Ismail Serageldin


Reinventing Egyptian Education

 06/12/2006 | Conference Closing Summation at the AMIDEAST 50th Anniversary Celebration, Cairo, Egypt

1. Introduction:


Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

I am delighted to join you in celebrating the 50th anniversary of AMIDEAST’s activities in Egypt. Half a century where AMIDEAST has helped build bridges between the US and Egypt, even in turbulent times, like the period we are going through right now.

But despite the broadly negative perceptions of US policy in this part of the world, the US is still held in very high esteem for its science and technology and its unmatched educational facilities. Indeed, as we congratulate AMIDEAST for its past achievements and future plans, we should also congratulate the US for being the unrivaled champion of education, especially graduate schools. It is compelling that in international ratings exercises, US universities held 17 of the 20 highest positions in the world rankings. So it is particularly apposite that AMIDEAST should be celebrating its 50th anniversary of productive and effective work in Egypt with a seminar on education.

I feel very honored to be asked to share some concluding thoughts as we wrap up this excellent seminar on “Egyptian Education and the Global Economy”. I will not try to summarize all that has been said, partly because you just heard it, and partly because it would be beyond my capacity to do so in the little time allotted me. I could not do justice to so rich a discussion. Rather, allow me to share with you some observations and some reflections, triggered by the discussions we have just heard.

Let me start with the observation that it is surprising and rather disappointing to see so few women on the program. Surely on a topic as vital as that of education and development, they should have been much more prominent among the participants and their voice should have been much more heard. In general, I believe that the issue of gender balance is simple: nothing less than full equality will do, and it is timely that in Egypt, at this time, we should be reaffirming that principle in all forums at all occasions.

Beyond this overarching observation, in the coming minutes we will share together I will encourage the imagination to soar… but my comments will nevertheless remain firmly anchored into what will be the leitmotif of my remarks: the question of values



2. General Overview:


Let me start from a few words mentioned by our two keynote speakers:

Minister Hani Helal said that education must reflect the needs of the market and encourage innovation, in what he referred to as the four Ps: Publications, Patent, Prototype and Product. He recognized that research must be demand driven and told us about achievements to date and what remains to be done. Without question, these are unassailable remarks and once can only be encouraged by the figures that he has cited: 98,000 PhDs, a new 100 Million EGL fund for R&D. However, the challenges ahead are still considerable as only 13,000 of these PhDs are in Industry. But the pipeline is growing again, and there are over 1000 Masters and PhD students studying abroad.

Ms. Dina Powell spoke of the issues of such students and promised that Visa issues were being facilitated for study in the US institutions of higher learning. Welcome developments all, and AMIDEAST is helping in the placing of such students. However, she also focused on the role of education, and especially female education in developing our society, and even cited the famous poetry of Hafez Ibrahim on the education of women:



الأم مدرسة إذا أعددتها أعددت شعبا طيب الأعراق


I salute such thoughts, and I say: we must enhance the deduction of girls and the empowerment of women, for without that there is no development.

Egypt’s education System:

Egypt’s basic education system, encompassing primary, preparatory and secondary education is in a poor state with many complaints about corruption and private lessons being the norm. The educational process is overwhelmed by the desire for certification of ever-greater numbers of graduates, even at the expense of the content of the learning process. The link is seen between graduation/certification and public sector employment, not between ability and employment. The special vocational/technical schools are not producing the kind of technical expertise that the market demands. A drastic overhaul of the whole system is badly needed. However, it is such a large system and requires so much attention, that an interim goal can be set: to establish an elite schooling stream that would lead to higher education of the very best kind, while sufficient time is given to working through some of the major reforms for the bulk of the system.

But Beyond specific reform measures, there is an overarching issue of overall cultural climate. The current drift towards an intolerant pseudo-religious fanaticism is incompatible with either the freedom of expression that democracy demands or that scientific inquiry requires. We must stand up and be counted in the defense of freedom of expression, especially in these times of change and transformation. I will have more to say on this important topic in a moment.



3. Education Beyond Economy:


Education, Training and job creation

We looked at the links between education, training and job creation. Here we adopted a very utilitarian approach to education. From that perspective, education is there to allow youngsters to acquire the skills that would help them earn livelihoods in their adult lives. It is a view that certainly responds to a felt need, especially at this time of movement towards the knowledge based society and the technology driven economy. And you have heard valuable insights and best practices from our distinguished panelists. They noted that the skills required will change dramatically in the next few decades, and that the educational establishments of Egypt have to start adapting now to provide meaningful education and training to the coming generation. They also reflected to the differences between vocational training and management training and the need in changes in both. All of that should produce a major change in the competitiveness of the country and the pattern of economic growth.

Taher Helmy specifically emphasized the skills needed for a competitive economy, and the need to maintain the momentum of the reform programs to maintain economic growth, without which there is no job creation.

Ahmed Galal emphasized the tradeoffs between quantity and quality, and the need for both. He entitled his presentation “The road not taken”, a reference to Robert Frost, and it is Frost who said:



The woods are lovely dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep…
-- Robert Frost


And like Frost, we have promises to keep, and miles to go before we sleep. Indeed the road is still long and arduous to achieve the kind of education that we want for Egypt in the21st Century.

Helmy Abouleish focused on what industry wanted an whether we included them enough in our forward planning of the demand side. He cited many encouraging figures about targets met, and jobs created. Particularly notable was the fact that manufacturing had become a leading sector, -- at least in the last quarter. We can be optimistic that if these trends are maintained over a long enough period, the competitiveness of the country will improve.

Moataz Elalfy discussed the example of the FGF and the training that it provides, and the fact that it is being funded by the private sector. There is something to be said for the acid test of private sector support. The private sector is not a philanthropy, and it will not finance something that does not promise a direct benefit to the bottom line. Thus the educational reforms and the quality training we are discussing are being validated by the hard-nosed scrutiny of the private sector, and that is all to the good.

But I would like to take a different and perhaps complementary view of the needs of education for the society of the future. Economic growth is certainly important but it is not the only thing. Let us remember the insightful words of Robert Kennedy speaking on the growth of GNP:



“The Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”


And in the pursuit of that which makes life worthwhile, I say: We must not forget the weak and the vulnerable in this increasingly competitive world. The ruthless allocative efficiency of the markets should be tempered by a caring and nurturing society. …

… I find the hope of creating a better world. A world where according to the precepts of Gandhi, there would be

         NO Politics without principle
         NO Wealth without work
         NO Commerce without morality
         NO Pleasure without conscience
         NO Education without character
         NO Science without humanity
         NO Worship without sacrifice




A vision of a caring society.

A vision where a people’s greatness is measured by the quality of the lives of their poorest citizens not by the size of their armies or the scale of their buildings..

A vision where the future is for all, as open-ended as knowledge, as random as play, as surprising as human imagination and ingenuity …

Yes! We must change the world… We must ensure that the new millennium is indeed the millennium for all the wretched of the earth.

We will need our poets and our philosophers as well as our engineers and our doctors. Even more, we will need the scientists whose pursuit of knowledge is driven by curiosity, who work in teams and who in the practice of science promote the values of science.



4. The Values of Science:


Scientists who practice scientific research, and those who develop technology, which I take to be the application of scientific knowledge for utilitarian ends, promote certain values that may be called the values of science: rationality, logic, evidence-based approaches and much more. These values promote a “modern outlook” in society. Without it, no practice of science can take place.

Actually, it may amuse this audience to learn that while the word “science” is quite old, the word “scientist” – to describe those who practice science -- is recent, and its first recorded use did not come until 1840. “We need very much a name,” said the brilliant English philosopher-mathematician William Whewell (1794-1866), “to describe a cultivator of science in general. I should incline to call him a Scientist.”

It was, says Boorstin, this emerging community of the “cultivators of science in general” for whom the twentieth century would create new research institutions. Universities became fertile centers. “Research and Development” entered the language only in 1923, as businesses risked billions on a new partnership with science.

How far we have come in less than a century! But research as pursued by scientists dedicated to the search for “truth” and as pursued by business dedicated to the search for “profits” result in a creative tension that is somewhat alleviated by the involvement of government and universities in the promotion of the curiosity-driven research on which the more strategic an applied research that drives technology and its dissemination through business.

But whatever the tensions, the values of science remain central to the pursuit of a knowledge based society or a technology driven economy.

These values of science include a profound commitment to truth, to give honor where it is due… To live by Newton’s celebrated phrase: “If I have seen farther than most, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants”. They include openness to engagement with the contrarian view subject only to the rules of evidence in arbitrating disputes. From such a process of challenge, arbitration and validation comes the constructive subversiveness that makes science advance.

How can Egypt acquire and propagate such values throughout our educational and training institutions? Public awareness and international educational exchanges and linkages will play important roles.

I think that it is not possible to promote these values without confronting the currents of obscurantism, fanaticism and extremism that we witness in so many areas of our lives, not just in Egypt, or in the Arab and Muslim worlds, but in the whole world.

Today, as we confront the voices of extremism, we can find strength from the legacy of the golden age of our own civilization. Indeed, our culture has much to be proud of. It was very much the Arab/Muslim Civilization that laid the foundation of the modern experimental method, accepting the authority of observation and experiment rather than the authority of the ancients. Listen to the modern voice of Ibn Al-Haytham, known in the west as Al Hazen:

        “He who searches for truth is not he who reviews the works of the ancients…[it is] he who follows argument and evidence, not the statement by an individual, who is inevitably affected by context and imperfection. It is the duty of he who reads science books, if he wants to learn truths, that he should set himself up as an opponent to all he looks at.. [accepting only what is supported by evidence and argument].”
        --- Ibn Al Haytham, Al Shukuk Fi Batlaymous

Likewise, listen to the voice of Ibn Al-Nafis on accepting the contrarian view, subject to the test of evidence and rational analysis.

        “When hearing something unusual, do not preemptively reject it, for that would be folly. Indeed, horrible things may be true, and familiar and praised things may prove to be lies. Truth is truth unto itself, not because [many] people say it is.”
        --- Ibn Al-Nafis, Sharh’ Ma’na Al Qanun.

How different these enlightened voices from the past sound compared to the frenetic ranting we see and hear everywhere today condemning all that is new and different! To those violent attacks on the commerce of ideas, we should deploy the wisdom of the apostle of non-violence, the great Mahatma Gandhi, who said:

        “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any”.
        -- Mahatma Gandhi



5. International educational exchanges & Linkages


This brings me to our second panel today, dealing with International educational exchanges & Linkages.

Driven by the need to learn from others and to gain the experience and perspective that comes from such travel, we can find enormous value in studying abroad. This is not only for gaining expertise and building bridges with more advanced research institutions elsewhere; it is also to have the necessary perspective to hold up mirrors to ourselves and to be able to diagnose our weaknesses ad work at remedying them.

As was mentioned by the distinguished panel that you just heard, it Is valuable to study abroad and it is valuable to build the requisite links with foreign institutions will pay off if they are built around a focused joint project that gives content to the expected collaboration, and does not mean endless rounds of talk or bureaucratic exchanges of papers…

And in our drive to reduce costs it was asked: Can IT substitute for face to face?

To some extent it can. But it generates more demand for more output, and that in turn underlines the very human need for more contact with other humans…

Who among the active businessmen in this hall travels less today than they did a decade ago? And that despite enormously increased ICT…

Hosam Badrawy , A brilliant practitioner, political reformer, and legislator, explained the five key policies that are essential for the reform of the Egyptian educational system over the coming decades. Specifically, he emphasized the internationalization of Higher education, and the need for a flexible and versatile system, of excellent governance. I agree. Further he cited Einstein about the need for fresh thinking to address tomorrow’s problems. How true. The rote memorization of “facts” that existed in the past is no longer suitable for the present, much less the future.

This point was also taken up by Dell Feder, who spoke to us of the build up of intellectual skills rather than the acquisition of knowledge. She drew on her experience in Zayed University, as well as at RAND, to emphasize three strategies needed to achieve six educational outcomes. All of which were excellent, and it is most laudable that these strategies were being pursued by Zayed University, and all-female institution, helping build women leaders in the Gulf.

David Arnold of AUC

Spoke of bright spots. One of these very bright spots, I would maintain, is the AUC itself, and how the AUC built up excellence. But I would like to take up a point that is too infrequently addressed: the need for liberal arts education to produce informed citizens in the polity and engaged people in the society, not just skilled workers in the economy.

Sherif Kamel , a specialist in MIS, pointed out that delivering knowledge in the ICT world of today, means competing on cost, quality, service and speed. He proposed “hybrid Models” for our consideration, and to remember that 1.1 billion people are now on e-mail, sending some 80 billion e-mails a day, and accessing some 60 million websites… What a difference from a mere 15 years ago! Thus the future will require radical changes from past patterns if we are to be relevant to the needs o f the world of tomorrow.

All of these are eminently reasonable points. But I think that we need to think even more boldly and dream of reinventing education completely…



6. Reinventing Education


The old model of rigid linear advance through 12 years of schooling, followed by four years of university after which one receives a degree that certifies our entry into the labor force to practice some profession for forty years and then retire, will become totally obsolete. Continuous learning will be more than a slogan; it will be an economic necessity. The market will demand new skills, and an increasingly competitive world will force enterprises to continuously upgrade the skills of their labor force.

Education is likely to change profoundly in the coming decades, in terms of content, participants, methods, and organizational setting. Let us consider each of these in turn.

On Content, Curricula and syllabi need to be revised to emphasize basic skills, problem solving and learning to learn. Teachers must be much better trained to become enablers that will encourage children to realize the joy of discovery, and be able to utilize teaching methods that allow each individual to change at their own pace.

The educational system of the future will witness an explosion in Content, beyond our capacity to imagine today. People, having learned to learn, and having acquired a basic infrastructure of fundamental skills, including interpersonal skills and the ability to function in a society. These fundamental skills will be complemented by a vast array of offerings in every conceivable combination of units and modules covering everything from artistic expression to advanced genomics, from music appreciation to mathematics. The flexibility of these combinations will allow people to learn continuously throughout their lives.

As HE the First lady mentioned yesterday night, new fields of learning will come about. The most important discoveries will be at the intersection of the existing disciplines. In the past we had biology and chemistry. Today we also have bio-chemistry, in addition to biology and chemistry. Totally new fields have come about, such as genomics and proteomics. And beyond the natural sciences we are discovering how important trans-disciplinary work is. We need the wisdom of the humanities in addition to the knowledge of the natural sciences. We need the insights of the social sciences to bear upon the technical options of engineering.

Participants in our educational enterprise will still involve parents at home and teachers at school. But Students will play a bigger role in their own development. And virtual communities on the Internet will create a new form of peer group affecting the mental and emotional growth of the children and young adolescents of the future. I say this, fully cognizant of both its upside and its downside. Perhaps we should be more open to what our children will have to tell us… Take the words of America’s Poet Laureate, Robert Frost:

         Now I am old my teachers are the young.
         What can’t be molded must be cracked and sprung.
         I strain at lessons fit to start a suture.
         I go to school to youth to learn the future.
         -- Robert Frost

Methods of teaching in the last fifty years have been almost totally confined to formal instruction in classrooms. Lectures, tutorials and supervised work have been the staples of education from time immemorial. We have barely started to explore guided learning through such instruments as distance learning, the Open University and modular adult education classes. We have barely scratched the surface of the potential that exists in self learning. There is room to do much more in guided learning, and to help a thorough-going revolution in self-learning.

Although I believe that formal instruction will continue to be important, it will increasingly be supplemented by both guided learning and self-learning through myriad offerings. Driven by curiosity and self-interest, the lifelong learners of the future will alternate between broadening themselves or pursuing hobbies on the one hand, and acquiring marketable skills on the other. The offerings for both will be there.

The organizational setting, the schools and universities, will not be replaced by individuals working on computer terminals or on their mobile phones or other technologies, from home or from elsewhere. This is because they serve three functions: a skill and knowledge imparting function; a certification function; and a socialization function. The first and second will change along the lines I have just described. But the socialization function will remain.

As HE the first Lady mentioned, children need to be with other children of their age, to learn to interact and socialize with peers. Only schools provide the requisite setting for such socialization, an essential feature of emotional development and the formation of effective citizens.

Libraries will become even more important in this period of boundless electronic information of enormously variable quality. Having too much information is as problematic as having too little for those who do not know their subject matter well. Libraries will help by organizing coherent domains of knowledge and sharing in the global explosion of information. They will not be just depositories of books and magazines, but will become essential portals through which learners – and the general public – will be helped to explore the vast and growing resources that will be at their fingertips.



7. The Future


Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

My end is my beginning… I return to values… For beyond the issues of knowledge, there are the issues of values.

Values create a society out of a collection of individuals. Values enable transactions to take place and bridge the inter-generational divide. Values are what make a human society worthy of the designation “human”. We have come to rely on our educational system to reinforce what parents do at home in nurturing the correct values in their growing children. In the educational system, values are forged by teacher example and student practice.

Values include providing youth with a sense of a higher purpose than mere material gain. They under-gird the dignity of the individual and the mutual respect so necessary for civilized discourse. They allow our children to grow in the belief that the ideals of truth, goodness, liberty, equality and justice are more than empty words. Promotion of these values is part of promoting a culture of humanism, a culture of peace.

Indeed, each human being has to have individual freedom and group identity. A properly functioning system of values in our educational systems will ensure that this group identity is not at the expense of the bond of common humanity, and that respect for human life does not stop at some political boundary. Universal values are an essential part of the society we are all creating at the start of the new millennium. This requires balance. Balance between the emancipation of the individual and the harmony of the community, between the celebration of diversity and the recognition of our common humanity. Only thus will we be able to promote peace built on equity and justice. Peace that will allow each individual to benefit from the amazing opportunities of the schools of tomorrow and flourish to the full extent of their abilities and give back to society to the full measure of their talents.

Unleashing those talents can help create a better future, a future created by the sweat of our brows and the strength of our hearts, a future where…

         Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
         Where knowledge is free;
         Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
         Where words come out from the depth of truth;
         Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
         Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of          dead habit;
         Where the mind is led forward … into ever-widening thought and action---
         Into that heaven of freedom, … let my country awake.

Thank you.

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