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The dawn of the 1990s found Egypt facing serious problems in education—problems compounded by low literacy rates and an exploding population. Educational quality, particularly in basic education and in technical and vocational education, had seriously declined. Increasing numbers of graduates were unemployable and virtually untrainable. The curriculum was generally irrelevant to the students. School quality was uneven, with better quality schools in urban areas where the wealthy could pay for tutoring. Teachers lacked training in pedagogy. Learning, conducted with martial drills and physical punishment, encouraged rote memorization rather than critical thinking. For many Egyptian children, the result was fragmented information, "never to be ground into knowledge." In-service training, encumbered in bureaucracy and inconsistent funding, was shunned by many teachers in favor of tutoring for extra income. Pre-school assessment procedures did not exist. Required exams in primary and preparatory schools were often poorly designed. The national secondary final exam was fact-recall. Free education coupled with the population explosion led to burgeoning enrollments at all stages; an expansion beyond the capacities of the schools. Chronic teacher shortages, especially in rural primary schools, resulted from low prestige, low pay, and migration of teachers to better jobs in other countries.

In 1985-1986, nearly 155,000 primary and secondary teachers served 9.6 million people, a ratio of about 62 students per teacher. An over-abundance of administrators depleted salary budgets. Serious underfunding was reflected in deteriorating buildings, overcrowded schools and classrooms, poor or absent libraries, and lack of technology. Some city schools operated two and even three shifts daily. Crowded public classrooms held as many as 100 students in some Cairo schools, which was not the case in private schools. Only 31 percent of primary children attended a full-day school system. Most secondary schools lacked scientific laboratory and computer equipment.

Comprehensive educational planning tying educational programs and output to national needs was lacking. A serious mismatch between supply and demand produced incompetent degree-holders in unwanted subjects. Unemployment was high. Almost half of the students did not complete the basic school. Attendance was often poor and laws requiring primary school attendance were not enforced. Significant regional differences existed with nearly 90 percent of the urban children attending school, but that percentage was often far less than 50 percent for rural children. Dropout and grade repetition rates were high. Against this backdrop, massive changes began in the 1990s.

Egypt is in the midst of these changes as it implements a sweeping revision of its educational system; a revision aimed at upgrading and modernizing and transforming it into a coherent, continuous educational process. The primary and preparatory curricula were redesigned to be more relevant and more scientific with emphasis on experimentation and critical thinking. Texts and teaching manuals were revised. Kindergarten was designated as a part of the formal system and included in the comprehensive planning. Gender and rural/urban inequities and illiteracy are being addressed with special rural programs targeting girls, programs designed to be flexible and relevant to local needs.

To improve the quality and quantity of the teaching staff, pre-service and in-service training was revised and performance-related (merit) pay and changes in the technical standards of supervisors and inspectors instituted. Curriculum and texts are under revision in industrial schools with new specializations.

Medical insurance is provided for students in kindergarten and basic education, financed by charging the children four Egyptian pounds annually. (Private school students pay more.) These fees, plus fees for "additional services" and for taking primary and preparatory school exams, and the price of uniforms and tutoring costs (averaging 10 percent of family income per child in 1997) effectively removed the "free" from free education placing it out of reach for Egypt's poorest. No fees are charged however, in the rural community and one-classroom schools or to orphans whose fathers died in military or government service.

Education in Egypt will continue to face shortages of teachers, schools, and equipment unless the state makes a far greater financial commitment. Two decades of dropping birth rates means that the school-age population peaked in 1997 that should help to prevent shortages from worsening, but there is still a tremendous shortfall. The mechanistic learning of concepts and textbook-dependent learning and teaching are ingrained in the system. As long as testing is fact-dominated and doesn't cover higher order skills such as critical thinking and analysis of problems, teachers and tutors will continue to teach to the test and the lecture-rote system will persevere. In-service teacher training, distance learning, and technology may help, but so far they reach relatively few teachers. The rigid centralized bureaucracy clogged with excess seniority-promoted staff is cumbersome and slow moving and the highly centralized educational planning and policy-making tend to disenfranchise the very people at the local level who are entrusted with achieving its goals. Local districts need to be able to make adjustments suited to local needs.

Mindful of the lessons of Iran and Algeria, Egypt has so far curbed the violence and intrusion of the militant Islamic movement, something that is a concern for the future. Islamic militancy is the response to the grinding poverty, unemployment, and under-privilege of the masses and will continue so long as these conditions exist. The undercurrent of Islamic opposition to foreign ideas and western secular education still lurks however, and could ignite in the face of the sweeping educational changes aimed in that direction. Illiteracy is still extremely high, and eradication must continue to be a priority. The state's multi-pronged initiatives of the 1990s appear to be working and need to continue, as does the development of the rural alternative schools. Quality has not kept pace with quantity at the university level and there still appears to be a mismatch between university graduates and the fields of manpower needs and skill levels needs. Communication among agencies at the top educational levels is reported to be good. Vertical communication is poor however, as vividly illustrated by the attempt to impose national tests on the governates. Communication between policy-makers in national offices and regional and local implementers needs to be vastly improved.

Egypt recognizes the weaknesses and problems in its educational system and has gone to great lengths to address them, but there is a vast difference between idealized plans and implementation. A system short on resources, stifled by bureaucracy, and lacking in local expertise moves slowly. Only time will tell how well the comprehensive efforts of the 1990s to make education more relevant to national needs are working. Egypt has a long expensive road to travel given the enormity of illiteracy and vast educational shortages. The financial improvement at the millennium, stemming from rising oil revenues and better fiscal management, gives the education future a rosier glow than a decade ago.


Razik, Taher, and Diaa El-Din A. Zaher. "Egypt." In Issues and Problems in Teacher Education: An International Handbook, edited by Howard B. Leavitt, 91-108. New York: Greenwood Press, 1992.

Richards. Alan. "Higher Education in Egypt." Education and Employment Working Papers (WPS), no. 862. Washington, DC: World Bank, 1992.

Shaw-Smith, Peter. "Egyptians Welcome British Initiative." Times (London) Higher Education Supplement, 27 October 2000.

Soliman, Azza Abdel-Aziz. The Current Status of Pre-University Education and Its Regional Disparity in Egypt. Cairo Demographic Center, 1994.

Swan, Michael K., and Ismail Abd El-Fattah Aly. "Rural Education and Training in Egypt." Agricultural Education Magazine 68, no. 4 (1995): 11-13.

Wise, Michael, and Anthony Olden, ed. Information and Libraries in the Arab World. London: Library Association, 1994.

The World of Learning 2001. 51st ed. London: Europa Publications, 2000.

—M. June Allard and Pamela R. McKay

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Education - Free Encyclopedia Search EngineGlobal Education ReferenceEgypt - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education