A Disappointing Education Event

CAIRO—I went to an event about education in Cairo this week hoping to hear about solutions. Instead I felt like, yet again, I only listened to an elaborate description of the problems.

A few days ago, the American University in Cairo (AUC) announced a public panel discussion entitled “Three Immediate Solutions to Egypt’s Education Crisis” featuring members of the first Specialized Council for Education and Scientific Research. As an educational researcher and someone who has a special interest in Egyptian public affairs, I felt optimistic. Like many others, I was keen to attend the event to find out about the solutions the council is proposing as a starting point to fix the disastrous condition of education in my country. Last Sunday, I arrived on time at Ewart Hall at AUC to find many cameras and a lot of journalists interviewing people.

The event started with an introduction by Lisa Anderson, president of AUC, followed by a brief word by Amr Ezzat Salama, an AUC consultant and the ex-minister of Education and Scientific Research in Essam Sharaf’s government. The panel members then started to take turns in giving brief talks in a closed dialogue moderated by the TV announcer, Hafez Al-Mirazi. The five panel members were Tarek Shawki, head of the council and dean of engineering at AUC; Malak Zaalouk, head of the Middle East Institute for Higher Education affiliated with the Graduate School of Education at AUC; Amal Essawy; an AUC mechanical engineering professor; Joyce Rafla, a pedagogy and assessment officer in AUC’s Center for Learning and Teaching, and Dr. Ashraf Shaalan, head of the National Research Centre, the only non-member of the new council who spoke at the event.

The speakers explained that the council is made up of 11 members, all of whom have been appointed by the Egyptian president to separate educational planning, implementation and follow-up.

The speakers’ successive words came in response to the moderator’s ready-made questions. All their responses reflected a general understanding of Egypt’s educational problems and recent trends. There were, however, no more than general responses, opinions, ambitions and glamorous headlines that have been produced and consumed over and over again. They expressed their concern for teacher education and for the importance of adopting effective sustainable teacher-development strategies and more relevant teacher evaluation. They also talked about the importance of connecting scientific research to industry and national development priorities and pinpointed bureaucracy as an obstacle. They talked about the catastrophic condition of vocational education, the negative social perception of  its students and its failure to offer adequate opportunities. They highlighted the importance of offering students more choices and of providing them with opportunities to unleash their talents. They advocated de-centralization as a condition for teacher creativity and lamented the tight education budget and Egypt’s competition for the lowest positions in international rankings for education and scientific research.

On the subject of free education, Shawki, head of the council, expressed a desire to deprive failing higher education students of free education. This notion was not discussed, however, within the problematic context of the increasing privatization of education and the absence of equal opportunity.

As the closed dialogue was over and the audience were invited to pose questions at the end of the event, some attendees started expressing their dissatisfaction and their taking offense in the fact that they have been deceived and their time wasted. It was not an open “discussion” that allowed interaction with the wider society as announced. The claimed “three solutions” to save education in Egypt were not proposed either. Some attendees explained that this event was no different from similar previous events and talks given by officials that were overly unilateral and that did not engage the stakeholders in an open societal dialogue.

It is worth mentioning that when a few attendees were given the opportunity to pose questions and add comments, they made valuable contributions. One of the attendees, for example, shared some simple ideas for de-centralizing funding including establishing small-scale factories inside vocational schools and using long school fences and students’ shirts for advertising. Such ideas, if properly studied and adopted, could help overcome tight education budgets. In fact, giving more space to the attendees to share their ideas could have turned the event into a more fruitful one.

My main concern, as well as that of many other attendees, was the absence of a plan. I wonder when the Egyptian officials will get it that the Egyptian people have had enough of elaborate talks and glamorous phrases.  What everyone is impatiently waiting for is a clearly defined plan or even an invitation for people to participate in devising a plan. I would have walked away from this “lecture” with a higher level of optimism had the speakers defined one or a couple of educational dimensions, explained why they had given them a priority in their attempt to reform education; how focusing on these dimensions would put us on track, then explained their visions in regards to these dimensions and invited the audience to make contributions.

In defense against their attackers, the speakers said that the council has only been established one month ago, which makes me wonder about the event’s purpose. Did the event aim at putting the council under the spotlight and giving the impression that reform was taking place? Why the event title then? Have they really forgotten to add a question mark at the end of the title as claimed by Mirazi in a failing attempt to save face?

I sincerely hope that the council can effectively and constructively contribute to the development of education in Egypt. But I would equally like to sincerely draw their attention to the fact that the Egyptian people can no longer buy empty words.

* Amal Abou-Setta is educational research Ph.D. candidate at Lancaster University, UK. You could follow her on twitter @Clever_Flower


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