Egypt Reconsiders “Open Learning”
CAIRO—When he started, Sa’id did not realize that getting a bachelor’s degree in law would be a dead end, just because the certificate was issued from the Open Learning Program at Cairo University.
“I have studied to improve my career, my salary, and my pension later,” said Sa’id, “but all that did not happen.”
Sa’id, who also holds a diploma from a technical institute in Cairo and works as a governmental employee, could not join Egypt’s Bar Association, which refused to accredit his degree even though it is approved by the Supreme Council of Universities. Sa’id also was not promoted at his workplace despite having a new university degree, as he was expecting.
“Unfortunately, the Open Education Program is not recognized in the labor market,” Sa’id said.
The Open Education Program was adopted in Egypt during the academic year 1990-1991, when the Supreme Council of Universities accredited the degrees of that learning system, considering them equal to traditional degrees. The Open Education Program in Egypt does not depend on distance education or online teaching, but offers flexibility that allows students to attend classes in the evening or during vacation periods, to make learning available to those whose social or economic conditions would otherwise prevent them from pursuing their university studies directly after high school. (See related article: A Second Chance for Many Arab Students.)
More than 500,000 students have graduated from this system, in diverse disciplines such as commerce, law, media, agriculture, literature, hospitality and tourism, social service, education, and kindergarten education, according to a report last year by a committee of the Supreme Council of Universities. But many of those graduates complain of labor-market discrimination when they compete against those with traditional degrees.
“Many employers are skeptical about the qualifications of open education graduates, because of the difference in admissions and studying,” said Helmi Hamdi, a third-year media student in the open education program at Cairo University. Hamdi said that even official authorities refuse to recognize the open education degrees, because some disciplines, apart from law and media, accept students who do not even have a high school diploma.
Hamdi also said that the hours open-education students spend studying are fewer than those in traditional programs.“Besides,” he said, “we do not get practical training opportunities as do the students enrolled in traditional education.”
Al-Sayyed Taj Al-Din, the director of the open education program at Cairo University, stressed that the current open education system “needs to be developed. It does not serve the goals that were set out for it, and it should be put on its path again.”
Open education faces many obstacles in other Arab countries. In Bahrain, the Ministry of Education issued a decision to stop accrediting the university degrees granted by foreign educational institutions through open education, branch campuses, or distance education. This means that Bahraini students have only traditional programs to choose from, where regular attendance is required, at one of the more than 20 higher-education institutions in the country. (See the related article: Distance Education—Banned in Bahrain).
Recently, Egyptian students became concerned about rumors that the Supreme Council of Universities might cancel its accreditation for open-education degrees as academic degrees, and would consider them “technical” degrees. Officials say the rumors are not true.
“I decided to study again to improve my future career,” said Khaled Abdul-Razzaq, a second-year student at the distance education’s program at the faculty of commerce. “This will not happen if they stop accrediting our degrees as university degrees.”
Abdul-Razzaq works as a medical lab technician at the Ministry of Health, but he was like hundreds of others who joined the open education to get a university degree in order to help him to shift his career to accounting.
Still, Mahmoud Alam Al-Din, a professor at the faculty of media at Cairo University, believes that the degrees granted by open education are fundamentally different from university degrees. The aim of open education “is not to grant academic degrees, but to open the door for those who seek to improve their skills and gain the knowledge their conditions prevented them from obtaining earlier in their life,” he said, adding that a large number of the students enrolled in open education simply seek social appreciation in a society that believes university degrees are important and looks at professional “technical” degrees as inferior.
Al-Sayyed Taj Al-Din, the director of open education at Cairo University and one of those responsible for the development of its open education program, says the Supreme Council isn’t considering ending the recognition of open-education degrees as academic degrees. But he confirms that there are discussions about ways to develop the system to meet labor-market needs.
“We know that the social appreciation for professional degrees is low, so we are not going to take any step before improving our educational programs and reframing the conditions and ways of admitting students, in addition to reframing the methods of teaching, training and assessment,” Taj Al-Din said.
Egyptians not able to get traditional degrees and seeking a path to self-improvement through open-education degrees appear to be facing a time of uncertainty.