The Role of Students in Egyptian Higher Education in the Context of the ‘Arab Spring’

In this paper I discuss the state of Higher Education in Egypt in the context of its so-called Revolution. More particularly I emphasise the current impact of the students and how this is inescapably leading to considerations of a kind hitherto barely imaginable to academics and observers. I conclude by suggesting implications for future developments in universities in the country.

I: Higher Education in Egypt before the ‘Arab Spring’

Modern Higher Education in Egypt begins with the foundation of Cairo University (formerly the Egyptian University) in 1908. It was a small liberal arts college and led in time to the creation of other universities first in Cairo then throughout Egypt.

In 1952 King Farouk was deposed and the new revolutionary regime came to be headed by Nasser. Let us call this the first Egyptian Revolution. Its members embraced an ideology of Arab socialism and sought to increase opportunities for higher education well beyond the small elite who had hitherto benefitted from them. They were motivated by ideals of social justice and economic development.

Accordingly the Constitution of 1971 claimed education as the right of every Egyptian. This was to be advanced by four means:

  1. guaranteed access to Higher Education for all qualified high school graduates;
  2. a national examination system providing equal entry requirements for all university applicants;
  3. the abolition of fees for Higher Education;
  4. guaranteed employment of all graduates in the civil service.

Noble as it was, this programme did not increase inclusiveness in higher education in Egypt. The most that can be observed is some increase in the proportion of female students. Moreover, while higher education has certainly expanded, in fact by about 60% just between 1988 and 2005, the greatest growth has been among the wealthiest socio-economic group.

Given the massive inflation of student numbers, two preventative strategies were launched:

  1. simply limiting the number of students enrolled by creating technical institutes and, by the late 1990s, private universities;
  2. increasing examination entry scores for faculties such as Engineering and Medicine.

Efforts have also been made to enhance the quality of Higher Education programmes by reforming the curriculum, introducing interdisciplinary studies, using educational technology and introducing international exchange programmes.

Unfortunately, none of these attempts at internal reform of the national universities have significantly improved either the quality of education or the institutions offering it. But nor have the private universities introduced creative change to Egyptian Higher Education either directly or by example.

The private universities for those who could pay, founded in the twenty first century, were often foreign, such as the British, French and German. But none except the American University (which is nearly 100 years old) is allowed to run on the lines of its own country’s educational regulations. All others are forced to run according to the laws of the Egyptian Ministry of Higher Education (promulgated in the 1970’s under Sadat). But these regulations are highly prescriptive, hierarchical and combine awkwardly with the norms of Western Higher Education.

Other Egyptian private universities have been entrepreneurial and are often criticized for this reason.

Finally, in this review of attempts to reform Egyptian education, we should mention one laudable effort to improve the situation in the late Mubarak years. It was developed in Mubarak’s own National Democratic Party and included an initiative to ensure quality in ways modeled on initiatives by Britain’s Quality Assurance Agency.  This was a proposal for a body to have oversight and reform of Higher Education but by a nationally funded independent agency that was nonetheless not controlled by the state.  Yet the Egyptian Ministry of Higher Education was highly suspicious of this approach. It feared losing control and thus its own predominant role. The attempted reform agenda was blocked.

Hence Higher Education in Egypt up to the end of 2010 was an inefficient entity unable to reform itself. Its universities were overpopulated, collapsing structures. We find them, as the first decade of the new century closes, suffering from an acute case of institutional sclerosis. They and their inert student body and demoralised academic staff stare, like the rest of the country, into a future without vision or hope.

This brings us to the 25th January 2011, a day that begins like any other but that ends by ushering in the second Egyptian Revolution.

II: The effects of the ‘Arab Spring’.

The second Egyptian Revolution introduced a completely new element into Egyptian Higher Education but it did so accidentally. This is a prime example of The Law of Unintended Consequences.

Yet it is no clearer that the second Egyptian Revolution of 2011 really was one than that of 1952. (Any social implications of what was a mere coup d’etat against the monarchy came only later in the ‘50s.)  Scarcely planned, the Revolution of 2011 was just an increasingly purposeful gathering agitating for issues of lifestyle, personal freedoms, but not even the resignation of Mubarak at the outset. It was not a call for fundamental social and economic change as in the French Revolution. And the Muslim Brotherhood was not at all involved at the start.

Only with the ousting of Mubarak, the failure of liberals to consolidate, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s better organization and scent of victory, did the Muslim Brothers emerge. They were the beneficiaries of disarray in the remnants of the Mubarak regime and the lack of a strong alternative.

So far there was no impact on Higher Education other than a new law requiring Presidents and Deans in the national universities to be elected rather than being the appointees of the Minister of Higher Education, meaning the government.

Then, with the passage of between a year and eighteen months since the original Revolution, and the obvious fact that President Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government clearly had no intention of delivering on the Revolution’s true aims, debatable as these might be, something new began. There was a rash of student protests in universities both public and private.

These protests led to the closure of campuses; the expulsion of one university President and of many senior staff; even the student take-over of some campuses.

Students protested about the same issues that they are always likely to protest about: fees, lack of food courts, copy centres and student activities. They attacked over-rigorous marking, poor access to professors and the remoteness of senior administrators whom they considered badly out of touch. They also demanded a significant role in governing the institutions.

All this could have been expected. But the protests were violent, exceeding anything previously known. Why? What had made the students rise up?

Hadn’t they had breathed the air of the Revolution and its hopes but, finding there had been no delivery of its demands, and that the exhilarating atmosphere of freedom had grown stale, themselves wanted to revive the Revolution in the one context immediately available to them – universities?

We should, however, note that in feeling the Revolution had been betrayed, or at least that its promise had been dimmed, the students were not attacking the Muslim Brotherhood specifically. The Brotherhood were not seen as a particular threat to the universities. For actually the core members and much of the rank and file of the Brotherhood were from the medical, engineering and legal professions. Some such as Morsi had doctorates and had studied in America. Nor did the students probably have much idea of the deterioration in Higher Education that any Muslim Brotherhood government must inevitably eventually bring.

In time they would have put their own members in key university and ministry positions, pressing for teaching only in Arabic and ending foreign universities. Again, they would have taken even further the marked preference for purely technological subjects already shown even by other Ministers of Higher Education. Such disciplines do not, after all, seriously impinge on national and Islamic values.

But, as I say, the students neither predicted this nor blamed the Brotherhood specifically. They just resented the curb on the Revolution. Not that they necessarily reasoned out even that. But they sensed it instinctively which was why they felt an inherent similarity between their discrete sets of motivations. It led them to form what was effectively a federation and to participate in each other’s protests.

What was the consequence of this? It was that students, never active or previously considered as a force (other than in demonstrations about Israel and the Palestinians or in riots about withdrawing bread subsidies), emerged as a new contributing element in Higher Education.

For, as our review of Egyptian universities prior to the January 2011 Revolution shows, the students had been a constituency that was simply never taken into account as a factor, let alone a key participant, in Higher Education reform. They were quite simply inert.

And yet did the students who were now suddenly fired up know exactly what they were asking for or indeed how to ask for it? I don’t think so.

The reason was simple. There was no one specific thing that they wanted. It was, rather, a voice that they sought on any and every thing. They wanted respect and to be taken into account. And vague though this sounds, it is fundamental. Nor could the disruptions cease until they were addressed.

In this, the students represented in their context, namely the university, the aspiration of all Egyptian citizens. For the vast majority of the citizenry were at an equal loss as to how to ask for what they wanted except through mass demonstrations of the kind that finally removed President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

But just as the country has been divided over the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood, so are the students, of whom a section are sympathizers of the Muslim Brotherhood which is quite possibly manipulating them as the Minister of the Interior pointed out early in December 2013.

In fact, now that the Muslim Brotherhood are pronounced illegal, they have said they will seek to disrupt the country through the universities.

This has begun with the destructive student uprising in El Azhar, the university at the centre of Sunni Islam.

So the students are a new force in Higher Education. But they are also revealingly emblematic of Egyptian politics at large. And, as a postscript to this middle section of my talk, let me say that insofar as students have hardly known how to ask for what they want, their professors have known no better how to understand or provide it. This ignorance exists to the same extent as the government has had difficulty in accommodating its citizens (of which the students, of course, are part).

III: The way forward.

Higher Education in Egypt is now faced with taking into account the one element which has always been its raison d’etre but that it has failed to recognize – at least since 1952 – and effectively neutered: the student body.

There are three inescapable reasons why it must come to terms with them. First, there is the destructive capacity of the students not only for the institutions of Higher Education, some of which they have already immobilized, destroying property, ousting administrators and closing campuses, but also lest they ally with other constituencies against the state and/or the governing regime. We have mentioned their connection with the Muslim Brotherhood. We also remember the students’ crippling alliance with the unions in De Gaulle’s France in the ’60s.

Secondly, students have the potential to undermine the most promising strategy for modernization and development in the country and region: Higher Education.

Thirdly, again, the alienation of students puts at risk that greatest source of stability in a society and state: the creation of a well-educated populace which, thereby fully employed and prosperous, has a vested interest in its continuance.

These are, of course, all very practical reasons for acknowledging the key role of students in making arrangements for Higher Education. They are motivated by considerations of political and social prudence. But naturally one could invoke human rights as a basis for students’ entitlements to education, together with the knowledge and skills it imparts.

Yet regardless of the reason, or possibly justification, for according the students a central focus, the issue remains of how, on a practical level, the students are now to be taken into account.

Clearly responsibility for running Higher Education cannot now simply be turned over to them. It is not only that this could be parodied as a case of the lunatics running the asylum. It is also self-evident that those with the experience and knowledge students have yet to acquire should not abdicate the responsibility of teaching and guidance for which the students have come to them in the first place.

This is not to say that students should be made to feel disempowered. In a highly charged atmosphere such as that in Egypt this would be like a red flag to a bull. But remember Rousseau’s remark that Britain is a democracy once every four years. In other words democracy is strategic flattery to a powerless electorate. By the same token flattering invitations to actually quite limited involvement in decision making can be skillfully extended to the students.

The issue is not, however, simply to exercise political finesse in pacifying students. It is for them to feel genuinely fulfilled by their education in such a way that they consider its institutions are of value and must be preserved. This returns us to that simple three letter word: how?

It is not the Egyptian national universities that hold the answer. And although some of the Western private universities, drawing on pedagogical research and best practice in their home countries, can provide insights, even they have not provided the whole answer for Egypt – if indeed anybody has found that Holy Grail.

But let us at least make a start with what Britain and America, together with their cousins in Canada and Australia, have identified. In the parlance, if not the jargon, of Higher Education theory, this involves “the student experience”, “student-centred learning” and “student learning opportunities”.

This is underpinned by extensive pedagogical theory that includes (among much else):

– problem based learning

– communicative teaching

– technology enhanced learning, including blended learning

– independent learning.

There is much to consider about how to create the osmotic channels whereby these student-centred approaches to teaching and learning might penetrate the traditional national institutions of Egyptian Higher Education. There are signs that permeation might already have begun on a small scale even before the Revolution. This was through the Ministry of Higher Education’s study of models of Quality Assurance, not least that of the British Quality Assurance Agency. But only limited progress was made. Applications of the foreign model were mechanical and scarcely embraced by academics. And in any case, space dictates that we must now turn instead to another aspect of engaging students: not as learners but as human beings.

This, I believe, is an area that is not only specifically relevant to students in Egypt but that could also benefit from more attention in pedagogy. It is vital if the student is to feel personally fulfilled by studying and thus to value and feel appropriate ownership of his or her university.

Let me give just a few hints of what needs to be considered. It falls into three areas: issues of theory and pedagogy; of social and political education; and of specifically Egyptian culture.

Theory and pedagogy:

  1. The curriculum should not only proceed according to the intellectual stages of student development (as laid out in Bloom’s Taxonomy) but also the emotional stages which need similar identification assuming that this can avoid facile simplification.
  2. There needs to be more research into, and understanding of, the relationship between emotional maturation and the intellectual aptitude to study and learn.
  3. At the very least this involves a curriculum and teaching that proceeds at the student’s individual learning pace, allowing for the discovery and development of his or her personal style of study. This would permit freedom to choose and change areas of study, pursue enthusiasms, and overcome slow starts and mistakes.

Social and Political Education:

  1. A variety of opportunities, whether courses or more informal discussion groups, should be provided for students to consider the basic concepts with which they may provide for their aspirations: namely freedom, liberty and rights. While the whole of the history of political philosophy has a direct bearing on these ideas, texts should be subordinated to the students’ prior, if naive, personal discoveries through reflection on, and discussion of, their own places in their world.
  2. Discussion between students and both academic staff and administrators is necessary for the development of appropriate forms of communication between them. This will suggest what is appropriate and where boundaries must exist. Hence dispute over standards and marks is likely to be out of bounds whereas considering how successfully a given class has been delivered is fair game. Acquisition of a sense of what is appropriate communication may act as a model for later socialization.
  3. There is an important caveat here. While a senior administrator at one university in Egypt has suggested that every course should emphasize the renewed sense of citizenship resulting from the January 2011 Revolution, implicitly proposing that the student share  it, this far exceeds what is necessary in supporting the students’ social and political education. The purpose of a university should be open-ended, allowing the graduate to make what he or she wills of the knowledge and skills acquired. It is not to produce a particular kind of person: not even a good citizen.

Egyptian Cultural Issues:

  1. While a significant number of students from the provinces come to Cairo to study and live in residences, a huge amount live at home unlike British or American students. Thus they lack a basic feature of their university experience, barely even acknowledging its vital educative role: living independently with the freedom to explore and develop relationships.
  2. With students in the West we can assume that they will be committed to their studies from the outset and pursue excellence by seeking an “A” or First Class degree. This cannot be assumed in Egypt. For although there are some students equal to the best anywhere in terms of application and talent, a huge proportion increasingly feel alienated. They mistrust their university, regarding it as corrupt with low academic standards. At most they merely want to pass.
  3. Furthermore, given the great role of Egyptian parents in choosing their children’s areas of degree studies, usually with a future profession rather than personal aptitude or development in mind, the students show a distinct lack of commitment at the start.
  4. How can the university compensate for this? Its introductory year of study should not only be about studying for a degree and acquiring learning skills, but also about developing intrapersonal skills. The deepening self-reflectivity they bring has a crucial relationship with the capacity to learn and, more especially, independent learning.
  5. Again, students, regardless of their final degree areas, must be given opportunities in the course of their studies to address material and issues that are of specific relevance and thus interest to them. But how? By relating them directly or implicitly, whether through teaching or the student’s learning, to the issues of their own turbulent society and personal development.
  6. Moreover, we must cease looking at personal development, including greater communicativeness and poise, simply as a way of honing the so-called “soft skills” for greater employability. We need to see it as a valid objective of Higher Education per se: namely human development.

IV: Conclusion.

Here are just some of the issues to be confronted in engaging the students, with the addition of only general suggestions for addressing them. But engaged the students must be. And this requires every university consciously to develop a Strategy for Student Engagement. This will clearly be designed to fit the idiosyncrasies of its particular case, although it is also very likely to include at least something from each of the three components I have outlined.

Before I end let me also refer to something else that will surely need considering. It is the obvious but cardinal point that the whole enterprise of engaging the students in Egypt is as much about the teachers as those who learn.

The teachers are, after all, the students of the past. As such they have absorbed all the treatment that the present students despise. They have incorporated it into their behaviour and way of teaching their current undergraduates. For it is ultimately they themselves that they are replicating in their graduating classes, generation upon generation.

What is needed is a monumental change of mentality. It requires an admission that the old ways no longer satisfy the students; that they are inadequate to engage them and prevent them from destroying the entire structure through which the staff have lived and worked for all their many years. Of course this requires clarity of vision to identify the challenge. It needs courage to scrap old ways in favour of new approaches whose success, even with the best of intentions, cannot be guaranteed. It demands great creative energy for this massive effort of self-re-education.

But can we really expect Egyptians in the Higher Education sector to do this? Do they have the clarity, the courage, the creativity to do all this?

Well, you saw like me the numbers in which Egyptians came out onto the streets in defiance of Mohamed Morsi. You witnessed their rejection of his empty vision for their country. So in response to that question whether they can rise to the challenge, I would say, to coin a phrase: Yes they can.