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Dropping the Right to Free Education?

* This article is published in cooperation with Mada Masr.

Aya Morsi never wanted to study law, but like thousands of other Egyptian students, her high-school grades gave her no other option. Enrolled in a college she didn’t choose while also working in a private company, she ended up failing her second-year exams.

Under normal circumstances, this failure wouldn’t undermine her free university education—but the Cabinet’s recent proposal to restrict free tuition to the top percentile of students may get her and thousands of others in trouble.

“I didn’t choose my university or the college I want to join—I was forced to study something I never liked. I was forced to be part of a system that depends only on memorizing information without a real learning experience. Is it fair to be forced to pay for this nonsense, as well?” she argues.

A student’s academic record in high school largely determines which public university he or she attends, with the official Coordination Office assigning students to universities and specific departments according to their grades and location. The better a student’s grades, the greater his or her chance to enroll in highly regarded departments like medicine, engineering, media, economics and political science. Living in the capital or neighboring governorates also provides a better chance at being accepted at well-established universities, which are limited to big cities.

The system might be widely regarded as oppressive, but at least it was free—which soon may no longer be the case. An advisory council on education and scientific research established by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in September recently authored a policy to reform the country’s deteriorating education system, leading with a suggestion to limit free tuition.

The price of an education

The policy would create a new system for waiving tuition, explains council president Tarek Shawky. Currently, students at state universities only pay a nominal fee for their university identification cards, while the remaining tuition is waived. But the proposed scholarships would only cover full tuition for students with an average grade of more than 70 percent. Students under that line would be required to pay partial tuition, while those with less than a 50 percent average would pay full tuition.

The new system aims at shifting the mentality of Egyptians, Shawky says, who should realize that an “absolute claim on the right to education has to change.”

It’s not yet not clear how scholarships for freshman year will be granted under the proposal—whether all students will be obliged to pay full tuition for the first year, or if their high school grades will determine if they get a scholarship. Sources in the council have declined to give more details, saying they’re limiting their media presence until they finalize the entire education package.

An average student’s higher education costs the state between 7,000 and 10,000 Egyptian pounds per year (about 900 to 1300 U.S. dollars), depending on the university and major, according to Shawky. The new system would affect hundreds of thousands of students and calls into question the right to free education, which has been inherent to Egyptian society since it was introduced by former President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1962—the heyday of socialist policies.

Morsi would be one of those affected by the new legislation. Because she chose to work in a career she likes rather focus on her studies, Morsi only goes to university for one month before final exams, when she takes a non-paid leave from work.

“Attendance is not mandatory in my faculty. All I have to do is to buy study notes at the end of the semester to prepare for the exams. This happens in all non-technical faculties. I can assure you that 90 percent of my classmates study for this one month to get a degree that won’t benefit their career,” she claims.

If the policy is put into place, Morsi says her annual costs would nearly double.

“As a student and employee, I spend almost 5,000 Egyptian pounds annually for clothes, 1,500 for transportation, 1,000 for private tutoring lessons and 200 for study notes. Now, if I fail my classes, I would have to pay another 7,000 for the same poor education I receive. This is unfair,” she argues.

Morsi claims that she failed six of her classes by only one percentage point, and points to biases in the educational system that contribute to high failure rates. “Not all those who fail their courses are careless,” she contends. “Some fail their courses due to the professors’ unjust grading systems, while others work to support their personal expenses, and others are just not interested in what they study.”

She also contends that some female students have failed courses because they spoke out against sexual abuse or harassment perpetrated by their professors.

The long march toward privatization

Shawky says that the money saved under the new system would allow the government to increase spending elsewhere in the budget, such as improving deteriorating educational facilities and programs. But Abdel Hafez Tayel, head of the Egyptian Center of the Right to Education, believes the proposed merit system has political motivations.

The policy was likely drafted to meet recommendations to limit spending on higher education imposed by major lending institutions, Tayel asserts. The World Bank, for example, has urged the Egyptian government to reallocate its education budget toward elementary schools and technical prep schools.

“But these policies haven’t led to improving technical education, nor have they yielded better results in elementary education. Less spending on higher education has meant fewer motives for Egyptians to pursue education,” Tayel asserts.

Egypt has already taken significant strides toward slashing its higher-education budget. Critics say the state started to retreat from its direct role in supporting its universities in the 1990s, when Law 101/1992 was introduced to legalize private universities. In 2002, another decree was passed to sanction for-profit private universities.

The government subsequently introduced a new system of privatized education within state universities. Students can pay tens of thousands of pounds to join departments that teach in foreign languages, such as French and English, and that are equipped with better resources, but are housed within the public universities. This dual system has made space for wealthier students to have access to better education while poorer students get the standard free education, all on the same campus.

And even for those students who don’t pay extra for the specialized departments, “we still cannot say that higher education is free,” Tayel points out. Students incur several costs even when they don’t pay tuition fees, such as textbooks, educational tools and private tutoring, he notes. Furthermore, Egyptians pay taxes for free services like education, which means they pay for education “more than once,” Tayel contends.

Furthermore, “it’s not the students’ responsibility to pay the price for a failing educational system,” argues Kamal Mougheith, a researcher at the National Center for Educational Research. Mougheith believes the government is mistakenly looking at education as a corporate service, rather than treating education as a basic right and serving broader intellectual goals.

As for the proposed policies, Mougheith argues that scholarships for higher education can’t be based on merit, because the admissions process itself is inherently biased.

“We have discrimination based on gender, geography, and social and economic status,” he points out.  A 2012 study on inequality in accessing university education in Egypt by the Population Council showed that girls living in Upper Egypt’s rural areas have the least access to university education, due to dire economic conditions and widespread social norms.

Morsi was once part of the Strong Egypt student movement, an offshoot of the reformist Strong Egypt political party, but she abandoned university activism given the current crackdown on campus politics. However, if the merit scholarship policy is implemented, she believes rebelling will be the only solution.

“I won’t quit, and I won’t pay the tuition,” she says firmly. “I will protest, and there will be a huge student movement against it.”


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