Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 09/2012

Freedom and Reform at Egypt's Universities

Ursula Lindsey

September 2012

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


Underfunded, understaffed, and suffering from opaque governance and political repression, the public higher education system that Egypt’s new civilian government inherited from the Mubarak era is deeply flawed. Yet change in this area has stopped far short of a revolution. Higher education reform has not been a priority during Egypt’s tumultuous transition. A few dramatic improvements took place at universities—free elections for student unions and administrative positions were held, and the hold of police and intelligence services on campuses was broken. But the status quo remains largely intact. Many incumbent administrators were reelected and although the police and security forces are no longer directly intervening in campus affairs, they are still monitoring them. Plans to replace the restrictive law governing universities, as well as student bylaws, have also stalled in the face of instability and conflict between Islamist and secular forces. The situation will not improve until the political will exists to create a more transparent and equitable system. Universities need to be given oversight and control over their budgets, and an open and informed discussion about the distribution of public resources should begin. Egypt must also overhaul the way its national universities hire faculty and admit students, and develop new programs that provide students with degrees that are useful in today’s job market. And despite the political delicacy of the issue, the state’s commitment to providing a free university education for all citizens needs to be reevaluated. Egypt must undertake a number of fundamental and difficult reforms to improve its overburdened, underperforming public university system. This is necessary for addressing the aspirations and tapping the potential of young Egyptians.