Education, a waste of money?

Iris Boutros
10 Min Read
Iris Boutros

“Zahma moot, (it is very crowded) and it’s not yet 9 AM.” The taxi driver is complaining. Traffic is already gridlocked early in the morning (yes, Egyptians consider 9 AM early). And then he asks, “how bad is it going to be when schools open?” It got me thinking; maybe schools should be cancelled all together. Expenses for schools are a significant financial burden on households. The Egyptian educational system doesn’t educate students in a manner that meets labour demand. Businesses complain about this all the time. The extra traffic will cause even more business disruptions, and certainly, the economy needs all the help it can get. Less government expenditure would be welcomed in light of the massive budget deficit. Why not cancel schools?

The idea may seem preposterous, but let’s consider it. The obvious objection is that Egyptian children have a need for and a right to an education. Here are two separate points: one, education is a valuable lifetime asset to be invested in, and will one day produce rewards, in the way of wages and perhaps personal fulfilment. Second, part of the social contract between citizens and the state is the right to receive an education perhaps even a human right (depending on the new constitution). But can we confidently say that the Egyptian education system is fulfilling either of those obligations? Is the education system in its current form just a waste of money?


Tutoring is a vote of no confidence

Consider the quality of education. Quality is a very difficult issue. To measure how well any educational system does in delivering quality is the subject of much debate among experts in the field, and can often sound like academic banter. A more practical way to know how parents feel about the quality of education is to look at the massive resources spent on private tutoring. About 60 percent of primary and preparatory students and about 80 percent of general secondary students receive private tutoring lessons. In total, at least 9.6 million of the 16.8 million pre-university students enrolled in 2010 had private tutors in three to four academic subjects. Many of those who didn’t simply could not afford it. With lessons costing, on average, between EGP 60 to 220, depending on the school level, parents spend at least EGP 800mn on private lessons per year, although this is likely an underestimate. The total private cost of education (tutoring, textbooks, school fees, uniforms, supplies, etc.), most of which is spent in the public education system, is estimated to be 3.7 percent of GDP and has been rising for decades.


The excessive use of private tutoring also suggests that the education clause of the social contract has long been broken. Other indicators, like the consistent under-education of Egypt’s poor also point to the same. In Egypt, many children receive private lessons from the very same teachers who are paid, albeit rather poorly, to teach them in school. But since correct work incentives and performance monitoring have basically been absent, and teachers are so underpaid, over time, the system of private tutoring became a regular feature in education. Rather than interfere, decades of education ministers turned a blind eye and, in effect, openly admitted to the disregard of this element of the social contract.

All together, the expense and pervasiveness of private tutoring in Egypt seems to be a vote of no confidence in the education system’s ability to adequately deliver quality education. More importantly, one could argue that the education system fulfils neither the need for nor the right to education. The system is broken. We hear this all the time.

A well-funded broken education system

But the problem is, it is a well-funded broken system. Spending on the educational system in Egypt is not the issue. By international standards, the Egyptian public education system is reasonably well-funded, and with 85 percent of all students, primary to university level, enrolled in public schools, this is the system that matters most. At the start of former Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif’s cabinet in 2004, the time of the last public expenditure review to scrutinise Egypt’s education system, funding was topped only by Jordan, when comparing it to countries with similar income levels. Spending on education, as a proportion of total public spending, was about 19 percent. As a share of GDP, Egypt’s spending was comparable to the OECD countries’ (the club of rich countries) average of 5 percent, higher than the 4 percent average of lower middle-income countries and MENA countries. The 1.7 percent of GDP allocated to the university education system dwarfs all other comparable countries and is about 50 percent higher than the OECD average. Spending levels have basically increased in absolute terms, although declined as a percent   of the overall budget since 2004. In short, the problem is not a lack of resources.

Ineffective and inefficient spending are much bigger problems in the Egyptian education system. Simply consider teachers. For the close to 18 million students now in pre-university education, there are about 1.4 million personnel. Only about 65 percent are teachers. Stunningly, there is about one administrator for every teacher and one non-teaching staff for every eight teachers at the primary and preparatory levels. Compare this to Jordan, which has one administrator for every 6.2 teachers. Other countries have ratios closer to Jordan. The system’s incentives and promotions criteria encourages moving into administrative positions, leaving the least experienced teachers in the classroom. In some governorates, there are more administrators and other staff than teachers. These are some of the worst ratios in the world. This is coming from one of the best-funded education systems in the world, when considering comparable countries.

Past efforts to reform the education system by tackling poor teacher salaries, teacher quality and textbooks printing corruption, have shown mixed results. The last major reform strategy, from 2007, was designed to address three fundamental challenges. First, private tutoring, which students need to counterbalance overcrowded classrooms and poor teaching quality, drives poorer students out of the education system faster. Second addressing the fundamental mismatch between the skills of graduates and the needs of the private sector, which is well documented in many studies. And three, countering the increasing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in providing ‘fundamentalist education’ in both public and private schools. Interestingly, public school teachers are currently found using books explaining the injustice of ousting former President Mohamed Morsi in public schools in Egypt. That aside, the motivation to counter the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence was said to have been a big determinant of the planned reform, as were several other non-educational considerations. No reform strategy has been developed to replace the 2007/2008 – 2011/2012 strategy.

Egypt educated the Arab World

In short, the Egyptian education system is a well-funded, overstaffed, under-qualified, corrupt and overly centralized system that only delivers average results despite its enormous spending. It drives out the poor and gives youth unusable skills, warehousing many in vocational schools, who add little value beyond keeping the unemployment rate lower. The last education reform strategy made politics as much a priority as improvements in education. Although the reformers did achieve some notable accomplishments, the challenges are still enormous. No new strategy has been developed.

You often hear about how Egypt educated the Arab world. But somehow we have since forgotten to educate our own citizens. What’s worse, we spend a lot of money doing a pretty lousy job at it. Educational outcomes in Egypt are reasonable for Egypt’s level of economic development, on average, but much less impressive given the high level of both public and private investment. And these educational outcomes are also highly unequal, driven by underlying socio-economic differences. Almost 8 percent of GDP is spent on education. That is a lot of money. I don’t really think we should cancel schools, but I worry about the very low value Egyptian students get from our schools. Is our education system a waste of money?

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Iris Boutros is an economist and strategist. She focuses on growth, impact investment, and decision-making. Follow her on Twitter @irisboutros
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