Every year, the announcement of the results of Egypt’s general secondary exams and the subsequent university placement process triggers much debate and controversy about these tests and the overall education system. The bulk of families’ education spending occurs at the general secondary stage because it plays the key role in determining students’ higher education pathways. The placement system determines this pathway and distributes students across universities based on their test scores. Most resources are directed toward private lessons to improve children’s chances of obtaining a high score and thereby accessing the desired faculty.
However, this year was different. Not only was it the second year of the COVID-19 crisis but also the first instance of a cohort graduating under a new exam system. The latter follows a different assessment philosophy that aims to avert many of the previous system’s issues, such as cheating, leaked exams, and reliance on model answers. This year, the tests were open-book, marked electronically, and consisted of multiple-choice questions ordered differently on each paper. The new general secondary system and its philosophy and tools are part of a broader education reform policy that first emerged when Tarek Shawki became minister of education in 2017. In 2019, it transformed into a national education project under the name “Education 2.0”.
This article presents the key features, goals, and actors of the project to reform Egyptian education and its representation in political and media discourse as well as public debate. My conclusion situates this project in relation to the historical context and political dimension of the transformation and reformation of Egyptian education.
Education 2.0: The Old Framework and the New Framework
Shawki describes Egypt’s current education as a dilapidated framework on the verge of collapse and “a crime we committed against our children”. He sees the key problems as reliance on memorization and rote instruction, and assessment via key, decisive tests that make the goal of the education process passing the test rather than learning. Explaining his policy, Shawki aims not to salvage the old framework but to build a new framework on different foundations, namely comprehension, critical thinking, student centrality, practical application, career preparation, and the use of technology. This means progressively developing new curricula for all levels of education, beginning with kindergarten. The new curricula will focus on the skills demanded and desired at the end of the education process according to international standards for assessment and education. The new policy also includes the use of modern and interactive tools for delivering information. So far, the ministry has finished the curricula from the beginning of education to grade four in primary school. Recently, Shawki announced that the new curricula’s development will be accelerated so that the effects of the reform will appear more clearly soon.
As for the students under the old framework, although the curricula at the advanced levels of schooling have not been revised, the reform changes the assessment system by introducing year-to-year cumulative assessment and changing the testing method, as occurred in the general secondary exams this year. It therefore attempts to salvage what it can, i.e. to avert the drilling of model answers in private lessons and the problem of leaked exams, to encourage students to learn and to think independently, and – most importantly – to abolish the concept of one exam that determines a student’s fate.
The Controversy over Education Reform in Egypt
The World Bank’s report on the loan granted for Egypt’s education reform states that the project “seeks change at the policy, system, and practice levels” and “intends to influence the entire education system at the central, directorate, district, school, and classroom levels”. This ambitiousness is the project’s strength as well as one of its most significant risks as it requires “unprecedented significant and sustained commitment and great political will and stakeholder buy-in”.
In terms of political will, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s discourse on education reform has gradually transformed. Nobody can forget his famous 2016 quote, “What use is education to a lost nation?”. When placed in its context, this remark implies that education reform – although very important – is not a spending priority for the state, unlike eliminating poverty and unemployment and achieving stability. Hence, the president’s reaction to the idea of education reform at that time was to ask, “Where from? How much?”. In other words, what are the sources of funding for radical education reform? This tone changed when the new project began. In 2018, el-Sisi underscored the need to “trust”, “bear the cost”, and “sacrifice” in order to build the future and escape “poverty and destitution”. Then he declared 2019 the “Year of Education”. Finally, the president’s most recent statement in 2021, delivered in the wake of the general secondary results, emphasized the need for change and that, “The problem is that we have not changed for50 years, and have become captives of this unchanging reality”. The evolution of the president’s discourse reflects several issues in the project to develop education that have been raised in technical reports, the media, and public debate on the subject.
The first issue is funding: “From where? How much?”. Despite the stipulation that 4% of the state budget be allocated to education in Article 19 of the Constitution, as well as support from international institutions via the World Bank loan, the question of the sources of funding for radical education reform remains pressing. Even the World Bank’s report considers one of the project’s risks to be that sustained funding from state resources is not guaranteed. Many sources confirm that the most problematic expenditure is teachers’ salaries. Undoubtedly, there is a dire need for a comprehensive review of the salary system, especially if combating private lessons is one of the new system’s key goals as many teachers rely on them for supplemental income. Yet a 2019 decision froze teachers’ base salary at the 2014 nominal level. Hence, the real salary is actually decreasing when factoring inflation. Although a decision to provide performance incentives for teachers who pass training was issued in February 2021, the salary issue remains pressing as teachers are the cornerstone that will determine the success or failure of education reform in Egypt. Education 2.0 seeks to train teachers rapidly and intensively as a central component of the reform. The question remains, how will teachers manage to develop themselves and apply the new system given the inadequate salary and remuneration for practicing the profession?
Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic brought new challenges. While it accelerated the application of certain parts of the education reform project – most importantly the use of technology, which became imperative – it underscored other problems. These issues include unequal internet access (coverage varies widely among the large and small cities and villages) and the need to provide tools and devices (such as tablets) to students and train both teachers and students to use them.
From another angle, the World Bank’s report addressed the importance of citizen engagement to the reform project’s successful implementation. In this regard, another issue has emerged in public debate, namely the existence of so-called resistance to the reforms from students’ families. On one hand, there have been steps to improve communication, including the provision of information about the project on the website of the Ministry of Education, frequent statements by Shawki, and his talk show interviews. Community-based initiatives tracking and documenting the project – such as the Education 2.0 Research & Documentation Project launched in the Social Research Center of the American University in Cairo in 2018 – have also emerged. On the other hand, despite the emphasis that the reform involves everyone and can only succeed with universal cooperation, a more inclusive community dialogue remains absent. Moreover, the president and minister continue to respond to families’ concerns by blaming them for rejecting change and over-pressuring children to pass exams, and for the persistence of the old system, calling on them to “trust” and “bear the cost” of change.
What Lies Behind the Education Reform? Questions About the New Education Philosophy
Undoubtedly, Education 2.0 does – as it is presented – go beyond quantitative and partial reform and aspire to achieve a real reorientation of Egyptian education reflected directly in the prospective curricula. Nevertheless, there are several key questions concerning the project’s philosophy, the steps for implementation, and – more broadly – education in Egypt.
A research paper emanating from Harvard University states that education reform in Egypt has so far followed a top-down approach. This approach is evident in our earlier discussion about the exclusion of students’ families and their portrayal as opponents of reform. However, it also extends to the exclusion of civil society organizations. Many initiatives concerned with education and alternative education have been operating independently for some time, and their expertise has not been incorporated into the reform project nor the dialogue surrounding it. A Mada Masr report shows that some people envisage an education system that is not only participatory but also decentralized, i.e. one whose application is tailored to local contexts and environments. Some of them dream of non-traditional education, i.e. education that can occur in open spaces or outdoors in addition to school buildings or closed classrooms. While the state’s imagination may not go this far, society and civil society’s imagination is broader. Hence, the top-down approach deprives the education reform project of many opportunities to achieve real participation and ensure sustainability, and even limits aspirations for change.
From another angle, education issues in Egypt have always been surrounded by controversy and divergent views, especially regarding the goal of education and who has a right to it. During the early decades of the 20th century, there were two visions: the first held that education aims to create a national elite to lead society and therefore should only be available to those who are capable and will form this elite. The second held that education aims to achieve actual national liberation and must therefore be available to everyone free of charge “like water and air”, as Taha Hussein said. While the second vision prevailed with the introduction of universally free education at all levels in 1950 and then the 1952 revolution, socioeconomic differences in society began (or continued) to increasingly separate the education of the elite from the education of the general public. Today, these differences are reflected in the large discrepancy between private education and public education. There is also a discrepancy within private education between local schools and international schools, which charge high fees in exchange for high-quality international certifications. From another angle, the trend towards a market economy, which began with the policy of “openness” in the late 1970s and became clearer with the adoption of neoliberalism in the early 1990s, brought new conceptions concerning education’s role in preparing the workforce and productive citizens capable of competing in a market ruled by the private sector. As for higher education, the Free Officers state entrenched the idea that it is a means of upward social mobility (reflected in the saying that the son of a farmer can become a doctor). Although rising poverty rates and the state apparatus’ inability to absorb the number of graduates – in addition to the transition to a market economy – posed real obstacles to the hoped-for upward trajectories, the idea remains prevalent. This explains why the general secondary exams provoke so much anxiety, controversy, and trouble among citizens.
The current education reform project brings a mixture of ideas, visions, and tools. On one hand, the “new framework” – i.e. the new curricula – is being applied to everyone, or at least to everyone under the Egyptian system (both public and private schools but not international schools) and therefore aims to promote national education. On the other hand, the disparity in capacities between private schools and public schools will produce differences in the quality of application, especially as the project relies on electronic devices and teacher training and funding is problematic.
As for the goal of education, the minister and president’s discourse mixes three attitudes. The first and most prominent is that education serves the labor market. The second is the insistence, particularly by Shawki, that independent thinking is important. The third is the president’s insistence that education is about not just knowledge but also “behavior and values” and “crafting the person”. The second and third dimensions lead us to the final question: What kind of person or citizen does the current regime seek to craft?
Education cannot be isolated from the intellectual and political context of society. Not only is Egypt’s current education system unconducive to the creation of citizenry actively engaged in democratic political life, but it has also constantly been harnessed to protect the status quo and legitimize the existing regime. Hence, even if the minister of education insists on the importance of independent and critical thinking, the earnestness of these goals remains in doubt for several reasons. These reasons include the focus on technical aspects and practical skills, the exclusion of society via the top-down approach, and the continuing – nay escalating – constriction of freedoms, particularly the restriction of freedom of expression and the closure and use of various tools to control artistic and cultural spaces.
Keywords: Egypt, Education, Education reform, Education 2.0, Funding
 In this article, I focus only on mainstream education and do not address the steps to reform the alternative vocational track.
 This paragraph relies on several sources, including the following:
Speeches and interviews by the minister of education, documented by the Education 2.0 Research & Documentation Project.
Nathan J. Brown and Mayss Al Alami, “A Walk on the Wild Side?”, November 2017, Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center – Diwan.
“How Will Egypt Reform Its Education System?”, Oxford Business Group.
 Report on the loan to support education reform in Egypt, World Bank, March 2018.
 Amru Ala al-Din, “al-Qissa al-Kamila li-Tajmid Murattabat al-Mu’allimin”, Akhbar Elyoum, 3 February 2019.
 Mohamed Ashraf Abu Emaira, “‘Arabat Naqisa fi Qitar Tatwir al-Ta’lim”, Mada Masr, 1 August 2019.
 Nada Arafat, “Hal Intalaqa al-Ta’lim al-Iliktruniyy Qabla al-Awan?”, Mada Masr, 20 May 2020.
 Nariman Mostafa, Ebtehal el Ghamrawy, Claire Hao, and Katherine King, “Education 2.0: A Vision for Educational Transformation in Egypt” (poster), Student Research Symposium, Harvard University, Education 2.0 Research & Documentation Project.
 Mohamed Ashraf Abu Emaira, “’Arabat Naqisa”, op. cit.
 Nariman Mostafa et al., “Education 2.0”, op. cit.
 Ahmed Abdalla, The Student Movement and National Politics in Egypt: 1923-1973, American University in Cairo Press, 2008.
 Marwan Muasher and Nathan J. Brown, “Engaging Society to Reform Arab Education: From Schooling to Learning”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
 Nadim Mirshak, “Authoritarianism, Education and the Limits of Political Socialisation in Egypt”, Power and Education, vol. 12, is. 1, 2020.