Egypt’s Education System: Parents and Students Emerge as a New Force for Reform

October 1, 2008

In Egypt, a number of teachers and parents recently received sentences between three and 15 years in prison for leaking and buying national examinations. Meanwhile, a host of Egyptian students organized a series of online protests against the government’s decision to start school during the last ten days of the holy month of Ramadan. As one young protester explained, “it would make no difference” whether the government changed its decision or not, because many students regularly miss school anyway. These two events capture the growing desperation and dismay of parents, students and teachers with the education system in Egypt.

The Egyptian government spends about 3.5% of GDP on education, which is low by international standards. Underfunding is one culprit behind underdeveloped education infrastructure. Curriculum reform and more motivated teachers are also essential. However, as a forthcoming paper by Djavad Salehi-Isfahani and Navtej Dhillon argues, improving the education system requires not only more resources but also demands reforming the existing institutions that provide the incentives and signals to guide the choices of parents and students in what to learn. Two main institutional features common to most countries in the Middle East call for particular attention in this regard: the dominant role of the public sector in providing and rewarding education (through employment), and the heavy reliance on testing in grade promotion and university admissions, which encourage rote learning.

In Egypt and throughout the region, parents and children continue to invest in skills that help secure government and civil service jobs, as they are traditionally associated with better pay and benefits. Although the post-revolution public sector guarantee for university graduates was rescinded in 1989, government jobs have maintained their appeal. As a result, “good” jobs are perceived by parents and students alike as requiring a degree or a diploma rather than investment in a broad set of skills. At the same time, the private sector, which is increasingly growing and providing more job opportunities for youth, has a limited role in driving skill formation. The value and strength of signals sent by private employers is undermined by heavy regulation; private employers behave like public employers offering job security and giving greater weight to ex ante signals of productivity such as degrees.

These incentives and signals from the labor market shape the educational experiences of young people. Schooling is thereby driven exclusively by the need to score high grades in national examinations, which determine access to university places. These exams do not only engender a culture of fear and frustration, but also reinforce rote memorization and stifle critical thinking and creative expression. It is based on the results of these life-determining national exams that students are allotted enrollment in public universities.

Throughout the region, an estimated seventy percent of those entering universities concentrate in the social sciences and humanities, which require lower scores and are the tracks historically taken for securing public sector employment. Young people consequently graduate with university degrees but few skills. The ensuing skills-mismatch leads to growing rates of un- and under-employment. Today in Egypt, university graduates represent the group with the highest unemployment rates, closely followed by those with secondary degrees.

Desperate, parents naturally respond to the incentives set in the labor market by increasing their investments in test-taking preparation, which in turn only reinforces these negative outcomes. In Egypt, parents invest their hard earned money in private tutoring, which adds up to millions of dollars annually. However the content of these lessons is no better than that in the classroom. Private tutoring merely hammers in the same narrow curriculum, preparing students to excel in the national exams.

The wide gap that these distorted incentives and signals have created between private investments and social returns continues to grow as long as institutions remain unreformed. If the incentives and signals that young people and their families receive were in line with larger development goals, private and public investments would be rechanneled towards skills development.

These institutional reforms can be achieved by improving university admission policies and public and civil sector hiring practices. The important role of university education in shaping the educational experience in Egypt and most Middle Eastern countries suggests using university admission policies to change learning incentives in grades K-12. How universities select students influences how and what students learn at lower levels of education. Thus, university admission policies should be reformed to foster the acquisition of skills and experience that are in line with larger development goals. For example, adding more components to assess writing and other critical skills in these tests and seeking recommendation letters from teachers will positively impact students’ learning strategies prior to applying to university. In addition, public universities can give weight to past work experience and volunteerism to promote hands-on learning at younger ages.

In the labor market, public and civil sector hiring practices should be reformed to leverage greater change in education as well. Qualification for civil and public employment should be linked to a range of skills and prior job experience rather than just diplomas. Furthermore, requiring prior job experience in the private sector, community service, or in volunteer services would reduce queuing for public sector jobs and encourage youth to undertake greater work experience while looking (or just waiting) for the permanent job to arrive.

The recent events in Egypt expose the growing discontent with the education system and underline the imperative of reform. These developments also show that good youth policy and reforms can create their own constituency—in this case parents, teachers and students who can be enlisted as new allies in education reform.