Late yesterday afternoon I learned that Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the former U.N. secretary general, had died in a Cairo hospital at age 93. When I heard that news I was instantly taken back to December 2012, before Al-Fanar Media had even been born. A friend took me to see Boutros Boutros-Ghali in the Giza neighborhood in Cairo where he lived much of the year. We rode a small elevator up to his apartment on an upper floor and settled down in the corner of a book-lined room with cups of tea.
He was direct and even slightly suspicious, despite the fact that I had been brought there by a trusted friend. “What is the purpose of this interview?” he asked.
He said he had left universities in 1977, and had had little direct contact with them since, and that even his former students had retired. But as our conversation proceeded, he warmed to the topic of higher education, recalling that he had spent 30 years of his life as a university professor, including a year at Columbia University. His voice was strong if dry with age. As we talked I could hear the regular bleating of horns in the Cairo traffic below us. In the months after we spoke I was busy with the details of starting a bilingual website, and never transcribed this interview until last night.
What is the chief problem in Arab higher education?
“There is one common problem, which is the demographic problem. Two days ago I gave a lecture at the faculty of law at Cairo University. The dean mentioned that there are 35,000 students in the faculty of law. When I was a student there in the 1940s there were 200. This is the big problem in all the Arab countries. My suggestion is that before students are admitted there should be an international competition and universities should have a limited number of seats. But this will not be very popular and you will not find a government who will do this. “
Why is the quality of Arab professors going down?
“Before, all professors had to have a Ph.D. from abroad or have at least spent one or two years abroad—in Germany, in Britain, in the United States, in France. All of my generation who taught had obtained a Ph.D. from Paris. Now the professors are getting their degrees in Cairo. Then you had another problem. The Egyptian government used to be against the creation of foreign universities. Even at the American University [in Cairo], the degree obtained by the students was not recognized in Egypt. The result was that once students once had obtained a degree they would find a job abroad. Then we moved from one extreme to another. Now we must have a dozen foreign universities—a German one, a French one, a Japanese one, a Russian one. The German one is teaching in English but to obtain a degree you must speak German. The result is that you have two categories of universities. One category costs a fortune so you must belong to the new bourgeoisie to go.”
What about vocational education?
“A cook can make a fortune today. We don’t have enough service people. I spend a few months in Paris every year. All the servants are foreigners. The cooks very often are foreigners. And believe me, in France, a cook is something essential. They write books, they win prizes. A chief cook is known as an artist more than artists are known as artists.”
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.