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Calculating the Cost of a “Free” Education

CAIRO—Costs associated with attending Egypt’s “free” public universities often make higher education a financial burden for the nation’s poor, restricting opportunities for equality in higher learning, a study found.

Books, tutoring and transportation—among a slew of other expenses—cost Egyptian public university students $658 to $1,054 a year (5,000 to 8,000 Egyptian pounds), according to research conducted by the Population Council, a U.S.-based organization with an office in Egypt.

The actual cost of higher education is one of the primary reasons university-age students from limited-income families are reluctant to attend university, says the Population Council, whose study indicates enrollment rates are declining among Egypt’s poor compared to the wealthy.

“There are a lot of gaps that need to be addressed,” said Moataz Khorshid, former Egyptian minister of higher education. “We need to sit to find a more efficient way to make higher education equitable.”

The Population Council released the findings at a conference in Cairo last week, concluding a research project called “Equity to Access in University Education in Egypt.”

The project sought to gather recommendations about creating a more equitable public university system for Egyptian students, who have been promised free higher education at state universities since the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser more than fifty years ago.

To determine the actual cost of attending “free” universities, research was conducted in Egypt’s coastal city of Alexandria and the southern city of Sohag, north of Luxor. Through discussions with university students’ families—who often pay the expenses—and 26 in-depth interviews with students, the research found that one of the heftiest fees are for private tutoring. Private lessons that are often given by teaching assistants range from $26 (200 Egyptian pounds) to $197 (1,500 Egyptian pounds) per course and can be required for students to pass their classes, according to the study.

Another financial burden is books, which cost between $2.63 (20 Egyptian pounds) and $19.76 (150 Egyptian pounds) each. Students are often required to buy books their professors write as well as memos written by teaching assistants that summarize and simplify other content, or risk failing the course. Borrowing books or using copies—rather than buying them—is usually considered unacceptable.

“That is clearly the most corrupt [practice],” said Tyseer Aboulnasr, a visiting professor at Nile University, who attended last week’s conference. “There should be a complete disconnect between the professor and the grading and whether [a student] bought the book or not.”

Transportation to and from university, equipment such as stethoscopes for medical students, clothing to attend class and meals in between lectures are additional expenses students face.

While Nagwa Megahed, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at the American University in Cairo, felt the total cost—reaching 8,000 EGP ($1,054) per year—seemed high at first, she eventually decided it was reasonable after considering the various expenses. “It makes a lot of sense,” she said.

The expenditures have become part of the lifestyles of middle class and upper middle class families, but they would be a barrier to education for the children of poor to lower middle class families, Megahed said.

In fact, a student raised in a wealthy Egyptian family has seven times a better chance of getting a university education than a child raised in a poor family, according to data collected by the Population Council’s 2009 Survey of Young People in Egypt.

Access for women is especially associated with wealth. Women in Egypt’s wealthiest 20 percent receive more education than their male counterparts—13.7 years of education on average compared to 13.4 years for men, according to the 2009 survey. Women in the poorest 20 percent, meanwhile, receive an average of 5.5 years, much lower than men’s 8.2 years of education on average in the same quintile.

But accessibility isn’t linked to finances alone, with cultural perceptions about gender roles and responsibilities especially likely to restrict the ability of women living in poor areas of Egypt to get an education, Megahed said. After cost, marriage is the primary reason Egyptian women don’t attend university, according to Megahed, citing data collected by the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research (Baseera).

Whether male or female, students’ areas of residence also play a role, with those living in urban areas much more likely to get education than those in Egypt’s rural districts, the 2009 survey said.

But when considering the various factors that might limit access to higher education, Aboulnasr says the focus shouldn’t be on access alone, but also on access to quality. Egypt’s public universities are overcrowded and underfunded. They often lack proper instruction and adequate facilities.

“There is an assumption that going to university is going to help in social justice. No—it doesn’t,” Aboulnasr said. “All over the world we’re pushing the college system. Give me a college system—but a good one.”


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