Amid growing concern in the Arab world about the need to link curricula to the labour market and to develop new teaching methods in the humanities, Ashraf El-Shihy, president of the Egyptian Chinese University (ECU), believes that education systems need a revolution.
In a wide-ranging interview with Al-Fanar Media, El-Shihy, who served as Egypt’s minister of higher education and scientific research between 2015 and 2017, talked about how the university he now leads is staying attuned to labour market concerns and adopting new teaching methods.
Studies at the Egyptian Chinese University began in 2016 with the opening of its Faculty of Engineering and Technology. Since then, it has added three more faculties: Economics and International Trade; Physiotherapy; and Pharmacy and Drug Technology.
The university is now working to open two new academic units, a Faculty of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and a Faculty of Art and Design. Other faculties are planned, including a College of Humanities.
El-Shihy explained that the university provides education with a technological orientation and a large dose of practical application. It offers field training for students in Chinese companies and China’s Civil Aviation Administration, as well as Egypt’s Ministry of Military Production. It also cooperates with the Egyptian Ministry of Health’s teaching hospitals and some Chinese universities. The arrangement with the Chinese universities came about during the Covid-19 pandemic, with ECU providing remote training to students in China.
Skills for the Future
El-Shihy spoke about the growing need for technological universities that train graduates in the advanced skills that jobs of the future will require.
“Providing poor quality education is worthless. The quality I talk about is not local, but rather in the sense of comparing ourselves to the world, quality based on international accreditation. There are steps to be taken in this direction, and God willing, the goal will be achieved.”Ashraf El-Shihy, president of the Egyptian Chinese University
The former minister referred to Egypt’s recent experience in establishing a dozen new technological universities across the country. He stressed the importance of this type of education in preparing Egyptian graduates for jobs, not only in their country, but also in Europe.
Egypt already had 45 postsecondary institutes offering technical education, but these institutes were not providing the type of education the state hoped for, El-Shihy said.
“So the government is transforming these institutes into technological colleges and universities … and offering field training to expose students to the industry and the labour market,” he said. Most of these universities are located in industrial areas to better link academia and manufacturing.
Arts and Humanities
Asked about the Egyptian Chinese University’s plans to establish a College of Humanities at a time when many universities are shutting down some majors in this field, El-Shihy replied that higher education cannot be all about medicine, engineering and pharmacy.
“This is the vision of the Egyptian Chinese University,” he said. “When we talk about the humanities and arts, we have a different perspective. Chinese arts include textiles and handicrafts. We have a strong relationship with Chinese universities. What will be taught at our university’s College of Art and Design will be different from what is found elsewhere. The same applies to the humanities, languages, and media departments.”
Asked how Arab universities can reformulate their teaching methods to get the humanities out of their current crisis status, El-Shihy replied: “There is no prescription to answer this difficult question. But let me say that our university education systems need a revolution.”
This revolution has already begun, he said, with the changes forced on universities by the Covid-19 pandemic, including the switch to virtual labs and classrooms, databanks instead of textbooks, and innovative teaching methods instead of traditional lectures. “I believe that this revolution should extend to humanities, whose teaching, in the past, was dominated by having students read huge textbooks for the exam,” he said.
“This system must disappear, as whoever graduates from this system will not find a job in the labour market,” he said. “So, education systems and academic regulations must be changed.”
He noted that the Egyptian Chinese University does not rely on textbooks. “There are no textbooks in any college. There is complete openness to the knowledge bank and databases, where students present their projects through a system that promotes reliance on skills, entrepreneurship, innovation, and creativity,” he said.
He added: “I think we need to better teach humanities, so we can get different results.”
Regarding the planned Faculty of Artificial Intelligence, El-Shihy noted that AI is not a stand-alone science; rather, it offers tools that can be used in different sectors.
“Chinese arts include textiles and handicrafts. We have a strong relationship with Chinese universities. What will be taught at our university’s College of Art and Design will be different from what is found elsewhere. The same applies to the humanities, languages, and media departments.”Ashraf El-Shihy
Asked how ECU’s artificial intelligence unit will compare its counterparts in Arab universities, El-Shihy said he does not care about difference as much as distinction. “The university is preparing the college’s academic regulations in cooperation with reputable Chinese universities so that they can offer quality education equal to the highest international standards,” he said.
El-Shihy believes that quality education is the biggest challenge facing Egypt’s universities today. “Providing poor quality education is worthless. The quality I talk about is not local, but rather in the sense of comparing ourselves to the world, quality based on international accreditation,” he said. “There are steps to be taken in this direction, and God willing, the goal will be achieved.”
El-Shihy also spoke about the economic strain Egypt is currently experiencing, and how the university was taking that into consideration.
“I am almost certain that we were the only private university that did not raise its tuition fees this year,” he said. “We committed ourselves to the same tuition fees as last year. The university bore the large difference in expenses to help parents.”
He added that the university provides scholarships for “children of martyrs of the armed forces,” besides full and partial scholarships for those who experience special circumstances. The university also offers scholarships for children in remote, less privileged governorates, in cooperation with the local authorities, he said.
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