Nobel Laureate Ahmed Zewail, who passed away earlier this year, realized that now more than ever Egypt’s scientists and educators play a central role in the country’s quest to overcome endemic diseases, meet energy demands and tackle industrial challenges. Research is costly and requires a considerable chunk of the national budget, but investing in future generations – who can transform Egypt from a nation dependent on natural resources to a nation with an arsenal of thinkers – is the only way forward, scientists say.
by Ahmed Mansour and Noha Mohammed
“Egypt needs to shift its concentration to scientific research because as the whole world has shown us, it will help shape this country’s future and make it a better place for our children and grandchildren,” says Mahmoud Ghazaal, a scientist and administrator at the Academy of Scientific Research and Technology in Cairo. “Eventually, all of our sources of income will be depleted and the only thing that will be valuable is knowledge and accomplishment in the fields of science and technology.”
Ghazaal says the government needs to work hard to introduce drastic changes to the education system first before it can focus on scientific research, which he laments lags far behind other nations. He points to Saudi Arabia as a good role model that Egypt could possibly follow. In 2001, Saudi Arabia recognized that it could not rely entirely on petroleum exports as its main source of income, so they created a fund and started sending high school graduates abroad to get their bachelor’s degrees via the King Abdullah Scholarship program.
“The Saudi government was worried about how we would be able to survive when the oil runs out, so we have put aside a budget that will solely be used to send our elite students that show great potential to colleges abroad to get a better education than what we offer in Saudi,” says Khlaid El-Enezie, assistant director and one of the founders of the King Abdullah Scholarship program. “As soon as we realized the educational facilities in Saudi Arabia were not as good as abroad, we knew that it would take a long time for us to restructure the system. We decided that we shouldn’t waste any time and take action,” El-Enezie says.
Over 200,000 students were accepted into the scholarship program, which has a sizeable budget of 22.5 billion Saudi Riyals — but that’s far more than Egypt can afford given the current economic conditions.
A Stagnating System
“The country does in fact have a ‘Science and Technology Development’ program fund to send students to advanced countries to keep up with the quickly evolving fields of science and technology, but the funds can only cover at most 50 students a year,” says Murad Muntaser, Vice dean of the Faculty of Engineering at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport. “The funds are not the main issue at hand; the biggest problem facing Egypt is that the government is in denial when it comes to the fact that they do have a serious problem regarding their educational system, especially their higher education system.”
Muntaser defines the hurdle in one word: stagnation. “The government believes that they still offer the same quality of education that they used to offer when education in Egypt was at its prime. And they do — they are offering the same education, same topics, same subjects as they did in the 1970s. The Ministry of Education has never updated their curriculum in a noticeable way, they do not bother to update the information given to our youth, and also they have never encouraged the teachers to evolve their teaching techniques so that they would be appealing to the students of the current generation. The same thing applies to the Ministry of Higher Education and the state of scientific research: they refuse to be innovative, and they refuse to hand out help by facilitating the processes of admissions or publishing researches without asking who is whose son. Like every governmental organization in Egypt, those two ministries need to be cleansed and re-shuffled.”
Graduates often only realize they’ve been sold short when they are exposed to different systems. “Our educational facilities don’t come close to facilities abroad. I graduated from the faculty of Pharmacy, Ain Shams University, and when I decided to work abroad, I realized that I knew nothing so I started studying all over again,” says Kareem Abduallah, a botanist and teaching assistant at the University of London. “Foreign countries respect researchers and they assist them in all the ways possible for them to accomplish what they need, unlike in Egypt, where you’ll always need to grease palms to get what you want and it’s always a never-ending process.”
Ehab Abdel-Rahman, vice provost and physics professor at the American University in Cairo, doesn’t believe the problem is with the facilities. “I’m not an AUCian, I graduated from Helwan University and I worked there for a long time. When I was at Helwan University, I personally did not have any problems with the facilities — our labs were very good. The problem is that the ecosystem itself is non-existent. The top administrators do not understand that scientific research is not just a paper to be published, but that it must trickle down into the nation’s economy in the form of a product that needs to be marketed and sold to bring in revenue for the country. The idea that the graduate is just a student who obtains a degree and that I’m happy to be rid of him should not be the mindset of a university. On the contrary, the graduate is a potential future donor, so I have to enhance his knowledge and make sure I maintain my contacts with him because this graduate in the future, when he grows bigger and makes bigger contributions, will come back to me and will be eager to ensure that the new generations also learn. If it hadn’t been for AUC, I myself would today be working in the US or Europe.”
At the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, media correspondent Hazem El-Shanti too says the issue is more complex than lack of facilities. “The problem at hand is not that we lack facilities; we do have enough to support the needs of all those who seek higher education or those who believe they need it to evolve their careers or take part in the world of scientific research. We do have world-rated universities here in Egypt that offer education better than all of our neighbouring countries. However, the main issue is the lack of funds, as the people probably know that most of the governmental facilities here are aided financially by the government, with the student only contributing 13 percent of the total cost. So in order to increase the quality of assistances given to the students, we need to devise a new plan whereby students pay more fees and in return get international-quality education that would help them achieve their goals. The same applies to research — it’s really expensive to offer all the research materials and facilities. It’s all about money, which we desperately need.”
While research is extremely costly, Abdel Rahman says there is already a system in place that can give universities that much-needed shot in the arm: waqf, or endowments. Giving AUC as an example, Abdel Rahman outlines that “AUC is private in the sense that it does not report to the Higher Council of Universities, but it is not privately funded. AUC is a not-for-profit organization. This is very important, that universities are not for profit — and Egypt already has this mechanism in place with civil universities, like the French University and like Nile University. We need to expand this base. As a researcher, I myself have no problems with private universities making a profit, as long as they are committed to scientific research and presenting high-quality education. At the end of the day, with any university, whether national, civil or private or not-for-profit, someone has to pay for the research and education being conducted on these facilities. It’s either me or you through taxes to the national universities, or the student pays for a percentage in the private institutions and private donations for the civil facilities.”
The AUC provost calls for communities to begin adopting what he labels the “great” culture of endowment. “We started this culture as Arabs and Muslims with waqf, why do we only put our waqf in mosques and water coolers, why not in universities? Ivy League universities in the US like Harvard and Princeton, they all have large endowments. Their motto is ‘worry about the admission not the tuition,’ that is worry about being accepted and fulfilling all my criteria, but once you’re in, don’t worry about the tuition. We want this concept — which we already are doing; we all donate money for good causes. This is the best cause that can be sustained for generations to come.”
Securing donations is no easy feat, but there are many who are passionate about the cause. Speaking at a media roundtable ahead of his inauguration, new AUC President Francis Ricciardone admitted that despite what he labels as Egypt’s “economic dislocations,” funding sources are diverse. “Part of our resilience is that we don’t depend on any one source of funding, but we are a not-for-profit. We are financially healthy, but we are not wealthy. We have to keep going back to new sources of funding and other visionaries — Egyptian-Americans are some of our board members, among other people across this region. We have many people in the Gulf who see Egypt as pivotally important for the entire region, and they are supporters of ours. These are people who care about education, care about Egypt and care about the Arab world and generously donate. Companies also see education as the future, a way of developing future talent and a way to do research.”
Aside from funding, centralization is another major setback that Abdel Rahman identifies in the national university system. “Our universities need to stop being centralized — the people talking about electing deans through a voting system. This is not right. Deans and presidents of universities are not voted in. Presidents of universities are not supposed to be elected. They are appointed only if they meet the university’s criteria and are qualified to realize the strategic aims of the university during the five or 10 years of their tenure. It’s not a beauty pageant. To maintain a healthy ecosystem, the university needs to have an advisory board, made up in large part by businessmen as well as stakeholders concerned with universities and with education. And I place emphasis on businessmen. The advisory board, or the board of trustees, are the people who make the major strategic decisions for the university. They’re the ones who can link the university to the surrounding community. Without making this link, I cannot create a proper ecosystem for research.”
A healthy ecosystem, Abdel Rahman argues, is critical if we want to reverse the brain drain and bring back calibers forced out by the current system. “If I can’t create the ecosystem, I won’t be able to bring back the people to work here. That’s the first step. But before I can bring them back, I need to ensure that the income of faculty at Egyptian universities is suitable. Now I understand that everyone is calling for better wages, but it is education that will shapes the minds of the future. We need to make sure faculty are paid well enough to perform well. At the same time, conflict of commitment and conflict of interest must be corrected. This won’t go down well with Egyptian universities, but I can’t be a professor who spends all day at my office, clinic or hospital and then come to university too tired to even speak at my lecture. Lecturing is a full-time job. Along with the rights that I’m seeking for faculty, I also look for the responsibilities that come with these rights.”
Reversing the Brain Drain
Yet creating a productive environment can only lure back so many scientific minds. “We have to grow our scientific base in Egypt. This needs to happen by establishing new universities. We still need a great number of new universities and I recommend that these be small universities with a small number of students and faculty — it’s easier for these small universities to move than our older universities. This will allow us to quickly change our research strategies, implement new ideas and infuse these and increase our number of researchers,” says Abdel Rahman.
The past decade has seen a number of new universities and higher education facilities open up in Egypt, and that, Ricciardone says, is good news for Egypt. “When there’s competition, everyone benefits. Egypt benefits so it’s a good thing. I’m delighted that there’s a Japanese-Egyptian Institute for Science and Technology, the German University, and the British University, all doing something very good and offering an important service,” he says.
The incoming president is not only happy about the new competition, but he welcomes cooperation with rising institutions. “Modern education is not just about staying in your own classroom. Science is all about teamwork. Now, teamwork is enabled massively on a global scale thanks to modern technology and social media,” Ricciardone says, adding that AUC intends to open up new channels with other institutions. “We have personal deep relations with other great Egyptian institutions and I will certainly make it my priority to pay my respects to the great universities of Egypt, such as Cairo University and Al Azhar, Sohag and Minya down to Tanta and Damanhour universities.”
Within its own research centers, AUC invites industry experts to work on projects with its students. “AUC is working with Egyptian and global teammates on joint projects that combine industry and academia. We’re doing research and science, and we’re applying it to human problems,” says Ricciardone, pointing to AUC’s Research Institute for Sustainable Environment (RISE), which brings together Germans, Arabs, Egyptians from all over the country. “We’re working with Egyptian companies. Solar Rise is the name of one of several other companies working on how to apply solar energy technology to provide water and irrigation. It’s all about sustainability and what problems we want to solve.”
Read the full feature package on science and the future in Egypt in the November issue of Egypt Today.