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In Egypt, Public Classrooms Are Empty as Private Tutors Get Rich

Asked what classes were like in her last year of high school, the fateful period when students across the country cram for Egypt’s life-defining national exams, Nermin Abouzeid looked blank for a second.

“We don’t actually know because she never went to high school,” explained her mother, Manal Abouzeid, 47.

Nermin, 19, is not the type to skip class. A child of the dusty alleyways of a lower-middle-class neighborhood of Cairo, she was determined, by middle school, to become a cardiologist. But medical schools accept only the top scorers on the national exams.

She abandoned Egypt’s chronically overcrowded and underfunded schools midway through middle school, joining millions of other students in private tutoring, where the same teachers who were paid too little at school to bother teaching could make multiples of their day-job salaries on exam-prep classes.

The tutoring industry in Egypt has become a big business by filling the void left by public schools, once the bedrock of middle-class advancement. The government’s mismanagement of the economy has shriveled Egypt’s once-robust middle class, analysts say, dragging families toward poverty not only through repeated economic crises and subsidy cuts, but, increasingly, by the cost of supposedly free services like health care and education.

Juggling a booming population, a sluggish economy and extravagant building projects, Egypt has long spent well below the constitutional minimum of 4 percent of gross domestic product on education, even as students skid far down the global educational rankings.

For-profit tutoring centers are where Egyptian families try to outrun their country’s decline. Lessons are the only way to secure better futures for their children, many believe, even if it means sacrificing meat, fruit and vegetables amid 35 percent inflation.

The current economic crunch has battered the import industry, where Nermin’s father works. “We’re in very bad shape,” said her mother, a homemaker, thinking of the tutoring fees they would pay if Nermin, who failed last year’s exams, needed a third try. “I hope to God we never have to do this again.”

Two years ago, the Egyptian government tried overhauling the exams to emphasize comprehension over rote learning, a shift intended to stamp out tutoring, where memorization is king. But schools remained severely underfunded, and the demand for tutoring never dimmed.

Egypt “doesn’t have the financial ability” to educate students well, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said last year, despite his government’s insistence that it is meeting the constitutional minimum. “Where will the money come from?”

From parents. Experts estimate that Egyptians collectively spend more than one and a half times as much on pre-college education as the government does, far higher than in other countries — a “mind-blowing” amount, said Hania Sobhy, a researcher who wrote a book about Egyptian education.

Underspending on education has yielded a vicious circle, experts say. Tutoring cannibalizes public education, siphoning off students in the upper grades and rewarding teachers for taking their energies to private lessons instead of public classrooms.

Parents, not the government, pick up the tab.

“It’s self-perpetuating,” Dr. Sobhy said. “If nobody comes to school, the teachers really have no incentive to teach.”

Decades ago, it might have been a sound investment. For older generations, a good score on the exams ensured a good degree and then a job, usually with the government, guaranteeing a lifetime of steady paychecks and pensions.

Starting with President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who made education widely accessible, the exam was “the primary means to social mobility,” said Ragui Assaad, a professor at the University of Minnesota who studies Egyptian education and labor policy.

Government jobs are less plentiful these days, but the exams’ prestige lingers. For weeks before this year’s exams, Nermin Abouzeid studied from the moment she woke until the moment she collapsed into bed — a lighter schedule than last year, when she pulled several all-nighters in a row before the first test.

She stopped studying only to sit for the exams, which lasted from mid-June to mid-July. The results will determine not only whether and where she goes to college, but also what she can major in (medicine for top scorers, engineering one step below and law, business and arts far down the ladder) and how high her parents can hold their heads. Many middle-class Egyptian parents will not hear of their children marrying someone without a degree.

Yet, for all the time, money and effort that goes into them, the exams are ultimately irrelevant to the vast majority of Egyptians. These days, few college graduates work in the field they studied for, and many end up without formal jobs at all.

Many employers hire based on connections and social class, asking applicants about family club memberships instead of grades as a way of filtering identical low-quality degrees, Dr. Assaad said. University graduates without such extracurricular qualifications commonly make a living as Uber drivers, construction workers or janitors.

“People think your future depends on it,” said Assem Ashraf, 17, outside the Excellent-Oxford Tutoring Center in Tagamo, a tidy Cairo suburb, one afternoon a few weeks before this year’s exams. “But let me tell you, 90 percent of students won’t find a job.”

Before tutoring became popular in the 1990s, most students who had tutors saw them after school, and just for subjects where they needed extra help. But as the population soared and spending lagged, public schools grew so overcrowded that students had to attend in shifts, buildings crumbled from a lack of maintenance and inflation shrank already-low teacher salaries to pittances. Increasingly, students seeking an edge in the exams switched to tutoring.

The industry is so entrenched that students at expensive private schools, too, flock to the centers.

Tutors rose to fame by accurately predicting questions, whether through experience or by greasing government palms. These days, a star tutor can draw 400 or more students per class, and the most sought-after tutors earn enough to drive Porsches.

Before the coronavirus pandemic popularized online classes, such tutors often rented theaters, mosques or halls to fit an audience of thousands for final pre-exam cramming sessions, said Maged Hosny, an industry veteran who opened some of Cairo’s first centers.

The most popular teachers drill facts and figures into their students with jokes and mnemonic songs they make up themselves. Others build their brands using self-published textbooks and notebooks with their names and faces emblazoned on every page. On Facebook, their fans argue heatedly about the best teachers.

“I want to be a teacher,” said Hager Gamal, 18, who enrolled at Excellent-Oxford and two other centers to assemble a top-flight combination of tutors. “There’s a lot of money in it.”

Small wonder, then, that the centers compete to hire top tutors. Even doctors have been known to switch to tutoring to make more money.

The only qualification that matters is how many students they can attract.

“What I’d make in a month at my school, I could make in a day here,” said Mohamed Galal, 35, an Excellent-Oxford math tutor who also teaches at a nearby private school. “And it’s not just the money. You also get the status, the respect.”

In one of Mr. Galal’s classes this spring, two assistants patrolled the basement lecture hall where about 100 students sat at heavily graffitied wooden desks, snapping their fingers at chit-chatters.

“Math requires focus and sleep,” Mr. Galal told the students through a microphone, scrawling equations on a whiteboard. “Staying up late is stupid — it won’t save you a few days before the exam.”

As inflation bit into families’ budgets this year, the center allowed more students in his class to attend for free. Yet parents continued to pay whatever they could.

“Sometimes what we eat today depends on whether I have class tomorrow. If I have two classes tomorrow, for example, then we’re eating koshary today,” said Zeinab Moawad, 18, a public school student at Excellent-Oxford, referring to the cheapest of Egyptian dishes.

To her parents, she said, the hardship was worth it: “They don’t want to feel like it’s their fault if I don’t get a good score.”

The night before exam results came out this week, the Abouzeids barely slept. Nermin burst out of her room around 5 a.m.

“Mom, I passed,” she screamed. Her score was nowhere near high enough for medical school. But her mother ululated in joy.

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