Research in Egyptian Universities:The role of research in higher education

Authors

Ahmed Belal and Irina Springuel

Abstract

The present paper deals with Higher Education (HE) in Egyptian Universities where, together with the teaching of students, research is an essential component of the education system.

Assumptions

Until the 1950s, Egyptian universities were at an international standard in science and research. From the 1960s fundamental changes in the higher education system caused a decline in Egyptian education and research. Among the main reasons for this were the rise of a large number of new universities; the scarcity of qualified staff to teach students, especially in remote university branches, and an overall decline in qualified teaching staff. University budgets that depend solely on the government are not sufficient to support the vast number of students within institutions. One indication of knowledge decline is that not one university in Egypt or any other Arab country was included in the list of the leading 500 academic universities worldwide for the years 2003 to 2005.

The number of universities in Egypt increased from four state universities in the 1950s to 18 government supported universities at present. Within the universities, in addition to faculties, there are numerous specialised institutions, centres and units that carry out and support research and training.

The number of university students in higher education is more than one million, which represents about one percent of the Egyptian population. The number of undergraduate students increased 2.6 times during the ten years from 1993 to 2003. The pressure of numbers within institutions and from those seeking entry to higher education was, and continues to be, relentless.

There was a sharp rise in the student to staff ratio in the ten years from 1993 to 2003 as a result of opening new universities. This meant a disproportionate increase in the number of students, such that the student: staff ratio changed from 20:1 to 37:1.

A few reasons for the decline of research in Egypt are: the lack of resources along with the abuse of those available, the lack of motivation for research, the lack of strategic planning for research and inadequately paid university staff.

Research expenditure in Egypt is very low with the government being the major source of funds for research activities. Government funding for R&D funding in 1996 accounted for 86% of the total funds, foreign support was 10.8% and private funding only 3.4%. Egyptian researchers are, as a result, among the worst paid researchers in Arab countries. The research in hard sciences in Egypt also suffers from a deficiency in state-of-the-art equipment, which makes advanced-technology research difficult to pursue.

With universities only having a small research budget not much can be expected regarding the quality of research produced. Further heightening the problem, the funds allocated for attending conferences, travel, research equipment, books and scientific journals are continuously decreasing, while the number of researchers is increasing.

Foreign funding, which is only some 10% of the total research expenditure, plays a significant role in supporting research activity in universities and is particularly important for research centres affiliated with universities.

One of the most serious higher education problems is the system of promotion, which is essentially based on research and the publication of results in scientific papers. Promotion at all levels is almost automatic. The progression from demonstrator to lecturer once the PhD is obtained is assured. Promotion depends on tailoring research to state-imposed standards rather than increasing knowledge in the field. Once a scientist has become professor, no other academic promotion opportunities exist and there are no mechanisms for monitoring research or teaching.

A very sensitive issue that affects the productivity of research is the ethics of research. The lack of procedures for monitoring research can lead to plagiarism, which is rampant in Egypt.

The poor training of the research personnel is perhaps the key factor responsible for the deteriorating research quality in Egypt. This is attributable to Egypt’s education system, which is far from satisfactory. Education gaps exist at all under- and post-graduate levels and study, research and academic writing skills are not widely taught.

Despite the deterioration of the research environment in Egypt, there are still good researchers who are scientifically well trained and who can produce quality research if they are given the right opportunity.

Policies and programmes
In 1992 a new law on higher education came into force that opened the door to new private universities. At present there are 16 private universities and another two under construction.

An encouraging trend is that Egyptian higher authorities have recognized the problems in higher education and have taken some steps to improve the situation. New HE legislation should establish mechanisms and procedures to improve higher education and research and set higher standards for research and development.

Advanced technology, especially in communication, is one of the priorities in Egypt. In particular, students and staff must have easy access to the Internet.

The Ministry of Higher Education is conducting a Quality Assurance and Accreditation Project. As a result, Quality Assurance and Accreditation Centers (QAAC) were established in many Egyptian universities. The existence of these centres indicates that some steps have already been taken to improve standards within Egyptian universities.

Conclusions

It can be concluded that the pressure of current student numbers, government attempts to increase student numbers and the low number of highly qualified academic staff have combined to lower the quality of education available in Egyptian universities. The under funded and understaffed nature of the research environment and the lack of a strategic plan for research within universities is causing the deterioration of research more generally. This situation is what has prompted calls for urgent action to improve the quality of higher education and research in Egyptian universities.

Improving quality involves a financial investment that includes increasing the budget for HE and R&D as well as improving the professional quality of both the teaching and research staff in the university. The Government and other donors should be prepared to invest more heavily in Egyptian Higher Education institutions.

Research in universities should be directed toward the country’s needs for growth and development. It is also necessary to involve the private sector in financing research and research oriented to a country’s specific needs is likely to be economically attractive to this sector.

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