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An unusual market has taken over the tangle of alleyways known as Bayn Al-Sarayat across the road from the main Cairo University campus in Giza. It sells lecture notes, essays and even PhD theses.

Sharif Abul Khalil runs a small store with four whirring photocopiers. He employs students to record classes and sells the transcripts for 20 cents.

“Some academics are angry,” he admits. “They think students don’t go to lectures, they just learn our notes off by heart and repeat them in exams. It makes them lazy.”

The trade in documents has been boosted by a system that relies on rote learning rather than research and the development of a questioning mind. A main reason for this is the severe overcrowding at universities that makes access to professors, libraries and laboratories difficult.

With 30 per cent of students advancing to higher education, the number of regular undergraduates at Cairo University has risen to 180,000, too many for the available facilities and faculty. It is a similar story at other state universities.

The result is that employers complain about the low quality of graduates, and a mismatch between what they learn and the requirements of the job market.

Most undergraduates also know the limitations of their degrees. A commerce student remarks that curriculums are so outdated he is not taught about the stock exchange where he would like to work. “You have to get the certificate, but what they teach you is worthless,” says Abdul Rahmen Mustafa.

The government has increased the annual budget for the sector to $1.7bn and promised to shift its emphasis from access to improving the standard of services. However, officials say there are difficulties financing plans for 2.8m students.

“There is political will but the big challenge is that we are going for an overhaul of the entire system and the funds needed are really much higher than what is available,” says Mohsen Elmahdy, who oversees reform projects at the higher education ministry.

As Egypt’s constitution protects the right to free education, the idea of introducing tuition fees remains contentious. However, new schemes have been permitted in which students – who can afford to – pay limited charges of about $1,000 for parallel courses at public universities. With smaller classes and better resources, the degrees are considered higher quality but are still taught by the main faculty who get a boost for their low salaries. Critics argue the system creates inequality.

“This is unheard of, to have one student in an air-conditioned room and others packed in a crowded classroom. Good teachers try to work with the paying groups. It makes matters worse,” says Mohamed Abul Ghar, a professor of medicine at Cairo University who campaigns for reform.

He also questions the integrity of some new private universities set up by wealthy investors. The establishment of the institutions has been promoted in recent years with tax breaks and other incentives. There are now 18, teaching more than 60,000 students.

“As the owner of the university you decide who succeeds in their degree and it can create corruption,” Dr Abul Ghar claims. “If you find out many students will fail, you may be tempted to raise their grades as you are scared other students will not join the next year.”

The higher education ministry insists it retains oversight of all institutions but is increasingly encouraging non-profit ones. Nile University is among the newest, specialising in research and postgraduate studies in engineering technology and business administration.

About 300 students have begun courses at its gleaming, glass-fronted premises in the Smart Village technology park just outside Cairo. The university has forged close links with leading local industry and with overseas business schools, with which it exchanges lecturers. “Our whole concept is to become a part of the technopolis,” says Tarek Khalil, the president.

Many officials argue partnership with the private sector is the only way higher education services can be upgraded.

Cairo University plans to open an international campus in Sixth of October City, 20km from its original site within three years. It says this will help stop its faculty leaving for new universities and restore its world-class reputation.

Prof Elmahdy maintains that, in the long term, it may also be hard to avoid a public debate on tuition fees.

“If you want education to be a priority and you want quality – they both have costs and someone has to pay the bill,” he says. “You cannot offer free education forever to just anybody.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.

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