The education system in Egypt has virtually collapsed. Though schools are hugely expensive, students are coming out of them ill-prepared for anything, whether entering the job market or even navigating basic life skills. The good news is that a tsunami of technological change will soon smash it apart, disrupting it to the core.
The government has effectively made rote memorisation the basis of education, a policy that may have been great in the 19th century but these days is absurd.
Not enough schools are being built to accommodate a population bulge of new students hitting the country. In existing schools, classroom instruction in many cases has come to a complete halt as teachers force students to take expensive private lessons on the side – to guide them as to what rote answers they are likely to be asked on state examinations.
The World Economic Forum’s global competitive report regularly ranks Egypt’s education system as near the worst in the entire world.
Seif Abou Zaid, the co-founder of an online educational content provider, Tahrir Academy in Cairo, says the system has become dysfunctional at almost every level.
The country’s 1.7 million teachers are poorly trained, underpaid and very frustrated. Only 40 per cent actually teach, while the remainder work in administration.
To top up their incomes, teachers have built a huge private tutoring industry estimated at 16 billion to 19bn Egyptian pounds (Dh7.50bn) a year, says Mr Abou Zaid.
Students wanting to pass state examinations have had little recourse but to sign up for the expensive private lessons. Many of the teachers who run their tutoring on the side no longer even bother to turn up to class, and some schools have become entirely deserted.
Some parents are spending 30 per cent of their income for tutoring in an education system that is officially supposed to be free of cost.
Mr Abou Zaid’s non-profit academy provides free online lessons to middle and high school students to help them master the Egyptian government curriculum. It serves more than 160,000 students.
Mr AbouZaid says 22 different government authorities are involved in providing state education, often without clear lines as to who has responsibility for what nor where their missions start and end. For example, the education ministry says it needs to build 1,000 schools per year to keep up with demand. It sends its requests to the finance ministry, which last year approved 440 schools. The order then goes to the school building organisation, which chooses the locations and capacities of the buildings, without much reference to where the education ministry says they are needed. Land in Giza, for example, is scarce and expensive, so fewer schools are built. Some have 120 students per classroom.
In Egypt, it is considered a punishment to be sent far from the capital, so some parts of the country, Nubia in the south, for example, have an acute teacher shortage.
The state’s curriculum development is exceptionally centralised, which has detached it from reality and made it out of date. Computer programming, for example, is still not available in middle and high school, despite a promising new generation of students in school who are already computer savvy. The English language is taught by having students memorise sentences likely to appear on exams rather than on how to converse or compose.
Many companies and non-profit organisations are creating internet-based lessons that provide students with a far cheaper alternative to private tutoring, which in the future will make Egypt’s multibillion-pound private tutoring industry all but obsolete. But these lessons are nevertheless still based on rote memorisation.
The digitalisation of content will also undermine the textbook printing business, which Mr Abou Zaid says is worth more than 1bn Egyptian pounds a year.
Driving the education technology business is the promise of huge profit. Once an online educational module is created, it is easy to scale up and reach more students.
Some education technology companies in Egypt have margins as high as 97 per cent, adds Mr Abou Zaid.
“In five years, the government will be forced to yield to the pressure,” he says. The biggest barrier at the moment is the lack of regular access to computers and the internet for much of the population. That is also changing.
Amin Amin, the president and chief executive of Ask Arabia, an Amman-based educational technology company, told a conference in Cairo on Sunday that education in Egypt and around the region was failing miserably. “The budget for education is huge, but it is not yielding results.”
The fast technological change has begun to transform the entire world, and the Middle East will not be immune.
“Technology is coming in very fast. The school as we know it will not exist in 10 years,” says Mr Amin.
Patrick Werr has worked as a financial writer in Egypt for 25 years
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