Private Universities in Egypt

Education as Export Commodity

Gold-diggers from all corners of the earth appear to be streaming to the Nile. Private universities are a lucrative business in Egypt and are springing up like mushrooms. A report by Frederik Richter

Logo German University Cairo
The German University in Cairo - is the leap of faith justified?

​​The Americans have been there for a long time, the French and German for a few semesters. The Canadians and the British will be opening their lecture halls this autumn. Now the Russians, the Japanese, the Chinese, and the Rumanians have announced the opening of their universities.

There are already eight private universities, and three more will open this autumn. At the end of April the Egyptian ministry of education approved another nine new private university projects. Since it is now literally too full in Cairo, these new projects will be spread across the country.

Around 2.2 million students are herded toward their exams at the twelve public universities, often without the benefit of a real academic education.

"I long for a decent seminar," says Andreas Kecker, a student from Berlin. He has been studying at Cairo University since September. "There are only lectures here, no discussions. You pass exams by memorizing."

Egyptian companies are often willing enough to hire graduates who can write a resume in English. Then their education starts from scratch.

Mostly without its own academic faculty

For the Egyptian government, private investors are flocking in just in time to mitigate the wretched conditions existing at their universities, even if only 30,000 students so far attend private universities.

"The government wanted to open higher education to the private sector," recalls Abdallah Barakat, chairman of the Supreme Council for Egyptian Universities.

The government also makes sure that private universities have little else to offer than more space in their lecture halls. They can borrow professors from the state universities. Thus even today they virtually have no academic faculty of their own.

To stake out the most important claims, private universities generally offer the same subjects, namely, those with the highest prestige in Arab countries: medicine, engineering, information technology, and business studies.

For the most part, the first few years were like a gold rush, but now the government is making efforts to assure a certain level of quality. "At first many students didn't even have the right papers," admits Abdallah Barakat.

Even today countless stories are told in Cairo about how hard it is to fail exams at some private universities.

"In the beginning the students were not as good as those at the normal universities," says Aly Talaat, dean of the private 6th of October University, one of the first four private universities founded in 1996. "Now the quality is the same, thanks to state supervision."

A leap of faith in the German University

To stand out from the generally deplorable state of affairs in higher education, Egyptian private universities now rely so heavily on the reputation of foreign education that soon there will be few countries left to lend their names.

They mainly depend on the allure of foreign diplomas to draw students. But student exchanges, visiting professors, foreign curriculums, and teaching methods also attract students.

"In my opinion, they are admitting that their own universities have failed. Of course the Egyptians are contributing their share, but foreign universities bring the quality assurance and management that the Egyptians themselves cannot produce," says Alexander Haridi, director of the Cairo DAAD office.

"The German University benefits from the confidence that Egyptians have in Germany without being tested first in the educational sector. They tested the washing machine and the six-cylinder, but not education." The same is true of the other universities bearing foreign names.

Egyptian private investors

But all that glitters is not gold. In reality, it was Egyptian investors who first stood behind the prestigious names. They then searched for partners in other countries.

The main investor in the French University is telecommunications billionaire Naguib Sawiris of Orascom Telecom. At the British University it is carpet mogul Farid Khamis of Oriental Weavers.

At the Canadian University it is the state-owned Al-Ahram corporation, which wants to adorn itself with its own university. In reality, partner countries do not always have much to say, for the degree of cooperation with foreign universities varies.

At the British University 70 percent of the teaching staff is supposed to come from the two British partner universities. At other universities it is often much less than half.

Even Egyptian universities without foreign names cooperate with foreign universities. Here they differ greatly from the public universities. Aly Talaat, who received his doctorate in Germany, initiated a partnership with the University of Paderborn. Students of the 6th of October University can earn a Master of Science there.

Education has long been an important export commodity, and everywhere in Europe and in the United States universities are open for partnerships, especially with the Arab world.

But Egypt, which still has the largest educational system in the Arab countries, is finally receiving some competition. The oil sheikhs in the Gulf states have discovered that not only ritzy hotels can be planted in the desert sand, but also universities.

Universities are also springing up like mushrooms in Lebanon and Jordan, both countries long with an underdeveloped university system. At the end of April the German Federal Minister of Education Bulmahn laid the foundation stone for the German-Jordan University in Amman, a cooperation between Jordanian investors and the University of Magdeburg.

Openness moves the system

"Promoting more openness in the system will inevitably force a change in quality, because foreign students express their desires, and this will move the system," hopes Jean Marcou, head of the French section of Cairo University and coordinator of the TEMPUS program. The purpose of this EU initiative is to promote partnerships between universities in Mediterranean countries.

Marcou experienced the difficulties of such partnerships when he introduced the new one-year Master’s degree Euromed at the Cairo University. "The problem is to open the Egyptian system to academic globalization."

In Egypt studies still follow the rhythm of four years Bachelor, two years Master, four years Ph.D. In order for the partnerships to culminate in recognized degrees, Egypt must join the European Bologna process, which aspires to the three-two-three rhythm. "Morocco is much further along here than we are," says Marcou.

The partner universities of the Euromed are Barcelona, Paris, Amsterdam – and the Free University in Berlin. "I would never say that it was a wasted year for me," says Andreas Kecker.

The encounter with Egyptian culture and religion, and the exchange with peers in Egypt fascinated him. "Academics fades into the background, because you can't expect first-class teaching here. Studying at this university requires a lot of patience."

Frederik Richter

© 2005

Translation from German: Nancy Joyce

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