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For Karim Seghir, being dean of a business school is about much more than teaching the finer details of company spreadsheets or the latest theories on marketing. The economics professor, who has been dean of the School of Business at the American University in Cairo since July, sees his institution as a real forum for bringing together students, business people and entrepreneurs in an attempt to help Egypt develop economically following the Arab Spring uprising in 2011.
While most business schools talk of their aspirations to attract students from disadvantaged backgrounds, the AUC is putting its money where its mouth is. Three quarters of the school’s 1,000 undergraduate students receive financial aid to study there. What is more, the school selects two of the best students from each of the country’s regions, a total of more than 50 a year, and gives them a place at the university for free. “This is life-changing for them for them,” says Prof Seghir.
It is a policy that few business schools in Europe or North America could even contemplate, but one that is vital in Egypt, where 50 per cent of the population are under the age of 25. Prof Seghir, who was educated in France and Tunisia and taught in Beirut before joining AUC in 2011, places great faith in these students.
“This young generation have done the impossible politically, they should be allowed to do the impossible economically,” he says. “I am really optimistic about economic growth. There is an unprecedented will for change.”
He is the first to admit that past three years have posed real difficulties for the business school, in particular deterring overseas students from studying and working there. But this was not always the case. More than 40 per cent of the alumni from the business school are non-Egyptians, and with all programmes at the business school taught in English, the largest number of international alumni come from the US.
In his plans to reposition the school, Prof Seghir is hoping to diversify by developing relationships with business schools in countries such as China, Brazil and South Africa. “Business schools must be diverse by design,” he says, pointing to Insead as his role model. “Business schools must be global.”
In spite of the political and social issues in Egypt, the AUC has developed a formidable international reputation. The university started teaching business courses as far back as 1947 and it is the only business school in the Arab region to be accredited by the AACSB, the US accreditation body, Equis, the Brussels-based equivalent, and the Association of MBAs, in London. Achieving triple accreditation brought more than international acclaim.
“The three accreditations got the whole school together around an agenda.” says Prof Seghir. “A lot of people didn’t believe in it at the beginning, but we got everybody on board. It wasn’t an easy journey but we changed the view of continuous improvement.”
The hallmark of AUC’s teaching has been in developing entrepreneurs for the region. Entrepreneurship is a subject on the lips of every business school dean these days, but in Egypt the role of the entrepreneur is different, says the AUC dean. “The biggest difference is that they [entrepreneurs in Egypt] are entrepreneurs by necessity,” says Prof Seghir. “Their businesses are not scalable.”
This is one of the issues Prof Seghir hopes to tackle through the school’s incubator, which has been designed to bring together entrepreneurs from the wider Egyptian community with students, angel investors and venture capitalists.
The business school has also set up a case writing centre, publishing cases about businesses in the region. “It won’t work if you just import cases from Havard and Stanford,” says the dean.
In spite of the political and social crisis in Egypt, the business school still has an extensive executive education business – AUC teaches some 5,000 executives a year. Last years the school started an Executive MBA – an MBA for working manages – to complement its full-time MBA, which has been graduated students for more than 30 years. The school also teaches a masters degree in finance and one in economic development.
For Prof Seghir the development of the school creates a real imperative to find additional sources of income. As he says, “The money we are getting now is not enough to fund the needs of the school.” Arguably this will prove to be the biggest challenge of all for AUC’s new dean.