In Egypt, the Failure of Privatizing Education

This article is published courtesy of Al-shorouk news, where the article was originally published. The views presented are those of the author.

More privatization, more negligence and more indifference seem to be the plan awaiting Egyptian education in the coming period, and only God knows how long or short this period will be.

We already know the result of the upcoming “presidential elections,” so we can be certain that presidential candidate Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s expressed views—not vision—of the needed steps to improve education summarize what we have to expect from the Egyptian state towards its citizens in the next period.
When I write about educational policies, what normally comes to mind are words such as “strategies,” “visions” or “plans,” but I find myself unable to use such vocabulary in light of the growing and scandalous trend of the government’s failure to follow any specific or clear strategies, visions or plans when dealing with education.

I find it difficult to understand how any government can promise development to its people without putting education at the top of its priorities, especially in a country where education is going from bad to worse so quickly. How can we expect development in any nation when it is continuously depriving its people of education?

El-Sisi said it clearly: The teachers’ situation is not at the top of his priorities, and teachers should not ask government for more than moral appreciation. Thus, what teachers are expected to do under El-Sisi is no different from what their fellow citizens in the other segments of society are allowed to do: “just sacrifice for Egypt’s sake.” Even if teachers cannot make a living, they should be thankful and silent. Like others, they obviously will not be allowed to object to the deteriorating conditions and denial of their rights. Otherwise, they would be considered unpatriotic citizens who seek to destroy Egypt, as if teachers or other citizens are separate entities from Egypt and cannot ask for their rights.
El-Sisi did not even touch upon the notion of teacher education as an essential dimension in educational development. There does not seem to be a real understanding of the teacher’s role as a building block in the developmental process. In fact, the idea of “development” itself seems to be absent altogether.

El-Sisi also declares that his only plan for education is calling for businessmen to build 20,000 schools. Over the past years, attracting capital to build educational institutions has been the government’s most apparent way of dealing with education. Such education privatization policies are following in the footsteps of Mubarak’s educational policies. Although they look glamorous, such policies have adverse consequences.
Privatization of education in a country where most people are at or below the poverty line, is simply blowing up the educational system. Instead of setting policies that eliminate illiteracy, support the poor, and attract them to education. Instead, education will be restricted to the rich especially with the government’s negligence of the quality of public education leading to the epidemic spread of private tutoring.
Privatization turns education into a commodity and students into customers and negatively affects the educational process. Profit—rather than quality—becomes the ultimate goal. I taught in six private universities in Egypt, and I can confirm that in spite of the high potential of private universities and the opportunities they offer if well managed and closely supervised, they are for the most part investment projects that aim for profit at the end of the day regardless of the quality of the service. Like other public and private institutions, corruption and cronyism rule.

Education privatization widens the gap between the social classes and eliminates the principle of equal opportunity in education. When two students, one rich and the other poor, get the same score on the high school examination—the agreed-upon filter for university admission in Egypt—the Supreme Council of Universities allows rich students to buy places at a private university and study disciplines of their choice that they could not qualify to study at a public university just because they can afford it. The poor students are left with no choice other than studying disciplines they did not choose. So, I wonder what the significance of the high school exam is if a back door is open for the unqualified rich to get academic degrees in disciplines not suited for their levels?

Capitalist policies are not limited to private universities only. Privatizing education has also affected public universities, which started a general trend to divide the faculties into two sections: A free section with crowded halls where you can see students on the floor, and a high-fee section for the rich students who study in air-conditioned halls at the same college and by the same professors in a very sickeningly classist scene.
So privatization of education is not intended to serve the vast majority of the Egyptian people; rather, it aims at serving the rich ones, which reproduces classism the Egyptian society has been suffering from for decades.

It could be argued that free education has failed in our country, but I firmly believe that the problem in the overall educational system is not in the fact that it is free. All students, whether in public or private institutions, suffer from low quality education that cannot compete with global standards. Moreover, the academic level of private-university graduates in Egypt is roughly equivalent to public-university graduates. Differences can normally be attributed to the management styles and applied standards at the university rather than to its type, whether private or public. Engineering graduates of Cairo University, for example, are still deemed among the best in Egypt.
Facilities, though essential, are only one factor in the educational process. Managing and supervising this process is an integral responsibility of the state for all citizens regardless of their financial status. The state does not have the option of giving up on that responsibility under the pretext of the size of its population. China, whose population has exceeded 1 billion, has one of the most successful educational systems in the whole world, and it should be noted that many of the most successful systems in the world are either completely free (such as Canada, and Finland, which provides education completely free up to the doctorate level) or receive a substantial subsidiary from the government (such as Singapore).
Education is a basic right. It is not a luxury deserved only by those who can afford it. A state that does not provide this right is one that simply failed to perform its task.

If we truly seek the development of our society and the achievement of social justice, which was the prime demand of our Revolution, we have to stand up in the face of the privatization policies that have destroyed all the state institutions, and education has been no exception.
There is no future without education. Let’s save it.

Amal Abou-Setta is a Ph.D. candidate in educational research at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. 


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