Germany has completed the reversal of an experiment in which some of its universities charged modest tuition. That is a lesson for those Egyptians who believe we should end our system that once sought to make higher education free.
Starting this month, education in all universities in Germany has become free, following the end of tuition in one state, Lower Saxony. German universities began to impose university tuition fees back in 2006. Even though the tuition was low and student loans were available, the decision was not welcomed.
After opposition by student and political groups, everyone realized that free education has a better social outcome. Universities then started gradually eliminating fees, until they cancelled them completely, making university education entirely free for Germans and international students alike.
This decision was taken in Germany based on the assumption that imposing university tuition does not achieve social justice. It excludes students of less financially privileged families and students of families that do not appreciate education. It was also based on the belief that offering equal opportunities for all German students to join university has to be at the core of the government’s priorities.
What’s happening in Germany and other similar countries that offer university education for free is the practical embodiment of the concept of education as a human right and a clear bias toward the idea that educating an individual is a public service and not a private good. Therefore society as a whole should bear its cost. An uneducated society is a socially, economically and morally retarded society. If you want to raise the status of a society, you have to place the education of its people high in your priorities. As much as free education is a citizen’s right, it also benefits the state and all its other citizens.
The practical experience of increasing university tuition in major countries has not been promising. Many universities in the United States impose high tuition, but student debt has increased to reach a trillion dollars, which contributed to the economic crisis. The United Kingdom, where tuition has steadily climbed to 9,000 pounds (about $14,000) since 1998 making it the most expensive European country for university education, faces strong internal opposition. The British student movement opposing high university tuition fees is expected to resume on the November 19.
At a time when the developed world is marching with careful steps toward freeing high education from the ties of individual financial ability, Egypt is marching toward privatization. We have higher education that welcomes, and even encourages building more private universities, academies and institutes and considers this an improvement for higher education. Not only that, but public universities are gradually building more departments that require fees. Such actions add to the lack of equal opportunities when enrolling in higher education.
So it is hard to say that the philosophy of higher education in Egypt is based on investing in the citizen and transforming students to citizens who are a benefit to society. In fact, the country has a philosophy that regards students as a burden that should be gotten rid of quickly and exported to the private sector. It’s a philosophy that regards higher education as an opportunity to establish some investment projects, where decision-making is controlled by profit rather than by academic standards.
A student in any private educational establishment is a customer. All trade and profit concepts are practiced on such a student, starting from gaining financial benefit from him in every way, to satisfy him in every way in order to keep him and to be ready to overlook any malpractice or poor academic performance. This starts from the conditions for acceptance and reaches requirements for success and graduation.
Talk to any professors who were destined to teach in two universities or departments in Egypt, one for free and the other with tuition. Ask them to compare services, facilities and the treatment of students. Ask them if students at the universities or departments with fees are overly well treated, thus harming education itself. Ask them about the relations between students and their professors, which transform into relations between customers and paid employees.
I can almost hear voices telling me how our poor country cannot finance a good education for its citizens. Well, a few weeks ago, our country boasted about how it was able to collect 60 billion Egyptian pounds from its citizens in a few days, in order to finance a national project. Do we have a more important national project than investing in the minds of our citizens?
The problem lies in the existence of a political intention to solve a core problem the people of this country suffer from. There is nothing impossible in the world, if the intention exists. Ask yourself who are the benefactors from the expansion of private education at the expense of public education. Who will be harmed if the country was able to provide good free education to everyone? The answer might make the picture clearer.
The privatization of education is going to continue to deepen social injustice for the poorer classes, widening the gap between the classes and depriving society of minds that are capable of making positive contributions. This is in addition to the impact of privatization on education itself and its credibility. The train of privatization of education that runs over every citizen who is unable to move will keep going. This is unless we pay attention to the grave effects of privatization of education on society and on individuals and unless we move to stop it before it eats everything and everyone.
* Amal Abou-Setta is educational research Ph.D. candidate at Lancaster University, UK. You could follow her on twitter @Clever_Flower