Egypt has welcomed plans for a British university, which could open as early as October 2002.
The country has 13 state universities and five private institutions, which generate 150,000 graduates a year, by far the highest number in the region. But quality teaching is sometimes in short supply.
Sami Akabawi, vice-president for computing at the American University in Cairo, said: "We encourage competition. Such a university will be potentially very popular because Egyptians appreciate international participation, and most private institutions try to affiliate themselves with western organisations."
The AUC, which was founded in 1919, is Egypt's premier academic establishment. The British initiative hopes to emulate its success. Loughborough, Strathclyde and Glasgow universities have conducted feasibility studies with Egyptian educational experts, making teacher exchanges a possibility. Several other British universities are said to be interested in the project. France and Germany are thought to be considering similar ventures.
It is more than two years since former ambassador Sir David Blatherwick helped create initial momentum for the project. A steering committee was set up under the Egyptian-British Business Council during a visit by Britain's prime minister in April 1998. The committee is headed by Ismail Osman, chairman of Arab Contractors and a holder of a doctorate from Loughborough.
A decision on the proposed university's location is still pending. "Cairo is a mature city, and the kind of site that you want for a university is not readily available in the town centre," said David Marler, director of the British Council in Cairo. Four locations are being considered, three adjacent to the Cairo-Alexandria Desert road, west of the capital.
"A consensus has emerged that it will be a not-for-profit institution," Mr Marler said. "There is a need to create a firewall between the university and commerce."
A university catering to all disciplines is envisaged, but the initial curriculum will focus on engineering, management and information technology - areas crucial to Egypt's long-term growth.
It is unfortunate that Egypt's economy has slowed just as planners were hoping to turn to the private sector for funding. KPMG's Hazem Hassan, who heads the project's financial committee, believes that of a total budget of up to 500 million Egyptian pounds (£100 million), an initial 100 million Egyptian pounds is required for site development.
British ambassador Graham Boyce suggested that the university could share a site with the ministry of communications and information technology. "This is very much an Egyptian-driven exercise," he said. Hamed Mobarak, the United Nations' Development Programme's deputy representative in Cairo, estimates that by 2006 the university will have at least 1,500 students.