With the beginning of every school year, another scramble begins for Hanan Hassan. A rush to buy stationery, textbooks and clothes – and then to haggle over prices with teachers so her children do not fail in class.
“In order to get any attention, you have to pay for the teacher to tutor your kids,” says Ms Hassan, a 34-year-old house cleaner and mother of three who lives in Cairo. “If they don’t take these extra classes, the teacher will fail them.”
In a symptom of the widening institutional dysfunction of the education systems in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world, many students at overcrowded state schools must pay teachers off-the-books extras for after-class tutoring services in order to learn.
Educational experts estimate Egyptians spend up to $2.2bn a year on such expenses just for primary and secondary education, plus hundreds of millions of dollars more for higher education, in what has become a sprawling aspect of the informal economy.
“A ‘shadow education system’ of private supplementary tutoring has evolved out of the reach of state control,” wrote Sarah Hartmann, director of the EU-Middle East Forum at the German Council on Foreign Relations, in a lengthy 2007 paper that examined the phenomenon.
“A large part of instruction and learning in Egypt thus takes place outside of the official classroom, either at home or in private tutoring centres,” she wrote.
“These private lessons, which the majority of Egyptian high school students and even a large number of elementary and preparatory school students take in the afternoons and evenings, consume not only much of the students’ and teachers’ spare time but also a substantial part of the average Egyptian family budget.”
The injection of black-market services into the educational sector has become so intense that many teachers have become entrepreneurs, competing with one another to lure students to their after-school courses, sometimes by renting out classrooms at the private tutoring centres popping up across the country.
Kamal Mougheeth, director of the Egyptian Association for Civic Education and Human Rights, an advocacy group, says: “It creates an unethical and competitive environment among the teachers over who will be able to rally students to their paid classes. Students also lose respect for their teachers.
“They become meat sellers who earn their reputation by how much they sell and what they sell.”
Mr Mougheeth says the rise of off-the-books tutoring as a main pillar of the state education system began to catch fire with the collapse of the school system in Egypt over the past 30 years or so.
He estimates that teachers in the 1960s were paid a cost-adjusted equivalent wage of about $785 a month compared with a wage that can be less than $100 today.
Meanwhile class sizes have exploded, with five or six students sometimes crowding around one desk.
The rich and upper-middle class have long since abandoned the state school system for private institutions, which sometimes teach in English rather than Arabic.
But poor and lower-middle class Egyptians must pay far more than they can afford to make sure their children are educated.
Mr Mougheeth says fees for tutoring vary from E£10-E£150 ($1.50-$22) an hour depending on the reputation of the teacher and size of the class.
“It becomes a situation of supply and demand,” he says. “The teachers want to make money, so they’ll either take 10 students for E£10 each or two for E£50.”
Ms Hassan spends more than half her income on off-the-books tutoring and other unofficial extra services for her three school-aged sons. At the beginning of every school year, Youssef, her 13-year-old, comes home with a rundown of what each teacher is charging for tutoring.
Her son often serves as the mediator during negotiations. “We start with maybe E£120 and I say to him: ‘Can you go back and ask if she would take E£100?’,” Ms Hassan explains. In total this year she will pay about E£300 ($43) a month for Youssef’s tutors.
Schools even charge Ms Hassan for her sons that do not require tutoring. She pays E£700 a year for her 18-year-old, pursuing a secondary degree in metallurgy, to get a grade put on his certificate at the year’s end, and pays an unofficial monthly cash fee to get progress reports for her seven-year-old son, Hamza.
Tutoring fees rise at university level, where students often find lectures, in halls crammed with thousands of students, useless.
Seif Suf, a 22-year-old law student at Cairo University, pays more than a $1,000 a year for tutoring, sometimes at private education centres, as well as on buying printed study guides for exams, in addition to tuition fees.
Shuttling between tutors and hustling to raise the cash to pay them, he rarely makes it to campus.
“I barely go to university because it’s not beneficial,” he says. “I just go for the exams. For any specific subject, I take tutors. Of course, I feel robbed. I pay the university so I can get a degree. I don’t actually pay to learn anything. For that, I have to get outside help.”