Published on Arab Voices

Education in Egypt: inequality of opportunity across three generations

Kim Eun YeulThe political transition in Egypt has gone through many phases, but the ability to deliver on the demand for bread, dignity, opportunity and social justice that epitomized the 2011 revolution will continue to stand as an arbiter of its ultimate success. This will be especially apparent in the distribution of economic opportunities and how they are shaped by public policies. It is hardly an exaggeration to suggest that the new government’s actions to improve the educational and labor market outcomes for young people will determine, to a large degree, how successful it will be in addressing the demands of the revolution.  The equity in access to and the quality of education will play a key role in this process. As a great social equalizer, a good education is a vital foundation and without it many children are likely to fail to reach their full potential as adults. While concerns about inequality in education are echoed across all corners of the globe (see, for example, a recent New York Times article on US), the issue is attracting a renewed attention in post "Arab Spring" Egypt.

To contribute to the ongoing policy discussions, a recently completed World Bank study sought answers for the following basic questions regarding Egypt’s current education system: How successful is Egypt in ensuring access to education for all of its children? What is the extent of inequality of opportunity in the education system? How have the disparities evolved across generations and levels of education? What are some of the main factors that are beyond the control of a student that affect educational attainment?  In this and subsequent posts, I will share some of the main findings and what they mean for Egypt moving forward.

During the last two decades, the evolution of educational attainment in Egypt has been one of democratization of access, particularly at the basic and secondary levels (Figure 1).  An examination of three generations of 21-24 year olds, born between 1964 to 1967, 1974 to 1977, and 1982 to 1985, most of whom have already completed their education, shows that preparatory completion rates increased steadily from 43% to 69% and secondary completion rates from 38% to 65%. College completion rates among the same groups have more than doubled from 7% in 1988 to 17% in 2006. Egypt has also managed to close the gender gap at the secondary and higher education levels (click here for details). 

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However, there were large disparities in both the level and accrual of the gains in educational attainment.  And the fraction of youth that never enrolled in any form of school was still large, affecting more girls than boys (26% for girls versus 16% for boys in 2006), more rural youth than urban (34% for rural Upper Egypt, versus 10% for urban), and more children of parents with no formal education (25% of such children never enrolled in any formal education) and more agricultural workers (30% of whom never enrolled in any formal education).  In fact, the inequality in educational attainment associated with parental background and geographic location have worsened since 1998. Access to higher education continues to remain significantly lower for children from rural areas and for those whose parents have low levels of education or are engaged in more low-skilled occupation, such as subsistence agriculture. Youth born in rural Upper Egypt are 18 percentage points less likely to attain a general secondary degree in 2006, compared to 14% in 1998.  Children of mothers with no education were 36 percentage points less likely to achieve a college degree than those with a college educated mother.

Among the most  disadvantaged youth (defined as those coming from rural area, and with parents with no education, and father in low-skilled occupation), only 5% of them had attained college degrees, 41% secondary education, 13% primary educations, and 38% had dropped out or never attended school.  In contrast, among the most advantaged youth (defined as those from major urban areas, and parents with secondary or higher education, and a father  in a white collar occupation),  65% had attained college degrees, 29% secondary education, 4% primary education and none dropped out or never attended school. The expansion of attainment at higher levels shown in Figure 1 has benefited mostly youth from privileged backgrounds. For example, between 1998 and 2006, the share of college graduates among the least advantaged youth did not increase at all, compared to a 14 percentage point increase among the most advantaged youth (Figure 2).

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Family background and geographic location are two of the greatest contributors to educational inequality in Egypt. These are factors that children and young people have no control over. Tracking into general and vocational secondary school after the compulsory level of school depends on the performance in a high-stakes national test; disadvantaged youth cannot afford the private tutoring expenditures needed to guarantee success in this kind of exam. Unless the equality of educational outcomes is improved, ensuring all Egyptians have the skills to achieve their full potential, the country will be unable to take advantage of the so called “demographic window of opportunity” of a declining fertility rate and increasing working age population (see UNFPA website for details).  Existing education policies may need revisions and new ones devised to promote fairness and expand opportunities for the most disadvantaged. Accumulated international evidence shows that interventions to equalize opportunity early in life are far more cost effective than those done later in life. Early action is far more effective in breaking intergenerational cycles of poverty and inequality, and improving future outcomes for today’s youth.

Through no fault of their own, a large number of Egyptians from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t have the resources they need to get a good education and a fair shot at success in life.  Providing these children with the skills they need through education is key to addressing the inequality of opportunity in Egyptian society as a whole. Educational reform is a critical first step in meeting the demands of the revolution.


Lire Ersado

Human Development Practice Leader for Pakistan

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