Education and Civil Society

By Shahera Youssef


Shahera Youssef discusses the dire need for civil society organizations to assist in the reformation and improvement of formal education systems in Egypt.
One of the many workshops which were held as a part of the Institute of Cultural Affairs International conference on 'The Rise of Civil Society in the XXIst Century' was a facilitated workshop on the role of education in civil society. The workshop was facilitated by Dr. Mona Makram Ebeid, former member of the Egyptian Parliament, acting President of the Association for the Advancement of Education, and Professor at the American University in Cairo. As a member of an Egyptian parliamentary committee on education and a member of the committee on education she pushed through important reforms for Egypt's educational system. Also, as President of the Association for the Advancement of Education she promotes the idea of adopting schools and has herself adopted a girl's school to serve as a pilot.
The workshop began with an informative and inspiring introduction by Dr. Makram Ebeid on the role civil society can play in upgrading education. She alluded to the growing realization that the education system in Egypt is in desperate need of upgrading. Moreover almost all of the development systems that continue to be implemented do not focus on education. The government continues to see education as a luxury and thus it is often placed at the end of the budget allocations. There seems, however, finally to be a realization that all most all of Egypt's problems stem from the poor state of the education system.
Historically, education in Egypt has been strictly based on memorization. There has never been a system to create a curiosity in the minds of the students. Thus it is precisely in this area that non-governmental organizations, the media and civil society components in general can play an increasing positive role in education. Fortunately, Egypt currently has an enlightened Minister of Education who along with the Mubarak regime has acknowledged education as a national problem.
It is imperative that there be a state commitment to reform the current educational system. The realization of the need for state involvement in educational reform can be clearly seen by looking back at the last four or five years where the budget allocation for education has increased by five times. Therefore, now is the time to pressure the government and its educational institutions to reform the educational system. It is here where civil society must work with the government. We must change the distorted view commonly held today that civil society is opposed to the government. Civil society organizations need to pressure parliament to adopt new policies and new education legislation. Dr. Makram Ebeid reiterated the need to have access to political representatives and to the committees on education. She suggested that local NGOs invite members of the committees to be part of their organizations to ensure that these members share and hear the problems and desires of the communities.
Dr. Makram Ebeid continued to elaborate on the reform process and briefly defined civil society as groups of people bound by a common desire to reform. She said that civil society must complement the government by performing functions that it cannot do. She further added that there is a crucial need to redefine education and present it as an investment. Education needs to be explained as an investment in human capital and one with a high return rate. The most evident example of this high return rate is in Asia.
Egypt, for the past thirty-five years, has offered free education to every Egyptian citizen. The result of this is that no one is accountable for a ruined and exploited educational system. For example a student can fail and fail and fail and the government will continue to support him/her and continue to offer health insurance and other national social services. This has in turn created a mentality of dependence among the Egyptian people. Students from very early on are not taught to take initiatives and to be creative. Thus it is through civil society organizations that tolerance, self-initiative and analysis can be taught. Human rights is also another example of the areas in which NGOs have an important educational role to play. Dr. Makram Ebeid also reiterated how democracy is an acquired culture and as such it is much more than a ballot box and the signing of international documents. Although democracy is a label of our political system , however, we are neither taught nor required to practice the traits and principles of democracy. Thus again civil society organizations and NGOs can assist in creating this culture of democracy. The Third Wave of Democracy began with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War and since then democracy has touched all countries in one way or another.
With this Dr. Makram Ebeid gave a summarized profile of Egypt and its educational systems. In Egypt education is the single largest daily activity. One in every four Egyptians is either a pupil or teacher in the formal education system. Thus Egypt stands markedly higher than the seventy per cent world average. Between 1960 and 1990 Egypt witnessed significant increases in its educational process. Access to school is continuously growing and the percentage difference between girls and boys in primary school is exceptionally low. A large majority of children have access to formal primary education, however, there is still ample room for improvement. There has been an outstanding upgrade in the quantities of educational as opposed to educational quality. Moreover there is little or no coordination between educational outputs and the labor market needs and requirements.
Here Dr. Makram Ebeid offered an interesting interpretation of the continued rise of Islamic militants. She explained that the "Islam is the Solution" slogan is so appealing because the millions of graduates who have successfully completed the formal educational system realize that all that they have learned has taken them nowhere. Their many years of education, including university degrees, have left them unemployed for over twenty years in some cases. Thus improvement in formal educational systems in coordination with the demands of the labor market is an important goal for any developing country.
Returning to the successes of some of Egypt's efforts in the last thirty years, Dr. Makram Ebeid offered some statistics on Egyptian education figures. In 1960 38% of the female population was enrolled in primary school; in 1990 it was up to 44%. In 1960 28% of the female population was enrolled in secondary school; in 1990 it was it was up to 44%. These improvements have drastically reduced the gap between female and male recipients of formal education. Over 95% of Egypt's potential students attend primary school. Similarly the number of teachers continues to grow. In 1960 there were 103, 000 teachers; in 1990 there were 570,000 teachers. Also pupil-teacher ratios decreased by 50% decreasing significantly the number of students per classroom. Unfortunately, the advancement in the quantity of education in Egypt has not been paralleled by an advancement in the quality of education. Furthermore, there was and continues to be a drain of Egypt's most qualified teachers into the Gulf countries.
As stated earlier, there is great need for improvement of the quality of the formal educational system. Alongside of this there is a need to improve the conditions of the existing schools. The physical state of most of the government schools in deplorable. This is mainly a result of the lack of maintenance. However, this recently changed. Since what Dr. Makram Ebeid called a 'blessing in disguise', the earthquake of 1992, 1500 schools a year have been built. Moreover, the government successfully called upon the private sector to assist in the national recovery efforts. Thus there are growing efforts, both public and private, to renovate schools nation-wide.
Another issue which is in dire need of reform are the national curr. Curricula need to be strengthened and reorganized. The institutionalized practice of memorization as opposed to analyzing, problem solving and creativity must be abandoned. The educational system needs to raise responsible citizens who can take part in the future of society. Egypt's educational system can not afford not to take into account the information and technological revolution that we are all amidst. Introducing new skills will now reduce inequalities tomorrow. Therefore the world of tomorrow will not necessarily be as unequal if we are able to give today's students the skills and resources needed to cope with it.
However, in a nation where 1 million are born every ten months, more than the government and the private sector will be required to rectify the situation. Communal and parental involvement in reforming the school and educational process are a must. Also the school has a new function to play. The school, along with the parents of its students and the community in which it exists, will have a crucial role to play itself in the development process. The role of the school in Egypt should be that of a tool of development for the country. Also community schools have proven to be very successful because they create a link between local communities and the educational process. The First Lady of Egypt has promoted the idea of one rural classroom for girls in each village to teach them useful skills and to utilize their potentials. Overall there is a need on all levels, communal, local and national to push the slogan that education is the best, new investment.
Dr. Makram Ebeid concluded by reiterating that education is the backbone of development. She continued to explain the role of NGOs in relation to education. First, NGOs need to be encouraged to open private schools. Private schools, affiliated with NGOs, have consistently proven to be much more successful. This is mainly due to the greater control that they can have, the smaller classes and the reduced costs due to the lack of private tutoring and lessons. Also academic results have proven to be much higher and private, NGO related schools contribute more efficiently to the human development process.
An interesting issue that was brought up by one of the participants in the workshop was the right of children to learn and to express themselves. It is a constitutional decree that each child have the right to learn. Moreover, when a child can express himself he will be ready and able for the choices of the future. However, as long as he/she is constantly told what to do and forced to memorize he/she will never know how to make the best choices for him/herself. This then led to the idea that education and upbringing need to go hand in hand. Child development and personality development are crucial parts of the educational process. The rights of children need to be respected and upheld.
The same may be said for the teachers in schools. Teachers need to be better trained and motivated. There is a need to instill a sense of belonging among teacher to the problems of Egypt. The teachers need to know that they alone and not the government, are responsible for helping to solve the problems of today and tomorrow. Again private schools are beneficial in that they carefully choose their teachers, train them and remove them when necessary.
The workshop concluded with several recommendations on how civil society organizations and non-governmental organizations can assist in the reformation and improvement of formal educational systems. Of these were the need for civil society to serve as the link between the community and the government. This was suggested to be done by organizing community services and functions. Also by establishing community learning centers or NGO-sponsored schools. Most importantly, was that the organizations of civil society keep in close contact with their governments either through pressure groups or by continuous contact with their representatives. Finally, there was a strong consensus that it is the role of civil society to assist in the reformation of the existing formal educational systems in that education serves as the backbone of development and the vehicle of successful progress into the future.

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