Crowding into Egypt's colleges

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

In one sense, Mona Ibrahim is one of the more fortunate high school graduates in Egypt.

Her test scores were so high that the government awarded her a position at the prestigious Kasr El Aini school of Cairo University. Students with lower scores will be awarded slots in less popular faculties such as commerce and agriculture, or less prestigious specialized institutes.

Miss Ibrahim is one of some 140,000 high school graduates who will attend university this year.

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The problem she and her entering class face, however, is severe overcrowding at the college level. There are already 500,000 college students in Egypt. Cairo University alone takes care of qualifying 150,000 for careers in different fields.

Thanks to a policy of free education up to graduate school, which was initiated in the early 1960s as part of drastic government measures to promote equal opportunity, all Egyptians are allowed to attend college regardless of their ability to pay. The result is overcrowded lecture classes with up to 3,000 students registered. Veterans advise newcomers to goel2ufquoteThe result (of free education) is overcrowded lecture classes with up to 3,000 students registered.

el2to class several hours before to reserve seats to avoid standing and even not hearing the lecture at all.

Not only does the university charge a maximum of 5 pounds in yearly fees (about $7), but the government-subsidized institution will distribute 1.5 million pounds (about $2.1 million) in financial aid during the first semester of this year.

It will also provide hot meals for the academically superior students and hostel residents for as little as 10 piastres (14 cents). The filling lunch of meat or chicken, plus rice and vegetables, costs others 25 piastres (33 cents).

With the price of books skyrocketing - up to 80 pounds ($112) in the case of one medical textbook - the university is allocating 500,000 pounds ($700,000) for the publication rights to books published by professors affiliated with it.

Mona is not one of those who worry about the prices of the books or the very high fees professors charge students for private lessons. Her father, a well-to-do businessman, can supply her needs without difficulty.

Less fortunate people of her age seek ways of coping with standards. Some join Jamaat, a society of Muslim fundamentalists that has developed into several compact groups offering members financial aid, paying their hostel fees, and printing their own books. The textbooks are made available to members for less than half the bookstore price. Some professors offer private lessons free of charge. Jamaat members have access to their own labs and equipment, also for free.

Once college students graduate, however, they face more problems finding a job. Even some freshmen see their prospects fading. With the job market as tight as it is, many youths say they feel they are a burden on an already overloaded government and public sector, where they are guaranteed jobs - albeit low-paying.

But Mona has reason to be optimistic.

An uncle working in Saudi Arabia has promised her a job, where she can get paid the equivalent of 800 pounds (about $1,200) a month.

Others will have to struggle to join more than 2.5 million Egyptians working in Arab countries, or fight for the few opportunties made available by a growing number of foreign companies and banks in Egypt.

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