Upon taking a closer look at Egyptian universities, it becomes obvious that quite a few young graduates are inclined to continue with higher level studies, which are expected to serve as an escape from unemployment. In a new attempt to improve their education level, the youth — serious and hardworking youth — hope they can find a place in society that goes in line with their ambitions. Statistics show that 226,000 out of 484,000 university graduates (nearly half of the total number of graduates) for the 2010-2011 academic year had enrolled in graduate studies the year following their graduation. These statistics are included in a report titled “The Reality of Education in Egypt” and issued by the Information and Decision Support Center (IDSC).
However, does scientific research — which graduate studies are a form of — serve as a haven for graduates? And is it able to accommodate them all? Can master's and Ph.D. degrees become a qualification to get a job? Questions arise and answers remain confined between the hope that this data is an indication of the benefits science can bring to the country and that it is possible to rely on science for the advancement of society, and between an opposite answer, namely leaving scientific research on library shelves for dust and bookworms.
Scientific research institutions fall under a large banner. On the one hand, there is the Ministry of Scientific Research that covers 13 research centers, most notably the Academy of Scientific Research and Technology (ASRT). These centers are mostly based in the capital, Cairo.
On the other hand, there is the Ministry of Higher Education that covers the largest part of this sector, namely universities, research units and institutes, as well as centers associated with other ministries. This brings the total number of research centers and universities to nearly 121 centers, including 30 agricultural research centers, 25 medical research centers, 14 water resources research centers, eight energy research centers, and six industrial and technological development research centers in 2011. The rest of the centers are distributed over different fields, according to the report of the above mentioned scientific research.
As for the number of researchers in Egypt, a report by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) said there were 617 researchers per million people, while there are nearly 4,000 researchers per million people in developed countries.
As small as the number of researchers in Egypt is, what is more provocative is that scientific outcome made by available researchers is not being exploited, and their good research is not supported. This is confirmed by the research performance index value in Egypt, which stood at 2.8 for 2010-2011, according to the IDSC report. The index value ranges between one and seven, with one indicating a minimum level of performance in research centers. This is necessarily subsequent to, and seemingly a result of, brain drain in a country where the atmosphere is driving people away and the environment is poor.
Although human resources are available and scientific institutions are numerous, a lack of vision and vulnerable and scattered administrations are the main cause of ineffective scientific research in Egypt, although it is relatively widespread.
On the one hand, government spending on scientific research is low (0.8% of the state budget in 2012-2013 compared to 0.68% in 2009-2010). On the other hand, the alternative to government spending, which is represented by the private sector, suffers from a “crisis of confidence” in scientific research products. This has pushed businessmen away, to invest in sectors that promise greater profits. Consequently, Egypt ranked 106 among 142 countries worldwide in terms of corporate spending on scientific research and development. In this atmosphere, it seems only normal that Egypt ranks low (74 out of 133 countries) in number of patents per million people in 2010. China and Taiwan ranked first, followed by Japan.
The solution lies in determining priorities, assigning tasks, coordinating efforts of different research centers and creating an objective assessment system on the one hand, while allowing for constant adjustments depending on outcomes on the other. This is probably why the National Authority for Quality Assurance and Accreditation of Education was established, under Law 82/2006, which consisted of 25 provisions governing the work, powers and responsibilities of the authority. Every now and then, newspapers report that a college here and another there were accredited. Their number has exceeded 20 accredited colleges so far. Is the authority going to be a step on the road to a genuine development in higher education and effective empowerment in scientific research, particularly research affiliated with the Ministry of Higher Education, or will the inefficiency of institutions increase as their weak productivity tarries?
Facilitations are the answer
In the light of research hypotheses and statistics, which are sometimes reassuring and sometimes scary, reality offers another scene that is mixed with the efforts of researchers and reflects their pains and dreams. Based on talks with some researchers, we have found that the main complaint by almost all researchers in Egypt is lack of time appreciation. It is impossible to set an even approximate time frame for a thesis.
Moreover, supervisors on scientific research are considered a stumbling block for researchers, as bureaucracy, deeply rooted in the Egyptian general atmosphere, is hurting them. Far from the arrogance generated by previous advancements, students consider that supervisors can only offer limited assistance in achieving different results. They urge students to conduct theses, while anticipating specific results. This pushes the researcher to conduct research again and again until reaching the pre-determined conclusion. Often, it is required that the outcome does not contradict what was published previously, regardless of the actual results.
On the other hand, lack of resources is an obstacle preventing researchers from improving their work. They are working with the minimum possible resources, while their scientific calculations are preceded by economic calculations to avoid high costs, seeking out the cheapest products possible. Full-time researchers are often unemployed, thus they lack both financial and moral incentives. Researchers at Egyptian scientific research institutions can only rely on God. They fight on all fronts alone, except for some guidance provided by some good supervisors. Therefore, "it depends on facilitations" is the answer that all researchers give when asked about the expected date of the results in order to be discussed.
Yehya al-Kazaz, a geology professor at Helwan University’s Faculty of Science, said, "there is a difference between students who fill their spare time by attending graduate programs to obtain a higher degree and those who just pretend to do scientific research, because scientific studies require elements that are not found in Egyptian universities."
Saif al-Islam Ali Matar, a professor at the Faculty of Education at Alexandria University, shares the same opinion as Kazaz.
“The late age of marriage for female students is seen as the reason why the majority of them pursue higher education — to fill their time on one hand, and to search for their life partner on the other,” Matar added.
Moreover, according to Kazaz, “Most of the time, the students’ theses are not well thought out. Students only finalize them to obtain the degree. Meaningful and scientific research is being abandoned because every thesis adviser seeks to apply his/her own point of view without referring to scientific research that might serve the institution in which he/she works. This explains the gap between theoretical research and applications.”
“There is a kind of rift between scientific research and the way it is put into use. For instance, here at the Faculty of Education, research about the problem of education in Egypt at all levels was conducted. However, the educational sector did not make use of any of these studies,” Matar added.
About the possible means to activate scientific research in Egypt, Kazaz said, “First, there ought to be a national regime governing the state that believes in the importance of scientific research and realizes that the state will only advance or get out of its crises through maximizing the role of scientific research. Second, it is necessary to increase the budget of scientific research allocated to equip plants, provide necessary material and modern technologies, including software, physical and electronic libraries, in addition to offices for researchers. Salaries of scientific research teaching staff must also increase, so they can at least make ends meet and not necessarily lead a luxurious life. This is imperative because those who are busy making a decent living will no longer be able to create and develop. Therefore, university professors’ needs and requirements ought to be provided for, so that they can entirely devote themselves to scientific research.”
Since upgrading scientific research is seen as a major step on the path of development and progress, assessing Egypt’s scientific stance and determining its problems are an important leap towards providing solutions.
The pertinent question remains: can we perceive graduate students as valuable human cadres in community service? Or will master's and Ph.D. degrees remain mere certificates hung on house walls just for show?
The above article was translated from As-Safir Al-Arabi, a special supplement of As-Safir newspaper whose content is provided through a joint venture of As-Safir and Al-Monitor.