The Egyptian government recently announced plans to increase the number of international students enrolled in the country and to market itself as a regional international education hub catering to Arab and African nations in particular. With 2.5 million university students, and some of the most highly regarded higher education institutions in the region, the country certainly has the potential to become an important regional centre for education, despite ongoing concerns around its political stability.
The next education hub?
University World News, recently reported that Egypt is planning to dramatically grow the number of Arab and African students in its post-secondary institutions over the next three years – quadrupling enrolment from 53,000 to 200,000 total international students. This new international recruitment strategy was approved in January by the Supreme Council of Universities – the body responsible for the planning, coordination, and supervision of universities in Egypt.
Under the plan, Egypt will develop strategies to improve its profile in regional and global international education circles, with a particular focus on improving teaching and research outcomes and developing campus infrastructure. These reforms and initiatives follow the recommendations of a recent European report called Review of Higher Education in Egypt, which called for enhanced innovation, creativity, and modernisation across the system. Other planks of the strategy include ramping up social media marketing and other international student recruitment efforts and the development of dedicated international offices within Egyptian universities.
In a recent conversation with The PIE News, Samer Mitwally, senior corporate advisor at AGI-Advisory Group International, said the plan’s focus will be “first and foremost [on] the improvement and competitiveness of Egyptian education locally, through assisted collaboration with outside expertise and donor funding.”
He notes that talk of restructuring the country’s education system has been ongoing since the revolution of 2011. Political and bureaucratic issues, however, have resulted in ongoing delays. “The time finally seems to be now, with funding in place,” Mr Mitwally adds.
Funding for the initiatives will come both from the Egyptian government and from European Union (EU) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) grants.
With a surplus in annual grants from EU and USAID put on hold in early 2014, organisations are currently working hard to secure funding for local education reform and partnerships, according to Mr Mitwally. While total funding figures are not public, he said multiple projects are on the table, each worth an estimated US$2-3 million. “Match that number as a minimum for infrastructure and you have a conservative figure of US$50 million guaranteed just for 2015.”
These announcements come against the backdrop of a recently signed Memorandum of Understanding for the Newton-Mosharafa Fund. The MoU was signed by Greg Clark, British Minister for Universities and Science, and Dr Sherif Hammad, Egyptian Minister of Scientific Research. The fund is worth more than £20 million (US$30 million) over five years and will stimulate collaboration between the British and Egyptian scientific research and innovation sectors in order to find joint solutions to Egypt’s economic development and social welfare challenges.
During a visit to the UK last September, Dr Yasser Sakr, President of Helwan University in Cairo, told the British Council that the MoU was “a landmark agreement opening new windows for collaboration and co-operation between the UK and Egypt in terms of higher education, student change, faculty change – all aspects of higher education.” Dr Sakr spoke positively of future collaboration between Egyptian and UK institutions, on both a sector and institutional level.
How to build a hub
With so many nations currently jostling to brand themselves as such, what exactly are education hubs? What models for education hubs exist, and how are other nations faring in their pursuit of international education hub status? What lessons can be learned from their own ongoing development?
Canadian researcher Dr Jane Knight has studied the emergence, successes, and challenges facing education hubs around the world. In a recent article in the academic journal International Higher Education, she outlines the key features of education hubs and identifies three emerging models.
Dr Knight defines a country-level education hub as “a planned effort to build a critical mass of local and international actors – higher education institutions and providers, students, research and development centres and knowledge industries – who work collaboratively on education, training, and knowledge production and innovation.”
In Qatar, for example, she notes that the Qatari government, through the Qatar Foundation, underwrites the costs of all physical infrastructure, facilities, and the annual operating costs of its much touted Education City, a complex which brings together branch campuses of some of the world’s leading universities. Essentially, she says, Qatar “is importing and purchasing the majority of education programmes, services, and research for the education hub activities.”
In Dubai, on the other hand, while the investment arm of the Dubai government, TECOM, builds the infrastructure and facilities for its education-focused Knowledge Village and Dubai International Academic City “economic free zones”, foreign institutions and providers do not have their operating costs subsidised, and they pay rent to use the facilities.
In another example, the Hong Kong government announced a major public investment in scholarships to attract international students, mostly from China. And a 2012 World Bank report studying the feasibility of Sri Lanka’s plans to develop as an education hub highlights Singapore’s ambitious “Global Schoolhouse” programme, designed to attract 150,000 international students by 2015. Malaysia’s ambitious plans to develop as a leading global hub by 2020 are also noted.
Dr Knight suggests education hubs can be classified in three ways:
- Those that build a critical mass of foreign students (such as plans in Singapore, Malaysia, and now, ostensibly, Egypt);
- Those targeted to building a skilled labour force (such as Qatar and Dubai); and
- Those that aim to create a vibrant research and innovation environment.
What’s consistent across all three models is the need for careful coordination, sustainable funding, and investment, along with a solid policy framework favourable to growth. Education programmes must also be carefully selected and coordinated to reduce overlap, as is the case in Qatar.
Dr Knight concludes, “Public domestic investment is critical to the development of education hubs. While hub building also requires private investment from domestic and foreign sources, the importance of local government support to kick-start and leverage other sources of financing should not be underestimated.” This finding underscores the importance of the funding model that Egypt is planning to pursue with financing from a combination of domestic and international sources.
Challenges for Egypt
Egypt is set to get underway with its plan this year but there are fears in some corners that ongoing political and security concerns may limit the country’s hub ambitions.
Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid, a professor at Cairo’s National Research Centre, told University World News that the “political instability that Egypt is experiencing now could be a barrier for foreign students.” He said the country’s universities “are witnessing a remarkable upsurge in student protests, violence and security crackdowns.”
The same article notes that Egypt is listed 31 out of 178 countries on the 2014 Fragile States Index, placing it in the “alert” category in a measure of problem areas including “human rights, legitimacy of state, factionalised elites, and group grievances.”
Nevertheless, Egypt’s reputation as a regional education powerhouse and its large student base provide a strong foundation for further expansion. With the newly announced partnership with the British Council, funding in place, and the vocal support of the current government, Egypt’s plans for a new regional education hub are likely to be closely followed.