Economic Research Forum (ERF)

Was public free mass education detrimental to Egypt’s human capital?

Since the early 1950s, when schools in Egypt opened their doors to the masses, some have expressed concerns that the country has somehow suffered from this educational expansion. This column explains the reality of the reform effort: that it was the last step in a century-long public programme that accelerated following the 1923 constitution and its requirement that compulsory education be provided for every Egyptian child. All in all, the provision of free mass education increased student enrolment and improved, on average, the educational and occupational outcomes of the masses.

In a nutshell

A common narrative in Egypt is that the post-1952 military regime’s provision of free education to the masses led to deterioration in the country’s stock of human capital as the quality of schools dropped.

But in a population where the share of children who had access to schooling was very low, the top priority was to increase enrolment rather than to focus on the provision of high-quality education to a small elite.

Evaluating such reforms should not be done on the basis of an imaginary counterfactual that there was high-quality education provided for all prior to 1951.

A common narrative in public debate in Egypt is that the post-1952 military regime’s provision of public free education to the masses caused deterioration in the country’s stock of human capital as the quality of schools dropped.

Examples of the high-quality primary schools during Egypt’s pre-1952 ‘belle époque’ are usually put forward to show how well educated Egypt’s students were during this period, compared with what happened after 1952 when schools were made free and opened their doors to the masses. Carefully chosen pictures of nicely dressed students from public, national private and foreign private schools during the pre-1952 era are used with a sense of nostalgia to the lost glory of Egypt during its presumed heyday.

This narrative is often followed by a claim that artisanship has also declined in quality due to the fact that people became ‘over-educated’ and more-than-necessary numbers of children went to (low-quality) schools or even to university. Instead, it is suggested, they should have been working in the fields or as artisans, just like in the ‘good old days’ of the pre-1952 era.

While it is somehow understandable that this narrative could be endorsed by certain elite groups in Egypt, it is intriguing that it is apparently shared by wide strata in Egyptian society, including its rich, middle and poor classes. This happens despite its inherently elitist and conservative logic, and its policy implications that may simply contradict the interests of the very same groups who endorse it.

More importantly, the narrative that has somehow become part of the collective wisdom of society is based on often incomplete or even flawed evidence. This is not to say that the narrative is totally flawed. It definitely has certain aspects of truth, as I will demonstrate. But, I argue, it is overly simplistic in that it neglects pieces of evidence that are very important if we are to have an informed debate on the subject.

To begin with the facts, the narrative makes two historical errors. First, there is the issue of timing. Egypt’s provision of public education to the masses in the 1950s was the last step in a century-long public programme that accelerated following the 1923 constitution and its requirement that compulsory education be provided for every Egyptian child.

Furthermore, this last step, and in some sense the most decisive reform, in the programme that essentially opened primary and secondary education to the masses was advocated and implemented by Taha Hussein, Egypt’s minister of education. The relevant law was passed in October 1951, a few months before the 1952 military coup.

Yes, the post-1952 regime made further significant steps in mass education starting from the 1953 law up to the 1960s. Most notably, it abolished tuition fees in universities and guaranteed jobs in the government and public sectors to all university and secondary schools graduates in 1961-64.

Nevertheless, it is a historical error to claim that the provision of free public mass education was an initiative of the post-1952 regime. It is striking that this error is apparently shared by both supporters and opponents of the regime.

The second and perhaps more important historical error is that the narrative focuses on one misleading aspect of Egypt’s provision of mass education. That aspect is making schooling free, while ignoring what arguably constitutes the core and most central reform: unification of the elementary (awwali) schools, the heirs of the centuries-old kuttabs (religious schools), and the primary (ibtidia’i) schools.

In essence, up to 1951, Egypt’s educational system was dichotomous. On the one hand, there was the relatively familiar ‘secular’ or modern system that was introduced to Egypt starting from the first half of the nineteenth century. Students enrolled in this system started with primary schools, and advanced to secondary schools and universities, the gateways to most white-collar jobs.

On the other hand, there was the traditional educational system, at the bottom of which were the elementary schools (a modernised version of the kuttabs that was introduced in 1916), which led graduates only to higher religious institutions. Elementary schools graduates were not permitted, though, to advance to higher ‘secular’ stages of education – secondary schools and universities – unless they transferred to a primary school, or starting from 1945, passed a special examination.

This dichotomy was at the core of Egypt’s educational dilemma during the nineteenth century and up to 1951. It resulted from the fact that modern schooling was introduced as a parallel system, initially aiming to serve the elites, while paying little attention to merging it with the kuttabs, or even reforming the latter.

To be sure, various reforms were implemented between 1861 and 1949 with the objective of unifying the two systems. The curricula in elementary schools converged with those of primary schools by 1949, with the exception of the foreign language requirement. Public primary and secondary schools were made free in 1944 and 1951, respectively (originally, public primary schools became non-free in 1907 under the British occupation).

Yet elementary schools remained of lower quality than primary schools, and the dichotomy persisted because of the limited supply of the latter, suggesting that tuition fees were not the main driver of the dichotomy. On the eve of the 1951 reform, more than three quarters of Egypt’s students were enrolled in elementary schools. Hence, most of the pictures of students in primary schools – whether public, national private or foreign private – in Egypt’s ‘belle époque’ should be interpreted as representing a minority of students.

With the 1951 reform, the two systems were finally unified. But did the unification improve the quality of elementary schools? In fact, it did not. The reform essentially entailed ‘re-labelling’ the elementary schools as primary schools, allowing their graduates to advance to secondary schools and universities. Although new primary schools were built, they were limited in number, which meant that the surge in student enrolment was absorbed by increasing class sizes.

On the other hand, the reform may have also reduced the quality of primary schools. This is because the unification (according to the 1953 law) was achieved by removing the foreign language requirement from primary education and allowing students to advance in the primary stage without examinations.

The result of the reform was a huge increase in student enrolment at all stages of education, indicating that there was a pent-up demand for ‘secular’ education that was not satisfied due to the limited supply of primary schools prior to the reform. This led to an increase in average years of schooling for the cohorts that benefited from the reform.

Their occupational attainment improved as well, with a rise in the population share of white-collar workers, although this was due to both a ‘real’ accumulation of human capital and a ‘nominal’ accumulation with the guaranteed employment in the public sector. Indeed, the share of white-collar workers declined after the employment guarantee was effectively discontinued in the 1980s.

So all in all, the provision of public mass education increased student enrolment and improved, on average, the educational and occupational outcomes of the masses. But the average quality of the pre-1952 primary schools indeed dropped due to the unification process. (It is not entirely clear if the quality of elementary schools dropped or rather remained the same, but increased class sizes may have reduced their quality as well.)

But in a population where the rate of student enrolment was very low in 1950, was the top priority to increase enrolment or to focus instead on the provision of high-quality education to a small share of the population? A careful reading of what happened suggests that Egypt’s government both before and after 1952 decided that increasing enrolment was their top priority, and this is reflected in the 1923 constitution as well as in the 1956 constitution.

In my view, it is important when we think of evaluating such reforms to reflect on the relevant counterfactual – the situation of Egyptian children before 1951 – rather than an imaginary counterfactual that never existed – namely that there was high-quality education provided for all.


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