot’ doctors. There will no longer be any form of blackmailing or exploitation.

Okay, so today is the first day of university. Ismail will go pay his tuition fees. “What a funny, insignificant amount! Honestly, this government is really cool. Now that’s free education for you!” he thought.

“Done with paying the fees. Next on the list is buying the books. Fine, just a pinch and it’s over,” Ismail told himself.

Unfortunately, the pinch lasted a bit longer than he had expected. Ismail thought there would be two or three books for each subject, but throughout the academic year he discovered it was a little more than that. There was the other book written by the head of the department, which must be bought because it’s where the exam questions come from. And then there were the assistant professor’s summary notes on the section of the class Ismail was in, which also had to be bought because his  grades depended on it. That’s in addition to various other notes and booklets that are a must to be able to do well on the exam.

Then came the private tutoring for the theoretical subjects and group tutoring for practical subjects—and that applied for each and every subject. The anatomy course required private tutoring, then there was a different tutor to actually dissect a corpse and these fees went on and on. The private tutoring, which was considered a disgrace back in school, is a lifestyle in university. No one is ashamed of it. In fact, each ‘doctor’ freely asks his colleague, “Who is your private tutor?”

It has become normal for all the top high school students to become victims to this widespread practice of private tutoring. Most public-school graduates have studied English for free only to discover that the “free” English courses in the faculty of medicine are a completely different thing.

Ismail asked himself, “If this is ‘free’ education as they claim, why do my father’s savings evaporate in thin air and why do my mother’s golden chains vanish?”

“It’s okay,” he told himself. “The theoretical studies years are always like that. But in the practical academic years, the fourth, fifth and sixth years, things will be different.” But the private lessons never stopped and books’ prices kept increasing, in addition to a few side costs that kept coming up.

Ismail remembered when he went to sit for his internal-medicine exam for the first time in his fourth year. He entered the hall, which was full of cases ready to be examined, and for the first time, he learned the other meaning of the word “chronic patient.”

Such people were not just patients with chronic illnesses, rather they were regular vendors for the faculty of medicine’s exams.

Samir is one of those patients. He is a chronic liver patient, has an enlarged spleen and also suffers from varicose veins, which makes him a “hot case.”

Samir took Ismail’s hand, placed it in the right spot on his stomach, gave him some advice on every professor and gave him a briefing on the usual questions posed by each of those professors.

“Put your stethoscope here.”

“Your hand should be positioned this way.”

“If he asks you this question, you should say so and so. If he asks you which tests you should do, you should say so and so. ”

These ‘so and so’ are medical terms that Samir says in perfect English.

Ismail passed the practical exam, which had nothing to do with the long hours of study. But what could he have done? The number of students benefiting from ‘free’ education was much bigger than the capacity of the hospital, the doctors and the patients.

At the end of the practical exam, the resident doctor collected money from the students “for the patients.”

“Consider this money exam fees,” his colleague told him.

After this exam, Ismail got to know the secret world of those patients better, especially Samir. Samir is a veteran patient, a very old one.

In fact, the assistant professor supervising Ismail’s test had also examined Samir for his own test back when he was a student.

A few years ago, Samir was merely a “paid by case” patient, but now he has become a “big shot” supplier of cases.

He doesn’t supply experienced patients for exams only, he also provides them for private tutorial sessions, which Ismail attends regularly.

Ismail is now approaching the end of the bachelor’s degree exams, after six years of  “free” education that made his family poorer and poorer.

Ismail is still wondering about this deep hole that,  from the first book he bought,  seems to suck in all his family’s money and it into the pockets of Samir and his friends.

Ismail discovered that each step of his education is costly. But he hopes to make up for his parent’s expenses once he becomes a ‘big shot’ doctor.

But the road has been longer than he had imagined. And the queue ahead of him is longer than he thought. Even after he became a surgeon working as an assistant to a famous surgeon, his wage as a junior member of the team was much lower than that of Samir and his buddies on the oral exam day.  Ismail was also assigned tasks that had nothing to do with medicine. The senior doctor treated his maid better than he treated Ismail, and Ismail also had to negotiate with the families of the patients to collect the fees. The strange thing was that they negotiated with him as if he was going to fix a water tap, not perform a surgery on a family member.

After Ismail successfully passed the first two years with the famous surgeon, his conditions were much better. A new young surgeon had recently joined the team and was now doing what Ismail used to do. Ismail was concentrating more on surgery.

The famous surgeon still treated the maid better than he treated Ismail, but it didn’t matter. Ismail was going to make up for all the money that his father spent on his ‘free education.’

As for the imaginary dreams like marriage or having a house and a clinic and all that nonsense, it was way too early for such talk. Perhaps the time might never come for such talk. It is nothing more than a lottery. Those famous doctors that have people roam in their busy clinics and who have business right and left in hospitals are a handful of doctors sitting on top of the pyramid. The majority of doctors like Ismail are somewhere in the rest of the pyramid, or crushed beneath it.

Ismail had discovered after many long years that the free education was not free. The only thing that was free in the game was not the professors, the education, or the medical practice.

The only thing that had no price was him!

 Bassem Youssef is an Egyptian television presenter whose critical political satire, El Barnameg, has stirred up controversy over the past two years. His show was stopped twice and resumed on a new channel on February 7. 


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