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Egyptian public universities seeking to make profits

Egyptian universities and the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research are seeking to pass a law that will allow public universities to establish nonprofit universities in partnership with international universities, which raised fears over free education.

CAIRO — Based on a vote by the majority of parliamentarians, parliament Speaker Ali Abdel Aal referred Feb. 25 a bill amending Law No. 49 of 1972 on the organization of public universities to the parliamentary Education Committee for further examination. A vote on the bill is to be scheduled following the issuance of the committee’s report on the bill on a date that is yet to be determined.

Al-Monitor learned from parliamentary sources that the proposed amended Article 189 would read as follows: “A public university shall dispose of and manage its own funds, including the establishment of national nonprofit universities or branches, solely or in partnership with the private sector in accordance with Law No. 162 of 2018. The disposition and management of the university funds and accounts shall be subject to the provisions of the financial and accounting regulations issued by a decision of the minister of higher education after taking the opinion of the University Council and the approval of the Supreme Council of Universities.”

Nonprofit universities are not free as students pay education expenses and univerisity costs, which include staff salaries, water and electricity fees, building maintenance expenses, and so on. The board of trustees of each university determines this amount under the supervision of the Central Auditing Organization.

Under Law No. 49 of 1972, public universities were not allowed to establish nonprofit universities or branches; the proposed bill would allow them to do so. This issue has raised controversy in Egypt with many wondering what would push the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and public universities to establish national nonprofit universities, and how would these universities affect free education at public universities.

Egypt has six private nonprofit universities: Nile University, Egyptian E-Learning University, Zewail City University of Science and Technology, French University of Egypt (UFE), Workers University and Egypt-Japan University of Science and Technology.

A student at UFE told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “The establishment by public universities of national nonprofit universities or branches is an investment or a business. This is a project that allows the state to reap financial gains in general, even if the established university does not make direct profits.”

He added, “The state collects taxes, customs and social security contributions from citizens in order to provide free education services. What if the state collected all of these levies but offered education services at their cost without making a profit? Wouldn’t this be a business activity? The state would be collecting the taxes and not offering free education. This would turn the collected levies into profits since they would not be spent on education.”

A member of the parliamentary Education Committee has a different opinion. He told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that tax revenues are allocated to several services such as security, public facilities and development of roads — not only university education. “The Egyptian budget is still registering a deficit that reflects on the budget allocated to university education,” he said.

He noted, “The state is committed annually to providing free education to 3 million students in public universities, of whom about 750,000 students prefer private or nonprofit education. The establishment by public universities of nonprofit universities under twinning agreements with international universities aims to encourage more affluent students to enroll in nonprofit education instead of free public education, thus reducing the deficit of the university education budget.”

He added, “The state spends about 4% of its gross national product [around $2.3 billion] on university education and scientific research, which is higher than the 2% set in the constitution. A country with a budget deficit cannot make a profit from or invest in nonprofit universities. Establishing this type of university aims only to reduce the deficit while ensuring good education services.”

Article 21 of the Egyptian Constitution of 2014 obliges the state to develop “free university education in state universities and institutes.” It adds, “The state allocates [for this purpose] a percentage of the government expenditure that is no less than 2% of the gross national product. … The state shall encourage the establishment of nonprofit universities.”

Mohsen Mansour, a lawyer before the Constitutional Court, told Al-Monitor that the constitutional text is clear. “Article 21 of the constitution prohibits the state from establishing any universities that are not free, even if these universities collect only education costs without reaping profits,” he said.

However, Sami Hashim, head of the parliamentary Education Committee, disagreed, saying, “The establishment by public universities of nonprofit branches is not contrary to the constitution or the principle of free admission to public universities. Nonprofit branches will be established under a partnership or twinning agreement with international universities and will not be fully owned by the state or the government. No international university could be persuaded to twin with an Egyptian university without receiving tuition fees in return.”

Mahmoud Alwan, another lawyer before the Constitutional Court, told Al-Monitor that Article 21 provides that the state shall encourage the establishment of nonprofit universities and guarantee the quality of education offered by nonprofit and private universities and their compliance with global quality criteria.

He said, “The fastest policy to achieve this is that government universities establish nonprofit branches in partnership with international universities capable of upgrading Egypt's education to the global level.”

He pointed out that the public universities where the state is bound to guarantee free education are universities completely owned by the government or the state. “Universities established in partnership with international universities are not subject to state control and policy alone,” he added.

Mohamed Khalil, former undersecretary of the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, told Al-Monitor that the principle of free education is not wrong but has been misused in Egypt since 1952. He said that free education, and in particular university education, is a type of support offered by the state to those who cannot afford it.

After the revolution of July 23, 1952, public university education in Egypt became free.

“In light of Egypt’s limited education budget allocations it is difficult for the state to provide free education to all citizens,” Khalil said. “The state is required on an annual basis to spend billions to increase the space and capacities of free public universities to accommodate the growing number of students amid a steady increase of around 2.5 million per year in Egypt’s population.”

He explained that the best strategy, in this case, would be to reduce the number of students enrolled in free public universities by establishing more nonprofit universities in partnership with international universities. “This strategy must be applied in tandem with improving elementary school education and linking secondary or specialized education to the labor market so that students are not necessarily required to get a university education to find a job,” he added.

Khalil noted that the state ought to launch more awareness campaigns about the need to join the labor market when finishing secondary school. “Many Egyptians still refuse to break the norm of completing university education before getting a job,” he concluded.

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