New Answer for the “Free” Education Debate?

The debate over whether higher education should be free is one that exists in many parts of the world, so Egypt is not alone. What’s peculiar in Egypt is that ever since the aftermath of the 1952 coup d’état, when university education was made available free for everyone, policy makers have been considering cancelling the tradition. While not openly discussing it in parliament, alternative models that offer students a better, paid education in Egyptian public universities have been slowly and subtly introduced over the past ten years.

For instance in 2012, a system was reintroduced called Intissab Mowagah—whereby students who do not get the required grades can join faculties of their choice. They pay relatively high annual fees and can attend exams but not classes.

On the other hand, students who qualify for “free” education have been slowly complaining about the quality that they get and the fees they have to pay. A report by the National Council for Education, Scientific Research and Technology in 2009 indicated what many people knew: Namely, that while theoretically free, higher education in Egypt cannot be practically described as free, given prices of books, study booklets and private tutoring.

But many of those who write extensively on how education is no longer really free and how the system needs changing still support free university education.

Why is support for free higher education so widespread? Well, the answers are usually that it gives everyone access to university education and many people believe it’s a mark of progressive societies and allows social mobility. Very few people in Egypt argue against it.

But the critics of the free higher education system cite three main problems:

1. Choice: The current system doesn’t allow students to enter the faculty and university of their choice. Instead that is decided for them by the country-wide enrollment office based on their grades and area of residence. The required grades to enter specific faculties keep inching up, shutting out more and more young people. Scoring 97 percent on the Thanaweya Amma (the last two years of the Egyptian high school system) might not get a student into a faculty of medicine for example. If it does, it’s likely to be in a public university in a poor province. Half a percent difference in grades could make or break a student’s career, with little recourse.

2. Quality: Given Egypt’s population, high enrollment rates and the lack of educational oversight, educational quality has been going down the drain. To cite a recent example, an international computer manufacturer required 1,000 assembly line and technician workers for a new factory in Egypt. Even though more than 100,000 people applied, only six qualified. The employer noted that 60,000 of the applicants were mechanical-engineering graduates.

3. Unemployment: The Egyptian marketplace has been unable to absorb the high number of university graduates. Given how unprepared for the modern workplace most graduates are, many companies opt to hire graduates of expensive, private universities. The inevitable conclusion is that there are millions of diploma-carrying Egyptians with no job prospects.

A full discussion of education cannot be complete without discussing elementary and secondary education that dictate how prepared students are for college. The entire educational system in Egypt is flawed, starting from the secondary education, where all the emphasis is placed on year-end exams. This system then produces students who learn to memorize instead of think. Once students are on the job market, the rules of the game change: There is virtually no need for employees who can only memorize information. Only a small percentage of those memorizers manage to develop their critical-thinking skills.

The current proposals to privatize higher education, for those reasons, may seem logical on paper, but they don’t offer much of a solution. While universities might end up being better financed and more functional, such a strategy does not guarantee improvement in the quality of the educators, nor how prepared the students will be for the international job market. This is especially important since big multinationals like Google are going on the record stating that grades are a worthless hiring criteria.

So, what is the answer for this problem? One possible answer is Massive Open Online Courses, also knows as MOOCs. In the MOOC world, there are three strong players with thousands of course offerings and millions of students, all for free and available to anyone in the world. All that any student needs—theoretically anyways—is a computer and an Internet connection and they are set to go. This would be familiar territory for the Egyptian youth, who are used to looking for the truth on the Internet.

So here is a proposal: With the exception of studies that require physical participation and presence (medicine, pharmacy and engineering, to cite a few examples), why not replicate the MOOC model in Egypt? Yes, the Internet penetration rate in Egypt is only around 40 percent at the moment, but why not pay for students’ laptops and give them inexpensive Internet? Although such a program would still cost the state, it would relieve the larger burden of funding massive universities and teachers’ salaries and change the university degree paradigm into one based upon courses and certificates. Students will be able to design their own curricula and shape their own careers.

MOOCs certainly have their problems. One study found only 4 percent of students who register for MOOCs finish them. But studies have also found that large proportions of students do engage with a lot of the course content.

The Internet infrastructure required to expand MOOCS in Egypt would be expensive, but it would be a worthwhile investment, since it wouldn’t only benefit the students, but private industry as well. It would also prepare the Egyptian students for a world that is moving slowly but surely towards virtual employment. It’s a radical solution, but it’s better than all the other ones being offered in Egypt today and just might be the answer that this convoluted problem needs.

Mahmoud Salem is a writer, columnist and social entrepreneur. You can follow him on twitter @sandmonkey.


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