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Egypt Plans to Introduce a Pre-University Foundation Year to Help Liberal Arts Students Find Jobs

Higher education officials in Egypt are planning to introduce a pre-university foundation year to help students of the liberal arts find jobs, but not all education experts think such a year is needed.

Ayman Ashour, the minister of higher education and scientific research, recently told lawmakers that his ministry was preparing a draft law for a foundation year after high school which would let students enrol in specific programmes at both public and private universities.

The minister announced the move during a session of an Egyptian House of Representatives committee last Wednesday. He was answering a question from Representative Abdel-Moneim Imam about the future of faculties of arts and other theoretical colleges, such as business and law, during a period of intense technological advances.

Ashour said his ministry and the Ministry of Education were working together on the draft law, to let high school graduates have an extra year to qualify for enrolment in colleges and programmes above what their high school grades currently allow.

One-Million-Student Initiative

The minister added that “with the forthcoming interdisciplinary programmes, there will not be solely law or arts graduates.” He said there would be “a programme encompassing one million students to equip them with skills aligned with the job market, especially as new university programmes will not feature disciplines like those in the Faculty of Arts.” 

Faculties of Arts in Egyptian universities typically teach subjects such as anthropology, Arabic studies, communication and media arts, history, political science, psychology, and theatre, among other disciplines.

Official estimates from Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) indicate that approximately 738,000 students graduated from Egypt’s public and private higher education institutions in 2022. By education group, they were distributed as follows: business, administration and law, 29 percent; arts and humanities, 14.7 percent; health, 15 percent; and education, 11.7 percent. The engineering, manufacturing and construction group accounted for 9.2 percent of graduates, while other specialties accounted for 20.4 percent.

Abdel-Moneim Imam, the member of Parliament whose query prompted Ashour’s remarks, told Al-Fanar Media that the minister had said the ministries were still working on the specifics of the plan.

He said Ashour had said the ministries wanted to devise a system for admitting high school graduates to universities based on more than just their overall grades. The new system would assess students’ skills and try to match them with their major subjects.

Pressure from El Sisi

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi had already triggered a wave of academic and political discussions with his recent remarks about universities’ faculties of arts, business and law. The debates were about whether these faculties and their courses needed to be cancelled, merged, or modernised to align better with the labour market.

Speaking at the inauguration of the Egyptian government’s new Data and Cloud Computing Centre in April, President El-Sisi said, “While you’re teaching your children about arts, commerce, and law, I ask respectfully, what prospects will they have?” He recommended that parents guide their children towards technological fields like computer programming, which he said were needed in the labour market and well paid.

It was not the first time El-Sisi had raised this issue. In 2018, he criticised the increasing numbers of graduates from theoretical colleges, and the following year he called for students to be “properly prepared for the job market in the coming years”. At the 2019 Labour Day celebrations he remarked that it was unacceptable to have 100,000 young people graduate each year from faculties of law and an equal number from faculties of business.

The Purpose of Education

Some education experts, however, have argued that discussing the viability of theoretical colleges reflects a misunderstanding of the purpose of education. In comments to Asharq Al-Awsat, an Arabic international newspaper based in London, Buthaina Abdel Raouf said those who advocate closing such colleges and link their relevance solely to the labour market’s demands were being short-sighted and demonstrating a flawed comprehension of education’s broader goals. 

Abdel Raouf said the purpose of education was to build societies and foster cultural development, not just to produce workforce members. She highlighted the essential role of subjects like sociology, history, and geography in shaping a well-rounded society. 

She said she thought that the problem of job opportunities for liberal arts graduates could be solved by integrating theoretical education with the technological skills demanded by the labour market.

Naglaa Raafat, dean of Cairo University’s Faculty of Arts, criticised the characterisation of arts colleges as “marginalised”. She told Al-Fanar Media she was proud of her faculty, which has 18 departments and nine programmes, and its graduates, who she said were well-equipped to meet the demands of the labour market.

Hoping for System Changes

Miral Sabry Alashry, who leads the Political Mass Media Department at Future University in Egypt, does want to see major changes in the education system but questions the merits of adding a foundation year.

Alashry told Al-Fanar Media that the foundation year system was used in foreign universities, particularly in Europe and Britain, but its primary goal was to prepare students who had not completed 12 to 13 years of basic education to cover subjects they might have missed.

Alashry thinks it would be unfair to increase the number of years of study in Egypt, and said she was against importing and trying to apply a foreign model. Implementing such an introductory year in Egypt would present a formidable challenge, she said, because the Ministry of Higher Education would have to overhaul the regulations of all universities and the entire academic system.

Alashry also said the concept would not narrow the divide between university education and the workforce, which she said was more down to regulatory factors and faculty composition.

She added that a significant portion of professors’ and researchers’ work in Egyptian universities was not aligned with the labour market’s needs, as opposed to foreign universities, where prospective faculty members were typically assessed on the relevance of their research to industry before they were hired.

Alashry questioned the criteria used for appointing faculty members in Egyptian universities and the principles guiding their teaching and research publications. However, she emphasised the significance of the role the liberal arts and other theoretical subjects play in fostering societal development.

Alashry highlighted the importance of subjects like political science and journalism, saying they formed the backbone of any nation’s progress.

Many science subjects, from theoretical sciences to engineering and medicine, were interconnected and interdependent, she said, and no sector should be prioritised at the expense of others. The arts are not irrelevant, she said, and “dismissing these disciplines reflects a lack of genuine development efforts.”

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