This week Youssef Sehab started his first university days at the Artificial Intelligence Department of the Zewail City of Science, Technology, and Innovation (ZCSTI), one of Egypt’s newer and highly reputable universities. Sehab is excited about this path of higher education that he chose and managed to access.
“I knew I wanted to study artificial intelligence; this is the future, and this is what interests me,” he said. Sehab’s high school grades would not have allowed him to go to the very few public universities in Egypt that have opened a department for artificial intelligence, however. Nor did he necessarily want to attend a public university, given his assumption that these universities “are not as well equipped as the private universities”.
Having graduated from a private language school in Heliopolis east of Cairo, he did not wish to “move from the private, which I think is better to be honest, to the public sector.”
“If I graduate from a private school, especially one with a considerable ranking and academic network like the ZCSTI, I have a very good chance to move on and get a job out of Egypt — and this is what I want to do,” he said. If it were at a public university, however, Sehab said that he would not have as much of a chance to “get out”.
His father, Tamer Sehab, backed his choices, both of the major and of the university. He will have to pay several thousand pounds for each academic year. “This is what I have been doing since I put the kids in school. I chose a private language school because I wanted to set them out right. Today, a degree in this major from a reputable private university will certainly add to Youssef’s CV when he tries to access what is an increasingly competitive labour market,” he said.
Himself a graduate from the Architecture Department of a private university, 10 Ramadan, in the 1990s, Tamer Sehab knew that this private university had offered him a paid path into a department that his high school grades had failed to get him at a public university. “At the end of the day, my university degree got me a very decent career, and that was over 20 years ago. Today, a private university degree, especially in one of the new modern disciplines, is certainly an asset,” he said.
While exempted from the regulations of the Universities Coordination Office (UCO), both in terms of grades and geographical allocation, the Sehabs had to consider the range of universities that offer an artificial intelligence degree in Egypt. They needed to consider several factors, including the ranking of the university, which varies considerably, the tuition fees, which vary considerably too, and the geographical proximity to Heliopolis. The choice of the ZCSTI offered a good choice on some but not all criteria.
According to Mariam Sayed Mahmoud, who is starting this autumn to study financial markets and institutions at the Helwan University Faculty of Foreign Trade and Business, a public university is not always a problem. This graduate of a foreign language high school did not feel intimidated by the wider university community she is set to join, but rather was curious about opting for the wider world with whatever it has to offer.
She said that many other graduates of foreign schools have also applied to the same faculty. Her choice, she added, offered an opportunity to study something she is interested in and that could get her a decent job “in four years down the road because one has to keep an eye on the labour market, which is very dynamic.”
She said that the assumption was that as a graduate of an English school who had majored in literary subjects at high school, she could easily opt to study English at the Cairo University Faculty of Arts, for example.
“But I did not think that I needed a university degree to further my language skills,” she argued. Equally, the other option was to study cinema, “which is a passion”. However, this was also something she felt she could approach through independent studies, especially as there was a lack of clarity on what it would mean in terms of job opportunities.
On the advice of her father, a journalist, against mass communication given his assessment of declining job opportunities, the choice was made to study financial markets and institutions. “So, the choice was not at all about private versus public but about an interesting discipline and a clear projection on job opportunities,” she said.
CHOICES: These were also the criteria that Bahiya Wael Gamal used when she was going to university three years ago.
A graduate of a French missionary school, she wanted to major in English not French and to focus on translation rather than on art and culture for reasons related to the demands of the labour market.
“The idea of going to a private community away from the rest of the people was not something that I would ordinarily subscribe to nor that my parents would condone, but at the end of the day I had to go to a private university,” Gamal said. The determining factor was a small difference between her high school grade and that required by the UCO to attend the Alsun Faculty (languages and linguistics) at Ain Shams University in Cairo.
But three years down the road, she admits that her university life, in terms of joining activities, for example, would have been compromised if she had opted for this particular major at a public university. This would not have been because she would not have wished to break away from the foreign school community, but rather because she might not have been accommodated due to invisible lines of segregation that have been growing in some areas of education.
“It is really very sad, but this is the way it is. There is a lot of compartmentalisation now that at times is hard to break,” Gamal said. She added that with the fast-growing expansion of private schools and private universities, the intersections between those who come from the private lane and those whose path is decided by public education are becoming fewer.
“We are increasingly talking about groups of students who subscribe to different, or even very different, terms of reference and who even speak a different language, even when it is still Arabic,” she lamented.
According to education expert Mohamed Habib, the topography of the higher education system in Egypt has been “evolving” for the past two decades, with a big push for a major overhaul during the past few years.
This, he insisted, had been all but inevitable, necessary, and overdue, either because new disciplines had to be introduced or because modern ways of teaching needed to be adopted to help graduates properly set out on an advancing, highly competitive, and extremely demanding labour market.
Today, he said, there is a wide range of higher education options in the country available through 25 public universities, 27 private universities, two universities established upon agreements with foreign governments, the American University in Cairo, and the Egypt Japan University of Science and Technology.
Twelve civil universities have been launched by the state, with two more being set for launch shortly, and there are four branches of foreign universities that have been set up at the New Administrative Capital that grant degrees from a foreign university.
“President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi was of the opinion that partnering one way or another with reputable foreign universities could help with upgrading the quality of higher education in Egypt. In parallel, there has been a consolidated effort to diversify the options of higher education,” Habib said.
Previously, he said, there had been an expansion of the capacity of private universities and a dedicated attempt to modernise and upgrade public education through establishing special departments, including the successful English and French departments at the faculties of law, economics, and commerce at several universities “to meet the growing demands of the labour market from multinationals, including those operating in Egypt.”
There had also been the introduction of a credit hours system as a parallel scheme for students at many faculties at many universities. “The credit hours system was first introduced in 2005, and it has really expanded since then. It is quite popular among students, as it allows them to divide the volume of the required courses they need to pass in a way that is purposeful for them,” he said.
According to Habib, the creation of these new universities and the introduction of these new systems has helped meet a growing demand among high school graduates who were becoming unsatisfied with the majors and teaching methods of the public universities that have in many places missed the chance to modernise while the world was fast moving forward.
To give “one of many examples”, Habib compares what many public universities and what most private universities, including civil and foreign, offer students of mass communication, “which is one of the fast-changing majors, given the enormous impact of IT,” both in terms of teaching methods and sub-disciplines.
He acknowledges the fact that tuition fees, which range in the thousands of pounds, are what has made all these new avenues of higher education possible, offering students the chance to study new majors and benefit from new teaching systems. He agrees that of the overall volume of university students in Egypt, only 10 per cent so far attend the private and civil universities. Those who opt for the private-type programmes and credit hour system studying at the public universities might be around 15 to 20 per cent, still leaving close to two-thirds of university students muddling through at the public universities.
“It is very unfortunate that the public universities, which take the credit for decades of higher education in Egypt, have not moved much earlier to catch up with modernisation and to better tailor their disciplines to the new world we are living in,” he said. He added that there should be no reason why students who prefer to opt for public education, for any reason including financial, should be denied the chance and right to access better education, especially since the public universities have been allowed to expand their resources through the new systems incorporated under them.
Only days before the beginning of the new academic year on 1 October, President Al-Sisi held a meeting with Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouli and newly appointed Minister of Higher Education Ayman Ashour to review the upgrading of higher education, according to a press statement from the president’s office. Ashour himself made press statements to underline “the keen attention” of the head of the executive to promoting the expansion of the faculties of science and technology to satisfy the demands of the labour market. He said that both the private and civil universities have a crucial role to play in promoting the new disciplines.
In press statements, Mohamed Al-Khosht, acting president of Cairo University, said that starting this academic year the civil university associated with Cairo University will start teaching new disciplines including artificial intelligence, nuclear physics, and finance, political science, and economics. The president of Egypt’s oldest university, which opened in 1908 as the Egyptian University, said that within the next three years his University, both through its public division and its civil division, will provide and upgrade “300 programmes” to further incorporate the credit hours online teaching systems and widen the introduction of some new disciplines.
The objective, he said, was to allow graduates of these programmes to meet the highest standards required by the labour market.