Tell the teacher: I see you, I thank you

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi stated that improving the conditions of teachers is not possible at the moment. That was in an interview he gave during his election campaign. He, however, mentioned plans for building 20,000 new schools and recruiting thousands of teachers to meet shortages. He pointed out how “the bright spot in the issue of education and health is that businessmen are ready to contribute to this as a gesture of religious and human sentiment.”

When asked about tackling what actually happens inside schools (in terms of quality), he emphasized the role of society, the ministries and media in creating dedication in the education system by making teachers feel appreciated. “These are the issues. Tell the teacher: I see you, I thank you.” He then went on to describe teachers’ so-called “sectoral demands” for better pay as destructive, even if they reflect the demands of people just “wanting to live.” He stated that if these demands are pursued, neither the citizen nor the country will “live.”

This rationale takes us back to the Mubarak era, where construction projects, privatization and charitable sentiments were presented as solutions to deep structural problems and serious everyday citizen concerns. The privatization of education, primarily in terms of private tutoring, has been a key concern for almost all social classes for decades and has fundamentally changed the educational landscape in Egypt.

In a context where up to 80 percent of students receive regular private tutoring, it has been estimated that middle class households spend up to one third of their income on schooling services, while poor household spend about one fifth; and private spending on education in the country exceeds public spending. In spite of this redundant and wasteful spending, the quality of schooling in Egypt has declined to the extent that education is routinely declared “non-existent.” Teachers, students and parents habitually comment on educational issues using the simple phrase mafish ta’lim – there is no education.

Can more school construction by the private sector begin to alleviate this situation? Can hiring more teachers, on existing pay schemes, solve serious problems in the system in terms of cost, access and quality?

Constructing Schools

The interest in school construction may be guided by a general push by the president toward employment-generation through a focus on public works projects. However, this “vision” represents an obvious continuity with Mubarak era policies and may replicate their serious shortcomings.

According to official reports, a total of 13,709 schools were built between 1992/93 and 2005/06; more than twice the number of schools built in the preceding 110 years. The proposal to build 20,000 new schools, thus, seems very “ambitious.” More importantly, there have been serious concerns about where new schools have been built, their correspondence with community needs, and how the allocation of school construction contracts has taken place under Mubarak. School construction is known to be the area where concern about corruption within the education sector is highest.

Often headed by a retired military general, like many important state institutions, the General Authority for Educational Buildings (GAEB) has enjoyed a level of independence that allowed it to effectively escape the oversight of the Ministry of Education, regulatory authorities and often the scrutiny of the media. After the January 25 revolution in 2011, however, a series of reports published by the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper exposed in disturbing detail the myriad patterns of corruption and irregularities at GAEB. Blatant forms of corruption include limiting contracts to particular bidders, violating regulations of bids and offering contracts at prices far higher than market prices. In one case, contractors were being paid LE7,700 for a ton of steel when the market price did not exceed LE3000. This means that literally millions of pounds were “wasted” per contract. Also after the revolution, GAEB employees filed formal complaints detailing forms of corruption of the authority’s leadership. These are yet to be investigated. Focusing on school construction, without addressing issues of corruption and needs-based planning, will lead to more waste and little improvement in school access and quality.

Teachers and precarious work

Arguably guided by the same desire to generate employment opportunities, the proposal of hiring teachers to meet shortages, while deeming demands for better pay as “destructive,” also requires careful examination. It is not clear that shortages can really be met without adjusting teacher pay schemes, particularly if more teachers are hired on regular — as opposed to temporary or per class — contracts.

Teacher shortages and uneven deployment is a very serious issue in the system, especially in basic education. However, shortages are largely driven by low teacher pay. Shortage is most acute in teachers of subjects that do not enter the student’s final marks, and therefore do not warrant private tutoring. These include subjects such as art, music and sports. You will also find major teachers shortages in key subjects in technical education and in rural areas where even tutoring is not profitable enough for teachers to make a living.

Like school construction, “meeting shortages” has also been rife with irregularities. Under Mubarak, each governorate “met shortages” by hiring teachers on various forms of precarious contracts that can range from offering a negligible LE50 (US$7) per month to about LE325 (US$45) month. These figures are obviously far below any national or international poverty line estimates and are sometimes less than a teacher’s transportation costs to the school. These teachers are clearly expected to make their living elsewhere. You thus end up with a situation where teachers do not devote their energy to teaching, or earn their living through private tutoring (which is, as a result, often forced on students). In fact, the issue of shortages is essentially also about the shortage of “qualified” teachers, where according to official figures about 40 percent of basic education teachers are not university graduates and at least 15 percent of primary teachers have no formal teaching qualification. It is the shortage of “qualified” teachers that has been estimated at over 70,000 teachers in the primary stage alone.

Official detailed figures are not available to the public, but a large proportion of teachers are hired on precarious contracts, especially outside urban centers. They are typically lured into these contracts with the promise of eventual regularization of their status. This type of contracting is riddled with considerable irregularities. Teachers can remain on such contracts for decades, are sometimes not even paid regularly, and are often poorly qualified and trained (and cannot receive training because they are not permanent employees). The criteria for contract regularization (appointment into the coveted Teachers’ Cadre) is also often criticized as arbitrary and not transparent.

There have been directives, renewed after the revolution, to regularize temporary teachers who have been in service for at least three years, but there has only been partial implementation of this in different governorates ever since.

Governors, however, depend on such precarious contracts to prop up their figures when reporting on the number of “job opportunities” they have generated. Since the contracts must be re-issued at the beginning of every school year to circumvent regularization, a precarious contract for the same person can be counted every year as a new job opportunity.  In fact, sometimes more than one person is hired on the same precarious contract.

We must wait and see how the general directions spelled out by the president will be carried out on the ground. However, the hope is that the serious structural issues in the quality of social services in Egypt will not continue to be dealt with through poorly planned construction projects and precarious hiring, in keeping with the legacy of Mubarak’s state.

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