A Conversation With Ahmed Galal El-Sayed, on the Future of Open Learning in Egypt
RIYADH—At a time when many countries around the world are adopting online, blended and adult-education programs to help disadvantaged students, a fierce debate has developed in Egyptian higher education after reports of the ministry of education’s intention to suspend the open learning system introduced in Egypt in the 1990s. This system does not depend on any form of distance education, but rather on classes that students can attend in the evenings and during vacations. Advocates of open learning say it offers a second chance to thousands of people who have missed out on regular university education, often because of their social or economic condition. Suspending this educational system, advocates say, would deprive many people of the opportunity to complete their studies. It also raises questions about the future job prospects for the 500,000 students who are currently studying this way, as well as millions of former graduates, and could have implications across the Arab region. If, as is now the case in Bahrain, the degrees awarded in the open learning/distance learning system are not accredited, the chance to improve career opportunities in this way would be very limited.
In order to find out exactly what the ministry plans, Al-Fanar Media met Ahmed Galal El-Sayed, director of the Open Learning Center at Ain Shams University during his visit to Riyadh to supervise exams at the university’s Open Leaning Center there.
El-Sayed holds a Ph.D. in agricultural sciences from Ain Shams University and participated in many agricultural research projects there in cooperation with European universities before winning the State Encouragement Prize in agricultural sciences in 1997. In 2012, he became the director of Ain Shams University’s Open Learning Center.
– Following on from Bahrain’s decision to stop recognizing these qualifications, there are talks today about Egypt’s intention to cancel the open learning system. What is the reason behind such a decision?
As a member of the committee formed to study how open learning is working in Egypt, I would like to state very clearly that there is no intention to cancel this system here, and that what is being circulated by the media is incorrect. The committee was formed by the Supreme Council of Universities to study the open learning system and not to cancel it. It aims to develop it, safeguard its quality, and ensure it is capable of meeting the labor market’s needs.
– What are the main problems that need to be fixed in this system?
There are many of them, the most notable of which is the graduates’ poor academic standard, which is a result of the lack of communication, supervision, and follow-up between students and professors. Our students are not familiar with this type of education where there is no direct follow-up from a professor, and they can miss that. Open learning courses really need their own bespoke curricula, too—currently they just use the same one as regular campus university courses. This has to change so the curricula are reviewed and the wording of the materials changed to make them more suitable for individuals working independently. They also need to be adapted to the labor market’s needs.
– What changes are planned to develop the open learning system?
There are proposals to create two separate systems. The first is based on a combined learning system, in which electronic learning makes up 75 percent of the course, and the rest requires face-to-face meetings between students and professors. This would lead to the award of an academic degree. The second system would grant a vocational degree in certain fields, and it would not require the students to attend campus or meet with professors.
– How could these steps be applied?
We are currently working on converting a large number of hard-copy courses into electronic ones, as well as recording lectures and creating an interactive question bank. We will also work on developing Ain Shams University’s website and creating a special area dedicated to open learning students that would include all of their materials.
– Despite the presence of open learning centers affiliated with Ain Shams University in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE, the Gulf States still do not recognize the diplomas that these programs grant. Why is that?
It is because of the lack of specific credits for the students. But the changes we seek to achieve will correct this and will push Gulf States to recognize the diplomas issued by Egypt’s open learning system. We are currently communicating with Gulf States Higher Education Councils about this very issue.
– Most universities in developed countries offer electronic academic programs, and others that offer exclusive e-learning are being opened too. And yet, such certificates are not accredited in Egypt. Why is that?
For university diplomas issued abroad to be recognized, they need to meet certain criteria approved by the ministry of higher education—for example, the period of study for a bachelor degree needs to be at least four years. Accrediting such certificates does not depend on them being issued by an electronic or a traditional educational system, but rather on whether they comply with the ministry’s requirements to ensure credibility and quality.
– How do you evaluate the quality of Egyptian universities’ programs?
Our universities are some of the oldest in the region, from which millions of Egyptian and Arab students have graduated. Our academic programs cover all scientific and literary disciplines and our professors are well known for their competence. However, the increasing number of students over the past 20 years, allied to poor budgets, prevents the universities’ work developing in line with global technical changes. This, of course, affects the quality of education in general.
– What about scientific research at Ain Shams University? How much is allocated to the research budget and what is the nature of the research conducted by the university? And how it can be developed?
Like most Egyptian universities, we have a budget problem. Currently the scientific research budget is just 0.71 percent of the GNP, and about 75 percent of that goes on wages for members of research bodies rather than on funding scientific research. Like other public universities, Ain Shams University relies on government support—we have no private resources—so supporting and developing research needs a real political will to increase universities’ funding. There are other aspects that can be developed, too, related to research implementation, and part of this involves training researchers to connect their research to the needs of the labor market and the society as a whole.