By Inji Mounib
I recently read an interesting article by Dr. Anthony Perzigian on Higher Education in Egypt where he tackled in depth the main challenges impeding the reform of higher education in Egypt and provided radical solutions to the development of the curriculum and the whole education system. Ideas highlighted and solutions interpreted were all comprehensive and sufficient enough to turn our outdated bureaucratic universities in Egypt into competent and advanced educational institutions. Yet, I tend to disagree with his limiting the challenge to the development of the curriculum. Eventually, the more you focus on reforming the curriculum and the system, the more you will probably go nowhere, given the fact that the real essence of the problem lies in the people’s perception vis-avis the entire concept of “higher education”. It is more of a social dilemma that we need to focus on first and try to solve. Only then, can we successfully tackle the file of education and upgrade both outlook and content.
The social must-have crisis
It all started with the illusion of so-called “Public Education”. Late President Nasser got this ultimate dream of making higher education available and for free just for everyone. Consequently, each and every citizen obtained the right to join university and get enrolled in one of its different faculties only based on his academic records at the end of secondary school. From the age of the primary school, the dream of the university, previously restricted and only for privileged and genius ones, became a real opportunity just for everyone. Unlike most developed countries and even unlike the common rule prior the 1950s of last century, the academic degree became a must-have within the Egyptian society and a sign of social respectful status. Your academic records dictate your moves and choices and not your desires, talents and aspirations. You wish to be an accountant; you turn to become a doctor with your high records in Thanaweya Amma (Egyptian Baccalaureate). You will neither realize your dream, nor manage to cope with your planned future imposed on you by law. The fact remains that higher education is not a must-have; it all depends on the choices the individual makes for his life and future. This dilemma resulted into a total dramatic social chaos. From one side, the large number joining, annually, the higher education universities and institutions led to a quasi loss of credibility and incapacity to invest in quality. On the other side, linking social status to a simple academic degree challenge the large public to stand in the queue of higher education, increasing constantly the number of fresh graduates, flourishing more and more unemployment, hence, growing corruption, increasing frustration and anger on different scales with this inability to catch up a dissent job and start up a long lasting career. In the old good days, the “Ostaz” was a lawyer or a professor and the “Bashmohandes” was an engineer. Today, the doctor could be a taxi driver, a doorman even a worker. Those are titles that reflect certain jobs. With the dream of quick and easy social upgrade, the trigger to study is empowered by the quest for status and not for the study itself.
All around the world, in developed and underdeveloped countries, you study with a planned set of objectives. Either you are talented in what you wish to be and get a sponsorship for or you enough means to cover your academic years. You choose a particular subject to do a specific job. The degree is a means, never an end in itself. Moreover, improvement in life conditions and social upgrades are viable objectives to work for requiring long journey of hard work and dedication and are not only achievable with a piece of paper stuck on the wall. Most social diseases started from this wrong perception, the son of the doorman who in seven years becomes a doctor cannot easily get out of his reality to become a genuine new one. Instead, it turns out a curse, not a blessing.
Go private… is it a way out?
The quality of the public universities is dramatically falling, giving birth to the increase of -private universities and colleges that are not necessarily offering good or better education. However, they are offering another opportunity for higher education and, most importantly, opening a new horizon for outstanding well-rewarded business opportunities. Nothing wrong with the model, yet, the devil is in details. The crisis lies in the implementation not in the concept itself and the objectives behind it. It is not always comprehensive; it is still emerging, mostly underdeveloped, subjective and very individual. Subject to the full command of the P&L indicators, education, which is supposed to carry on human interests and pure abstract seeds turned into a business opportunity with an owner on the top seeking the lowest costs, the highest return and judging quality his own way. Others constantly fly away seeking international higher education with one of those universities dispersed all around the globe giving rise to more social dilemmas and ascendant cultural crisis.
In most of the cases, quick fix scenarios and long term adjustment plans are all available given the time factor and the urgency of the case itself. Yet this issue has no quick fix. It is the either/or solution. It requires a radical change of perception from individuals as well as the government, a complete change of mentality and comprehensive understanding of reform. We need to start looking up to technical education and give its participants the accreditation they really deserve. Handcrafts and other simple jobs requiring talents and special skills, currently perceived as mediocre need to be also properly highlighted. No job is small or big; it’s always how you see it and what you make of it.
Inji Mounib is a Consultant of Crisis Management and Public Relations.