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English Courses a ‘Cash Cow’, Cairo University Students Say

CAIRO—Students at Cairo University are disappointed with courses conducted in English that promise—for a premium—to give them a leg up in the global economy. Instead, they say the courses are just a cash cow neglected by faculty.

“I expected to master the English language, to practice what I am learning, to attend lectures in proper venues and experience something special that was worth the fees I pay,” said Haidy Ibrahim, a fourth-year student in the English section of the mass communications faculty at Cairo, the country’s largest and most prestigious public university.

“But, in fact, the faculty doesn’t the take time to plan to run the section,” she added. “We are seen as a source of money by the administration.”

Students pay $900 to $1,500 annually to take courses in English, depending on the degree program, versus nominal fees that do not exceed $40 for students taking traditional Arabic-language courses.

Six of the university faculties offer courses in English or French. Administrators bill the foreign-language programs as prestigious avenues to high-level jobs.

But students in most English-language courses complain that their textbooks and the quality of their professors and coursework are no better, if not worse, than those of the Arabic-language programs.

“I’d have better spent my money on training courses outside the college that would benefit me rather than pay here where the benefit isn’t that great,” said Hadeer Samy, a third-year political science student who takes courses in English.

Cairo University President Gaber Gad Nassar declined a request to discuss the students’ complaints.

The students are particularly upset by what they say is the low quality of the English textbooks they get.

University administrators often justify the high cost of the English-language studies by saying that English textbooks cost hundreds of dollars a year for a full course load. Students reject those claims, however.

“I pay $900 a year to get international textbooks, but I receive only one each semester,” said Ibrahim, who has participated in student demonstrations on the issue. “The rest of the books are of the worst quality. So we protested.”

This year, Ibrahim said she received no textbooks at all. Often, students and faculty said, professors assign reading materials that are cheaply obtained via the Internet. Some professors admit that their colleagues even sometimes use Wikipedia and other questionable sources in course materials.

“It’s a mess,” said journalism professor Soheir Othman. “Such books go to students without any prior checking of their sources.”

The mass communications faculty’s vice dean for student affairs, Waleed Barakat, said he expected new textbooks soon. “We asked professors to check the content of their syllabi they teach for quality requirements, so that issue will be solved,” he said.

Amira Essam, a third-year student in the English section of the early education faculty, said she might accept texts taken from the Internet if they weren’t taken from foreign sources.

“It’s even badly translated,” she said, adding that she spends around $54 per semester on assigned reading materials.

Due to a lack of textbooks, the English section in the political science faculty cut its admissions fees by $250. But students must now find and purchase the textbooks on their own.

On the other hand, students at the commerce faculty said they received good-quality textbooks in English, but never use them for class.  “I have textbooks that I received over the past four years, still inside their covers, unwrapped,” said Farah El Menshawy, a fourth-year commerce student.

Like political science students, commerce students must find other materials to supplement their lectures. Most go to Byn El Sarayat, a district close to the university teeming with outlets that sell copies of notes and briefings on professors’ lectures and exams.

A commerce professor, Mohamed Mehana, who coordinates the faculty’s English section, blames students for that problem. “Students have become lazy,” he said. “They should read the chapters from textbooks at home after they’re discussed in the lecture. But they depend instead on outside brief notes. It’s the student’s responsibility. We can’t force them.”

Professors not qualified to teach in English are another problem, students claim. Many faculty members can’t converse in English or deliver lectures fluently in the language, they said.

“I had to work outside college in a place where I could practice my English,” said Ghada El Kholy, a commerce student who attended a private-language school to improve her proficiency. “It wasn’t available at college.”

Some students speak and comprehend English better than the professors in the English sections, Othman added. Many faculty members have fought to get into the courses because they get a higher salary, she said.

Barakat said administrators recognized the problem and pledged to solve it. “We started to avoid it this semester,” he said, adding that he was now hoping to hire professors who have earned doctorates in English at universities abroad.

But the proficiency of the students in English is also an issue. Commerce faculty staff can speak English, but too many students lack sufficient English for students to hold wide-ranging discussions in the language. Last year, the faculty accepted 1,800 students compared to around 350 when it was founded 15 years ago, he said.

“At first, we were accepting the elite students coming from foreign schools, and we didn’t have to use Arabic at all,” he said. “Now a few only of them are elites while others aren’t necessarily English-proficient. So even proficient professors become no longer that proficient, as they have to go down to the students’ language level.”

Cairo University students taking courses in English also say they have limited opportunities to get internships and other practical experience.

Until recently, students could write for an English on-campus magazine, but the magazine stopped publishing, said Othman. Students in Arabic sections have access to on-the-job training at local periodicals, but English students need to apply to those programs on their own.

In the English section of commerce, commerce students can specialize only in their fourth year, when they can take business, accounting or insurance courses. Those choices don’t jive well when looking for a job in the real world, said students.

“Business includes other fields like finance and marketing,” said Menshawy. “I need to be able to specialize in one of them. I study such fields generally in one year in business. I should have studied them for the past three years.”

In contrast, students in the two French sections at the university in the faculties of law and political were positive about their experience.

Students taking law courses in French pay similar amounts as students in English courses but study from notes provided by professors and follow up by reading other materials in the university’s library or via free French online legal databases, said Mohamed Nabil, a first-year student.

Students then graduate with degrees from Sorbonne University as well as Cairo. “The curriculum we study is what they teach at universities in France,” said Nabil.

Ibrahim, the mass communications student, said the success of the French program shows that Cairo can teach in foreign languages if administrators and professors are organized properly.

“There should be clear plans for the student who pays and who should be guaranteed to get services in return,” she said.
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