By Sara Ahmed Abdel Aziz
On a typical Monday afternoon, a mass of teenage students can be seen standing and shuffling at the entrance of the Oxford Centre in the Cairo suburb of Nasr City. A gruff supervisor yells at the incoming students, inquiring as to who has paid, and urging students to show their receipt before they make way into their afternoon lessons.
The centre seems busy and bursting with energy with the exception of the teacher assistants, who sit by the side of the reception, frantically correcting and musing over past exam sheets. For many students, particularly of “thanawiya amah” (secondary school), this constitutes the reality of their last high school years: long hours at tuition centres and private sessions became the harrowing requirements they abide by to score adequate exam results.
Sara Roshdy Abdel Hakim, 16, stands outside the centre’s gate alongside her friend Hanine Ahmed Amar, 18. The two girls are in their final year of thanawiya amah at Sayeda Nafisa high school and have navigated through a number of private tutors.
For them, much like the vast majority of Egyptian high school students, it is inconceivable that they manage their studies without depending on private lessons to “complement” the education at their schools – an education that is widely perceived to lacking, in a near-obsolete public school system.
Unlike most countries, where additional lessons and private tutoring is mainly for students facing difficulties, a radical free market system has entered through the back door to fill in for the deficiencies of the public education system.
Private tutoring in Egypt takes the lead in education in the final years of high school. Students often leave their schools early in the hopes of spending their time seeking the education they do not receive elsewhere. Most students only attend school until midday to mark down their attendance and then leave. The schools themselves do not expect full attendance.
In 2012, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces ratified a decision to shorten the duration of thanaweya amma to only a year instead of two in a bid to remove the burden it imposes on many families. Yet, students still rely heavily on private lessons to get the highest grades possible to be able to study the majors they want. Public universities demand a minimum score of 97% for scientific majors and 95% for arts, whilst private universities demand higher fees, with an average of EGP 30,000.
A bold decision in November 2015 by the now-dismissed Sharqeya governor Reda Abdel Salam to shut down all private education centres in the city sparked angry reactions. Many students protested against it, which forced him to exclude the thanaweya amma students from the decision days later.
This phenomenon constitutes both a luxury and a limitation: while high school students are given the chance to get a say about who they would rather take lessons with, the majority of students have to rely on taking these lessons in private centres where there is mass demand, leading to mass attendance.
These “educational centres” each receive hundreds of students before the school year has even begun. The classrooms in the centres are often extremely crowded and teachers need to use microphones; in certain cases. there are projectors and screens for the students sitting in the back of the class.
In the Oxford Centre classroom, there are 40 benches, each accommodating about eight students. One lesson costs each student an average of EGP 45. This often means that one lesson can end up bringing in around EGP 14,000 per day. Considering that many students also pay for the personalised course books they receive at the centres, averaging between EGP 50 and EGP 75, as well as small fees for registration in summer and for exam revisions, education in Egypt can constitute a hefty investment for many families.
Thereby, the common consensus regarding education is that as long as students are passing grades and exams, then they are learning, irrespective of whether or not information is being absorbed.
Sara and Hanine know very well how important these lessons are, whether they are held at a tutor’s houses or at learning centres. “We base our selection of tutors on whether we understand or not,” they said.
Hanine is quick to add that their decision for some teachers is also based on proximity of location and their reputation. “The most famous tutors are well-known and are often sought after, such as our chemistry and physics teachers,” she said.
High demand, heavy price
In the academic year of 2013-2014, the Egyptian education budget was equivalent to 4% of the GDP and was estimated to have been around EGP 2.8 bn. However, Egypt ranked 118th in regards to its quality of primary education according to the Global Competitiveness Report – issued by the World Economic Forum – for that year, behind Gambia and Nepal. For this reason, many Egyptian families do not solely trust schools to help their children excel and look for help elsewhere.
“It is kind of a self-perpetuating system in a way. There is demand from the parents and students who are afraid of failing or it is just the social pressure. They just want to try everything possible to get the best grades,” youth and education expert and current researcher at Freie Universitat Berlin Sarah Hartmann said. “Both students and teachers are already so involved in the system. Teachers know that parents expect them to teach private classes and students are aware there is no other way for them to access the same level of knowledge.”
Private tuitions in Egypt are a burden on families’ budgets, with prices varying for each lesson between rural and urban locations. Rural centres charge EGP 100 for five subjects per student whereas in Cairo one lesson costs an average of EGP 45.
However, many students still prefer home tutoring lessons with a more concentrated and personalised work group, which can set them back as much as EGP 500 for a group of five students.
Hania Farid, 17, takes up to seven private lessons per week, five lessons at centres and two at home, although she goes to a private school in Haram Street.
Her family pays around EGP 8,000 for school admission yet most of her time is spent at private lessons. “I went to school twice since the start of the academic year,” she said.
With each session costing EGP 50, Hania’s family pays around EGP 1,400 on private lessons per month, not including the EGP 120 in annual registration fees for centres for every subject (paid twice). They also pay exam and revision fees. By the end of the school year, they spend an estimated total of EGP 13,000 to these private lessons alone.
Educational quality can still be overlooked for the benefits of being able to pass and attend college, as another researcher puts it.
“Students in technical schools end up being in the system for 12 years only to end up not being able to write their name; not just a few individuals, sometimes it is a collective,” researcher at the National Centre for Educational Research and Development Kamal Mougheeth said.
Mougheeth, who was a history teacher himself for 11 years, explained that “good teachers” are those who were apt at guessing what would most likely befall students in terms of exam content based on previous exam monitoring.
“Private tutoring is not guaranteed as better education quality,” he said. The system still primarily relies on memorisation rather than critical thinking. Centres tap into the knowledge that the only way students reach the grades they want is by jotting down the answers the Ministry of Education expects.
Growing need of private tutoring
Private tutoring is not a recent phenomenon in Egypt and the faltering state of its education has been a constant theme and struggle, which feeds into other factors such as employment and an unstable economy.
Public schools are believed to bear the brunt. In a public school, a teacher receives between EGP 1,000 and 1,200 as a monthly salary, which means that they often must find a second job, with many restoring to waiting tables or driving a tuk-tuk or a taxi.
According to Mougheeth, in the 1970s there were very few private schools and there was no real need for private tutoring because there was substantial governmental effort in assuring that education was effective in universities and schools. Furthermore, a public teacher used to receive the equivalent of EGP 5,000 a month.
However, in the Mubarak era, a clear economical shift led teachers be paid the equivalent of a fifth of their previous salaries. Teachers were still required to work in the public education sector to be qualified for promotion after a few years of working within the system.
The idea of private tutoring proved to be a practical solution for all teachers who received students willing to pay extra money for education. The period prior to examinations in particular is a lucrative ordeal.
Mougheeth attempted to calculate how much a tutor at a village school would make a day: by renting the space of a local theatre for EGP 5,000, charging EGP 100 per student, he could potentially end up with EGP 250,000 in profit a day. Stories often circulate of famous professors who would rent conference halls to cater to all the students they receive.
“I attended classes at a centre where the teacher was teaching maybe between 150 and 200 students with a microphone and it was more like an event. I do not think it really helped the students prepare for the exam. It gave them a feeling of security and they were expecting teachers to give them very important hints about what would be in the exams,’’ Hartmann said.
In this regard, there is a similar focus where the teachers and centres meet: students are expected to excel to boost the centres’ reputations and by doing so, profits are expected to increase. “Money paid by private households, parents, and students goes directly to the teachers. If this money goes to the system [instead], it could be in a very good state,” Hartmann concluded.