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The Devil Or The Dustbowl


new internationalist
issue 248 - October 1993

The devil or the dustbowl
Government schools in Egypt are starved of funds.
Foreign institutions are booming but even if you can
afford them they carry dubious cultural baggage.
Karim Alrawi looks at the options for his own daughter.

My daughter is turning five years old. It is time for her to be launched into the world of school. But to choose a school for one’s child in Egypt is not a simple matter.

Egypt’s government schools are not just overcrowded but also desperately underfunded. The grim and grey concrete buildings stand in dustbowls in which the children spend their breaks. In most of these schools there are no patches of grass or beds of flowers to break the monotony of the stony playgrounds. The buildings are of poor quality, and the textbooks, printed on newsprint paper, are years out of date.

The curriculum is archaic and largely based on rote learning. There is no place for arts or sports, just the endless tedium of reciting facts out loud. Large parts of the curriculum are a product of a political underdevelopment. This is particularly true of religious education, which is beset with a narrowness that borders on bigotry. As part of the Government’s attempts to appease the rise in political Islam, they have accorded to fundamentalists a privileged position from which to influence education. The Islamists have concentrated on religious studies to disseminate their sectarian ideas to children.

It was not always like this. During the 1960s, a decade after independence, the Egyptian school system was of a standard with many European countries. That position has been eroded by two things: uncontrolled population growth, with a million new-born babies every ten months; and debt – though Egypt has less of a debt problem than many other developing countries, the burden of repayments has severely limited spending on social services and education. As a result parents who can afford it vie to send their children to foreign schools. The foreign-school market is growing – and a market it certainly is. Promises are thickly laid out before the prospective parent.

‘We are the best school in Cairo,’ I am told by one of the teachers at the British School around the back of the Cathedral. I suppose they should be, at $11,000 a year. ‘We teach our children enterprise,’ she says proudly.

‘The German School is the best,’ I am told by a parent waiting to have her four-year-old daughter examined for the German kindergarten. ‘They only take the children of government ministers.’ Then she confides in a whisper: ‘The Germans are the best at teaching enterprise.’

That leaves the Italian School, the French School, the American School and the Pakistan International School to visit. They all claim to give the best education, have lots of computers, love their kids to bits and teach them ‘enterprise’.

After a couple of weeks of researching the various options I realize that I have no idea which is the best school and which would be best for my daughter. I have no idea how anyone can judge fairly between them. They all have an array of smiling faces but each school teaches in a different language and according to a different curriculum. ‘Enterprise’ is the only key word connecting them all.

These élitist foreign schools have a further great advantage over the state sector in the access they have to further education. The government-funded universities operate a quota system that reserves places for foreign-school students: students with British GCSEs, for example, have 10 per cent of university places reserved for them. The students still have to achieve excellent grades to gain entry but they know there is a place just waiting for them if they achieve them, increasing the chances of their getting into the best universities in Cairo and Alexandria.

If they fail, there is always Egypt’s private university, the American University of Cairo (AUC). Fees are around $15,000 a year. The courses follow an American curriculum. The students all speak English, though many of them barely so. The students, who are often a product of the foreign-language education system, form a clique of young people who speak their own mix of English, French and Arabic. They never complete a sentence in any one language. Their vocabulary is that of American soap operas, French fashion magazines, and the Arabic of the nursery. A multilingualism that amounts to little more than a sophisticated inarticulateness makes them incomprehensible to all but their own kind.

Ironically, even the fundamentalists, for all their xenophobic outpourings, frequent the foreign institutions. Several of them send their children to AUC, where they attend classes bearded or veiled.

The implicit promise of these foreign academic institutions is that they increase a student’s chances of gaining grants and scholarships and continuing their education in Europe or the US. And yet a former education officer at the British Council assured me that graduates of the free state-run universities of Cairo and Alexandria gain a much greater share of overseas scholarships than do the fee-paying graduates of AUC.

It was no surprise to me to hear this. I once taught at AUC and know all too well that high fees are no guarantee of academic excellence. I recall students telephoning me at home to complain about their poor grades and demanding to be upgraded. They’d offer me gifts, which I would always refuse. Their exclamation of outrage would usually be followed by ‘but I pay my fees in dollars!’

The graduates of AUC are increasingly filling the positions of middle management at the local branches of foreign banks and businesses. As their numbers increase, they are becoming an ‘enterprising’ class of middlepeople, a cushion for foreign businesses in their dealings with the locals. It is a role similar to, though more subtle than, the one assigned to religious and racial minorities in the old British Empire.

I stopped teaching at AUC two years ago, but some things never go away. Earlier this year, I was shown the AUC theatre department’s newly-drafted booklet. My name was predominantly displayed as a faculty member and resident writer. I thought this to be both inaccurate and dishonest. I asked for an explanation. Dr Donald McDonald, the University President, was unperturbed. He explained that it was just part of the ‘enterprising’ business of attracting new students.

The culmination of all this ‘enterprise’ was brought home to me a few days ago when a woman telephoned to ask if it was true that I charged a thousand dollars for advice on creative writing. It transpired that an AUC student was running a nice little business advising aspiring writers – collecting their written material, then sending them back her analysis of their work. The only problem was that she was collecting a thousand dollars from each writer and signing my name on her critiques. It took a couple of days to extricate myself from the fraud and exonerate myself from any complicity in it.

The experience was salutary. It demonstrated how well students learn from these foreign institutions with academic pretensions. The example of high fees and false claims teaches them to be enterprising predators in search of an easy buck. It also makes me question whether I have made the right choice for my daughter’s education.

In the end I opted for the French School on the basis that the fees are reasonable, the curriculum is as taught in France and is overseen by inspectors from the French Ministry of Education. If nothing else, she will learn French to add to her English and Arabic.

But I continue to wonder what this will mean for her. I feel like the chronic underfunding and inadequacy of the government schools left me with no choice – but I also know that she will now be educated into a culture that is not her own.

Karim Alrawi is one of Egypt’s leading playwrights.

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New Internationalist issue 248 magazine cover This article is from the October 1993 issue of New Internationalist.
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