Student life in... Egypt

Ricky Ghosh finds out what it's like to be a university student in one of the world's most ancient centres of learning
Student life
On campus

Education has been respected in Egypt since the time of the Pharaohs. The Ancient Egyptians pioneered the use of papyrus as a writing material and also had forms of higher education. Their Ancient Library of Alexandria was one of the seven wonders of the world. Aiming to collect all the world's knowledge, it was a significant centre of learning until it was destroyed in a fire (possibly by Julius Caesar) in 48BC.

Old and new

Today's Al Azhar University in Cairo, founded in 970 AD, is a leading seat of Islamic scholarship and one of the oldest universities in the world. As well as theology, religious law, jurisprudence and philosophy, it also offers degrees in medicine, engineering, and agriculture. It accepts female students, but in a separate faculty.

The plural modern higher education system in Egypt is mostly a result of the modernising efforts of Pasha Mohammed Ali, who ruled during the nineteenth century. He sponsored scholars from Al Azhar to travel to European capitals and gather knowledge, in order to help to develop their own country upon their return.

Currently, there are 17 public universities in Egypt as well as several private ones. 30 per cent of young Egyptians go to university, the vast majority through the public system. The most renowned of the private institutions, the American University of Cairo (or "AUC Egypt") is one of the leading universities in the region but also very exclusive, and expensive, charging fees of up to almost £7,000 per semester. AUC educates the elites of Egyptian society and provides many government and business leaders.

Most BSc and BA degrees take four years although ones in engineering and dentistry take longer, and it takes six years to qualify as a medic. The most popular courses are in the humanities and social sciences and the OECD has said that there is a "chronic oversupply" of graduates in these fields. Cairo has one of the highest ratios of lawyers to people in the world, and there's a popular apocryphal story about the number of law graduates working as taxi drivers.

In a spin

The university experience of students in the public universities is characterised by overcrowding and intense competition. Student revolutionary Mohammed Abbas described having to "sit in the aisles" in lecture halls. Contact time with tutors is generally limited to large classes and examination time. According to the Economist, standards of education at Egyptian public universities are "abysmal". Students often rely on older pupils or, for those who can afford it, private tuition to help them with academic problems, and only half of all university entrants leave with a degree. Academic salaries in public universities are low and, in researching this story, I heard stories of some university lecturers asking for special payments in return for passing graduates.

The problem of overcrowding is mostly due to policies brought in by President Nasser's left-wing regime during the 1970s and 80s. Nasser greatly expanded higher education and guaranteed jobs to graduates, leading to a deterioration in the quality of education and a massive increase in class sizes. Although the job guarantee has been limited by successive governments, it looks like the higher education sector will continue to expand in future years, given that a third of the population is under the age of 15 and there is a rapidly increasing birth rate.

Non-local students at the public universities are entitled to highly subsidised accommodation, usually in dormitories. Therefore, most students don't have the pressure of having to find a job during their time at university and are able to participate in the various extracurricular activities available. Sports, particularly football, are popular with male students, although less mainstream sports (including ultimate frisbee) are also thriving. Students, especially at Cairo University, are politically active, with major opposition parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood having large student memberships.

On the market

Marriage and marriage prospects are an important concern for Egyptian students and one of the main motivations for taking a degree. Graduates have a great deal of social status and priority in the "marriage market", in which parents play a big negotiating role. Due to the significant expenses involved in getting married in Egypt, engagements can last several years.

Job prospects for graduates (at least from the public universities) are relatively uncertain. Unemployment rose to 11.8 per cent in 2011 and the recent political instability has also hurt the economy, especially in the important tourism sector. The OECD states that "large numbers of higher education graduates are unemployed or underemployed" and estimates that informal employment is at 61 per cent with university graduates making up much of this sector. Private recruitment is mostly through word of mouth and family networks. According to student Alaa Zohary, "what is important is who you know, not what you can do". Many students, especially the better-off from the private universities, study or work abroad, often in other Arab countries as well as the US and the UK.

This lack of opportunities for students has undoubtedly contributed to the recent political unrest, with young people making up the majority of the protestors in Tahrir Square.