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Education underspend dents Egypt’s long-term prospects

Egyptian schools sometimes operate in shifts to avoid classroom overcrowding and the country is facing a shortage of more than 300,000 teachers Alamy via Reuters
Egyptian schools sometimes operate in shifts to avoid classroom overcrowding and the country is facing a shortage of more than 300,000 teachers
  • Education spend short of target
  • State debt partly to blame
  • STEM degrees are too expensive

Egypt’s failure to meet its constitutionally mandated spending on education – partly as a result of spiralling state debts – is hurting its long-term development.

The country’s education sector plan for 2023-2027 estimates 1.5 million children were out of school in 2021 and that 250,000 additional classrooms must be built to accommodate the current school age population. However, only 15,000 are added annually.

“The quality of education in Egypt has been a long-term problem,” says Ragui Assaad, professor of planning and public affairs at the University of Minnesota, whose research specialises in education and labour markets in Egypt.

According to Egypt’s 2014 constitution, the government should spend at least 4 percent of gross national product (GNP) on primary and secondary education and a further 2 percent on university education. GNP is similar to, but broader than,  GDP and includes money generated by citizens living abroad.

The education plan notes that Egypt’s education budget amounts to only 2.6 percent of GDP because of the country’s huge debt servicing burden.

The country’s public external debt – money borrowed in foreign currencies – was $110 billion in 2022, having more than trebled over the preceding decade, the most recent data from the World Bank shows. Two-thirds of state revenue will be spent on interest payments this year.

The annual budget allocates EGP 230 billion to education. Yet to meet its constitutional commitments this should be EGP 710 billion, according to the American University in Cairo.

“Although spending has increased in absolute terms using current prices, it has declined when measured both as a percentage of total government spending and as a percentage of GDP,” a report by the university states, saying staff wages account for nearly three-quarters of education spending.

Some schools operate two or three-shift systems because of a lack of classroom space, the university says, noting a further shortage of 320,000 teachers.

“Public sector education … is plagued by corruption, unprofessional teachers, an underfunded education system, overcrowded classrooms, poor facilities and a redundant curriculum,” Jouna Khaldoun wrote in a September 2022 paper for the Buc Centre for Global Affairs.

On average there are 45 students per public classroom and this number has been increasing steadily since at least 2015, according to Khaldoun.

Only one in five grade four students reach the low benchmark for reading and fewer than one in three achieved a similar threshold for mathematics, official data shows.

“Parents’ response to their children receiving low-quality education has been to pay for additional private tuition,” says Assaad.

After nine years of mandatory education, students are split into two streams – technical and general. Assaad estimates that 60 percent of students enter the former and 40 percent the latter, which is tailored towards preparing students for university.

The general track is subdivided into science and arts. Most students opt for arts because it is simpler to memorise the necessary information to pass their exams and enter university.

Yet in doing so, such students will be ineligible to study vocational degrees such as medicine and engineering which are much needed in Egypt, Assaad explained. Arts encompasses the likes of business, humanities and social sciences.

The education ministry provides few places for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) university degree courses because these are more expensive, partly as a result of there being far lower student-to-teacher ratios than for arts-based degrees.

“There’s a glut of graduates in these theoretical subjects, which generally have far weaker prospects in the labour market versus students graduating with STEM and medical degrees,” said Assaad.

Around 45 percent of Egypt’s working-age population hold the technical secondary school qualification and enter the labour market aged 18, while about 25 percent have higher education degrees, Assaad estimates.

“Egypt spends a disproportionate amount of its education budget on university education, but spending on basic level education should be the priority,” he added.

“By the time you get to university, most people in the bottom three-quarters of the income distribution have been filtered out. So, essentially, you’re subsidising the already rich.”

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