The horse that pulls the carriage
Egypt’s new constitution, already in the making, promises to explicitly mention technical education in Egypt as warranting special enhancement. At the same time, technical education students are vocally demanding better opportunities. All of which means that the future of technical as opposed to regular education in Egypt is an issue bound to strongly impact the future of Egyptians
News of demonstrations by technical education students have made headlines in Egypt all through the last couple of weeks. They were demanding better opportunity at enrolling in university colleges that correspond to their technical study. Yet this year’s exceptionally high Thanawiya Amma (Egyptian high school diploma) grades have caused quite a stir because of the limited university places which cannot match the high demand; many school graduates have been deprived of taking up the place of their choice. Now the future of university education in Egypt is under scrutiny, especially the insistence of many families to enrol their children in higher education despite the diminishing job openings for university graduates. The viable alternative of technical education is widely sidelined by Egyptians who see it as inferior.
Technical education has, however, re-emerged as an alternative to university education, especially in that technology is the economic backbone of major industrial nations. Yet there is a chronic resistance to this type of education in Egypt. The lack of financing, resources and teaching staff, and the separation between theory and practice constitute the main obstacles, coupled with the low worth on both social and financial levels in which it is viewed.
Nevertheless, many experts believe technical education could play a major part in pulling the economy forward. To achieve its potential, however, it must stand on three firm foundations. First, unconventional suggestions must be dug out and must be supported by law and legislation. Second, universities and higher education institutions must adapt to the development of secondary technical education; and finally, the social and occupational image of technical school graduates must be enhanced and valued in society.
The necessary development will not take place if technical education is left under the sole supervision of the Ministry of Education, experts say. The solution is to adopt the policy of dual education whereby, in addition to school attendance, students are hired as apprentices by companies or institutions to acquire hands-on training and experience. This system, adopted in Europe and the United States, has the additional benefit of making the entire community a partner in the educational system.
About 2.2 million students are currently undergoing technical education in Egypt, where it is also termed vocational education because it encompasses many fields of expertise. The number of industrial education students amounts to more than a million, agricultural education to almost 270,000 and commercial education to almost 883,000. Technical education students pursue their education in 1,743 technical schools and constitute almost 63.3 per cent of total secondary school students.
Dual education and introducing school graduates to the labour market is not a new concept in Egypt; in fact, it has been applied since the 1960s. Specialised technical schools have been created to provide the labour force with qualified graduates in such fields as petroleum technology, monument restoration and information technology.
The existing system, however, is proving inefficient, and it is now time to give it a makeover. Ministry of Education officials assert that a plan has already been established to expand dual education by developing 750 technical schools, and there is now a special administration entirely dedicated to this issue. Coordination between provincial governors has been established to study the implementation of dual education and the demand of the labour market in their respective governorates.
It is now time for an awareness programme to be directed at major investors and factory owners to explain the benefits of dual education, and agreements must be drawn up for the use of their industrial plants and services as a training field for technical school students.
University degree = better marriage
No matter how hard the government tries to improve technical education, it is still the least appealing education option and definitely holds the lowest rank on the social scale. The mother of a student from Assiut in Upper Egypt says that although her daughter’s grades don’t allow her to enrol in regular secondary school, technical school is not even an option. She believes that enrolling her daughter in technical education will minimise her chances of marrying well. Having a technical school diploma will limit her suitors to young men with minimal education. To escape this fate, the family enrolled her in a private high school far away from their village with the hope that one day she will make it to university and guarantee a high social status.
Not only do wealthy rural families scorn technical education, but lower-income urban classes also share this point of view. A carpenter, whose son recently obtained his Eidadiya (preparatory school) certificate and must apply for high school, says that he had always hoped that his son would follow his path in carpentry. However, as his son was preparing to apply to the renowned Don Bosco Technical Institute he faced his mother’s strong opposition to his project. She believed the only way out of their poverty and low social status was to enrol their son in high school and afterwards in university. Reluctantly, the father had to abide by his wife’s wishes although he knew that his son, who had always struggled at school, could have made a skilful carpenter.
The negative social image with respect to technical school students is also shared by their fellow high school students. They say that personalities change once they go to technical school and they acquire bad habits such as truancy, smoking, and harassment of girls from neighbouring schools.
Investing in technical education
Magda Kandil, IMF senior economist and former executive director of the Egyptian Centre for Economic Studies (ECES), agrees that encouraging the private sector to invest in technical education is useless as long as the entire spectrum of society considers it inferior to regular education and hires graduates for low-wage jobs. Hence, reforming technical education must focus on two main targets: encouraging social mobility and justice along with giving technical education a primary role in economic and social development. It is therefore imperative to give the education policy a regular and thorough review to fill the gap between supply and demand in the labour market. Spending priorities must also be restructured to yield higher levels of return on education.
Dr Kandil says that despite the increase in technical graduate share in the labour force compared to that of university graduates, wage increases for technicians is drastically lower. This has led to inconsistency between the return on education and the employment demands, especially in the private sector. She stresses the importance of investing in technical education to increase the return on education in general, and is calling for employers to help design university and technical curricula.
Engineer Hussein Sabbour, chairman of the Egyptian Businessmen’s Association (EBA), says classrooms are definitely not the right place to conduct technical education reform. For the reform to carry any fruit, it must be based on hands-on experience at real production sites such as workshops and factories. Mr Sabbour blames investors and businessmen for their lack of contribution in technical and vocational training, and says they should play a more active role in this responsibility because increasing the technical skills of labour is the key to any industry’s success. He praises companies such as Arab Contractors, who are pioneers in this approach and provide their employees with excellent training before assigning them to construction sites.
Many countries can be considered role models in this field, whether with respect to government policies or investor participation. A developed country like Japan gives highest importance to apprenticeship in factories, using real industrial machinery. Many African countries ask foreign investors to train and employ local labour in return for providing special tax exemptions, a formula that satisfies all parties.
Customised for Egyptian workers
Naela Allouba, former head of EBA’s export committee, acknowledges the importance of a comprehensive training system to provide high-level technical training for both students and workers. The system, Ms Allouba says, must be designed so as to guide each trainee according to his or her personal skills and must be customised to fit the Egyptian working environment and the nature of Egyptian workers.
Saleh Shams al-Din, an Egyptian professor of nuclear chemistry who has worked for years in Austria, says the programme to reform technical education must include both social and financial solutions. Building new schools equipped with laboratories and training facilities requires enormous funding, and this could mean imposing additional taxes as the only possible source of financing. This solution, however, is unfeasible considering the current economic situation. To overcome this obstacle, Dr Shams al-Din suggests that all universities in the various governorates offer their laboratories and workshops for the training of technical school students until new ones can be built for technical students. In addition, university professors can contribute in the teaching process as a participation in the national project to enhance technical education. The benefits of this approach can help improve both the standard and the general image of technical education and can make technical students feel appreciated by the government which mobilises all its available resources for their best interest.
The road to engineering colleges
In parallel to these temporary solutions, Dr Shams al-Din says, a plan must be established to build a centre for technical education in each governorate equipped with educational and training facilities that match the standard of those in universities. In addition, the specialisations of universities and technical schools must be clearly defined and coordinated according to the skills and expertise required in each governorate. A special administration must also be established to supervise the implementation of the reform plans, provided that after a 10-year period, this authority would become a ministry for technical education.
Other necessary adjustments to the system include shifting some of the schools from the three-year to a five-year curriculum; increasing the number of technical students from 40,000 to 250,000; and building labs and workshops and establishing a teacher training programme. The road to engineering colleges should be through technical schools only.
Dr Shams al-Din is confident that these technical education reforms could turn the current situation upside down. As the quality of technical education rises, the status of graduates will also rise, enhancing their social and financial status.
2 October 2013