Egypt Table of Contents

Prior to the nineteenth century, the ulama and Coptic clergy controlled Egypt's traditional education. The country's most important institutes were theological seminaries, but most mosques and churches--even in villages--operated basic schools where boys could learn to read and write Arabic, to do simple arithmetic, and to memorize passages from the Quran or Bible. Muhammad Ali established the system of modern secular education in the early nineteenth century to provide technically trained cadres for his civil administration and military. His grandson, Ismail, greatly expanded the system by creating a network of public schools at the primary, secondary, and higher levels. Ismail's wife set up the first school for girls in 1873. Between 1882 and 1922, when the country was under British administration, state education did not expand. However, numerous private schools, including Egypt's first secular university, were established. After direct British rule ended, Egypt adopted a new constitution that proclaimed the state's responsibility to ensure adequate primary schools for all Egyptians. Nevertheless, education generally remained accessible only to the elite. At the time of the 1952 Revolution, fewer than 50 percent of all primary-school-age children attended school, and the majority of the children who were enrolled were boys. Nearly 75 percent of the population over ten years of age was illiterate. More than 90 percent of the females in this age group were illiterate.

The Free Officers dramatically expanded educational opportunities. They pledged to provide free education for all citizens and abolished all fees for public schools. They doubled the Ministry of Education's budget in one decade; government spending on education grew from less than 3 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) in 1952-53 to more than 5 percent by 1978. Expenditures on school construction increased 1,000 percent between 1952 and 1976, and the total number of primary schools doubled to 10,000. By the mid-1970s, the educational budget represented more than 25 percent of the government's total current budget expenses. Since the mid-1970s, however, the government has virtually abandoned the country's earlier educational goals. Consequently, public investment in new educational infrastructure has declined in relation to total educational expenditures; about 85 percent of the Ministry of Education's budget has been designated for salaries.

From academic year 1953-54 through 1965-66, overall enrollments more than doubled. They almost doubled again from 1965-66 through 1975-76. Since 1975 primary-school enrollments have continued to grow at an average of 4.1 percent annually, and intermediate school (grades seven through nine) at an average of 6.9 percent annually. The proportion of the population with some secondary education more than doubled between 1960 and 1976; the number of people with some university education nearly tripled. Women made great educational gains: the percentage of women with preuniversity education grew more than 300 percent while women with university education grew more than 600 percent. By academic year 1985-86, about 84 percent of the primary- school-age population (more than 6 million of the 7.2 million children between the ages of seven and twelve) were enrolled in primary school. Less than 30 percent of eligible youth, however, attended intermediate and secondary schools. Because as many as 16 percent of Egyptian children were receiving no education in the 1980s, the literacy rate lagged behind the expansion in enrollments; in 1990 only 45 percent of the population could read and write.

Law Number 139 of 1981, which defined the structure of preuniversity public education, made the nine-year basic cycle compulsory. Regardless of this law, most parents removed their children from school before they completed ninth grade. The basic cycle included six years of primary school and three years of intermediate school. Promotion from primary to intermediate school was contingent upon obtaining passing scores on special examinations. Admission to the three-year secondary cycle (grades ten through twelve) also was determined by examination scores. Secondary students chose between a general (college preparatory) curriculum and a technical curriculum. During the eleventh and twelfth grades, students in the general curriculum concentrated their studies on the humanities, mathematics, or the sciences. Students in the technical curriculum studied agriculture, communications, or industry. Students could advance between grades only after they received satisfactory scores on standardized tests. The Ministry of Education, however, strictly limited the number of times a student could retake an examination.

Various government ministries also operated training institutes that accepted students who had completed the basic cycle. Training- institute programs, which incorporated both secondary and postsecondary vocational education, varied in length and provided certificates to students who successfully completed the prescribed curricula. Teacher-training institutes, for example, offered a five-year program. In the academic year 1985-86, approximately 85,000 students were enrolled in all training programs; 60 percent of the enrollees were women.

As of 1990, problems persisted in Egypt's education system. For example, the government did not enforce laws requiring primary- school-age children to attend school. In some areas, as many as 50 percent of the formally enrolled children did not regularly attend classes. There were also significant regional differences in the primary-school enrollment rate. In urban areas, nearly 90 percent of the school-age children attended. In some rural areas of Upper Egypt, only 50 percent attended. Overall, only half of the students enrolled in primary school completed all six grades.

The enrollment rate for girls continued to be significantly lower than for boys. Although increases in the number of girls enrolled in school were greater than they were for boys in the 1960s and 1970s, boys still outnumbered girls at every educational level. In 1985-86, for example, only 45 percent of all primary students were girls. An estimated 75 percent of girls between the ages of six and twelve were enrolled in primary school compared with 94 percent of boys in the same age-group. Girls' primary- school enrollment was lowest in Upper Egypt, where less than 30 percent of all students were girls. Girls also dropped out of primary school more frequently than boys. About 66 percent of the boys beginning primary school completed the primary cycle, while only 57 percent of the girls completed all six grades. Girls accounted for about 41 percent of total intermediate school enrollment and 39 percent of secondary school enrollment. Among all girls aged twelve to eighteen in 1985-86, only 46 percent were enrolled in school.

The shortage of teachers was a chronic problem, especially in rural primary schools. Under British rule, educated Egyptians had perceived teaching as a career that lacked prestige. Young people chose this career only when there was no other option or when it would serve as a stepping-stone to a more lucrative career in law. Despite improvements in training and salaries, teaching--especially at the primary level--remained a low-status career. In 1985-86, Egypt's primary and secondary schools employed only 155,000 teachers to serve 9.6 million pupils--a ratio of about 62 students per teacher. Some city schools were so crowded that they operated two shifts daily. Many Egyptian teachers preferred to go abroad, where salaries were higher and classroom conditions better. During the 1980s, the government granted 30,000 exit visas a year to teachers who had contracts to teach in Arab countries.

Higher education expanded even more dramatically than the preuniversity system. In the first ten years following the 1952 Revolution, spending on higher education increased 400 percent. Between academic years 1951-52 and 1978-79, student enrollment in public universities grew nearly 1,400 percent. In 1989-90 there were fourteen public universities with a total enrollment of 700,000. More than half of these institutions were established as autonomous universities after 1952, four in the 1970s and five in the 1980s. The total number of female college students had doubled; by 1985-86 women accounted for 32 percent of all students. In the 1980s, public universities--accounting for roughly 7 percent of total student enrollment--received more than one-fourth of all current education-budget spending.

Since the late 1970s, government policies have attempted to reorient postsecondary education. The state expanded technical training programs in agriculture, commerce, and a variety of other fields. Student subsidies were partially responsible for a 15 percent annual increase in enrollments in the country's five-year technical institutes. The technical institutes were set up to provide the growing private sector with trained personnel and to alleviate the shortage of skilled labor. Universities, however, permitted graduates of secondary schools and technical institutes to enroll as "external students," which meant they could not attend classes but were allowed to sit for examinations and to earn degrees. The policy resulted in a flourishing clandestine trade in class notes and overburdened professors with additional examinations. Further, widespread desire for a university degree led many students in technical institutes to view their curricula as simply a stepping-stone to a university degree.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress