In a new public-private partnership, Egypt’s government announced a program to build schools in an attempt to address the chronic problem of classroom density in public schools, and to provide “good education with affordable tuition.”
Minister of Education Al-Helaly al-Sherbiny said in September that the program will provide around 20,000 classrooms nationwide by next year. This statement came after the Finance Ministry’s Unit of Public-Private Partnerships announced a call for submissions from the private sector in August, offering the opportunity to win a contract to “finance, design, build, operate, use and maintain special partnership language schools.”
The government will provide lands on which schools will be built in major cities nationwide, and the private sector will be granted a 40-year usufruct of the schools, after which the ownership of the project’s properties will revert back to the Education Ministry.
Sherbiny described the project as a safe investment opportunity for both the private sector and the government. In press remarks, he explained that the investor can guarantee the right to manage the school after the usufruct period ends.
According to the minister, investors will have 9-12 months to build the schools and start operating, so that the project’s first stage will be completed and schools ready to enroll students by the following academic year.
Sherbiny confirmed that the number of students per classroom won’t exceed 35.
The first stage of the project will include the construction of 200 schools, which 190 investors have already offered to build.
Ahmed al-Sisi, head of the public-private partnership committee within the Education Ministry, said that the problem of overcrowded classrooms is escalating, but offering private schools with moderate tuition fees will directly solve this problem.
The tuition fees for these new schools have not yet been determined.
But while proponents think that the program can serve middle-class families in their search for affordable schooling, while alleviating the burden from existing public schools, others think that the program is simply targeting a different demographic and won’t affect existing classrooms density.
Atef Hanoura, head of the Finance Ministry’s Unit of Public-Private Partnerships, claims that the new schools will fall in the category of “middle class language schools.”
He says, “there is a tendency among families in the middle class to enroll their children in private schools with affordable tuition, between LE5,000-10,000 a year. There aren’t enough private schools in this category, which forces these students to go to public schools needed most by the poor, causing higher numbers of students per class.”
Hanoura believes that enabling the private sector to invest more in this type of “middle class private school” will decrease the number of students per class in public schools, and give the government a chance to improve public education.
But Ghossoun Tawfiq, a researcher in educational issues from the Egyptian Center for Social and Economic Rights, asserts that the high classroom density is mainly related to the lack of schools that are able to include the increasing number of students joining every year. According to her, the segment targeted by the new project will not solve the issue, because it is not the segment that suffers from high classroom density. She adds that there are already enough private schools offering their services at the rates declared by Hanoura.
“The issue is a problem of inequality and the state’s limited investment in education in impoverished areas,” she says, adding “would the private sector ever think to build schools that cost thousands of pounds annually in Upper Egypt for example? Does Upper Egypt need more language schools, or does it need to cover the needs of the impoverished areas first?”
Head of the Education Ministry’s General Authority for Educational Buildings Yousry Abdallah said in an interview with the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper earlier this year that there are 2367 villages in Egypt that have no elementary schools, 537 municipal units without secondary schools and 66 city centers without technical schools. Current classroom density reaches over 100 students in some governorates, and Abdallah explained that to reduce it to 45 students per classroom, some 52,000 classrooms need to be built.
According to another report by the authority, Sohag governorate ranks highest among the areas with no access to primary schools, followed by Qena, Minya, Beheira and Assiut. The report indicated 35 percent of public schools in Egypt suffer from high classroom density. For the state to overcome this problem, it needs a budget of LE51 billion to build schools that can serve the population in these impoverished areas.
Tawfiq says that such a vacuum cannot be filled by private sector investments. A report published by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS) in 2014 suggested that Upper Egypt and the Nile Delta do not attract those who invest in education to build private schools there. The report indicated that private schools are mostly concentrated in Cairo, Giza and Alexandria, and almost do not exist in Upper Egypt. Thirty percent of students enrolled in the elementary and preparatory stages in these schools are in Cairo, 20 percent in Giza and 19 percent in Alexandria.
While Sherbiny affirmed that the “ministry is obliged to provide free education for all society,” and has built 30,000 more classrooms nationwide this year, unofficial reports have noted dwindling government investment in education.
A report by ECESR released in June commenting on the government’s 2016-2017 draft budget, revealed that public spending on education made up only 3.2 percent of the total budget, which is half of what is stipulated in the Constitution. In addition, 82 percent of the resources allocated for education were spent on teachers’ wages, while 10.48 percent of the spending was allocated for building schools.
But even if private sector involvement is a partial solution, there is an issue with the way the government engages it, according to some education sector players.
Samya al-Neshouky, member of the Association of Private Schools Owners and owner of the Sama Modern Language Schools in the Delta city of Qalyubiya, says that the private sector is interested in investing in all governorates, including remote areas. For her, the government only needs to show some seriousness when it comes to land acquisition.
Neshouky applied for the new program to partner with the government on building of schools. However, she explains that the terms of agreement between the government and investors are still vague. She believes the lack of guarantees for investors will potentially represent an obstacle.
“The project’s executive rules of the project are still unclear, we still do not know the conditions of the contracts and location of the land allocated for the schools,” she says, asking “will there be real facilitation of land acquisition? This has been a major obstacle facing owners of private schools.”
Neshouky adds “on paper, the project is great, and offers a great opportunity to a major section of the society that really wants to enroll their children in private schools with affordable tuition. The project will also create job opportunities and remove a big burden from the state’s shoulder.”
Tawfiq, however, thinks that the private sector stands to benefit the most from the initiative.
She states “I believe investors will benefit the most, for the first time they will have a great chance for land acquisition and will enjoy the maximum usufruct period designated by the law.”
Translation by Lina Attalah