From where I sit: Something new under the sun

February 25, 2010

Why would the Egyptian ministers of education and higher education, the Speaker of its Parliament and various other notables show up for the opening of the new Graduate School of Education at the American University in Cairo (AUC)?

The answer tells us something about Egyptian higher education and society.

AUC has for a century been the training ground for a significant number of the Egyptian and, indeed, Middle Eastern elite.

It is an American institution deeply implanted in Egyptian soil, accredited and incorporated in the US and operating in English.

Its regulations dictate that 45 per cent of its faculty is American, 45 per cent Egyptian, with the rest from other countries.

To ensure that the university's goals are in keeping with Egyptian policy, a counsellor, usually a senior Egyptian educator with ties to the Government, sits at the right hand of the AUC president.

The result is arguably the most prestigious academic institution in Egypt. Its facilities are far superior to the overcrowded and sometimes dilapidated campuses of the country's large public universities - particularly its new campus, which is located in New Cairo, an hour's drive from downtown in good traffic (which is seldom).

Cairo University, for example, has more than 200,000 students, and other local universities including Al-Azhar and Helwan educate similar numbers. By contrast, AUC has about 6,200 students.

AUC charges by far the highest tuition fees in Egypt - $20,000 (£12,700) a year. Public universities charge only a nominal fee, so it is not surprising that AUC's students tend to come from the social elite - most from private schools.

AUC professors are paid much more than their peers at the public universities, so can afford to live on their academic salaries without the need for multiple jobs.

The Graduate School of Education was established following a donation of $8 million from a wealthy Egyptian businessman. AUC hopes to provide a model of excellence for teacher preparation and educational leadership in a region where work in these fields is recognised as inadequate. Research on education issues relevant to Egypt and the Middle East is also poor.

The institution is also planning to establish the Middle East Institute on Higher Education to provide information and research relating to post-secondary education in the region.

Surprisingly, there is very little research available on higher education in the Arab world.

The challenges for the new venture are substantial, not least attracting top-class faculty to Egypt. Creating a curriculum that reflects international trends while remaining relevant to Egyptian needs may also prove difficult.

And providing graduate degrees that are affordable for education professionals will not be easy - educators have considerably less income than, for example, MBA students.

I was among a small group of largely American education specialists who recently visited AUC with the goal of suggesting directions for the Graduate School of Education.

We came away convinced that the need is great and that AUC has the potential to develop something original that can connect Egypt, and perhaps the Middle East, with the most relevant global thinking about contemporary education issues, as well as educating exemplary professionals.

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