Comparative Education in Egypt: looking outward to find power and promise within

Comparative Education in Egypt: looking outward to find power and promise within

“Everyone hates us, but everyone wants to be us”. I often hear this phrase to describe the public perception in Egypt of my institution, the American University in Cairo (AUC). Often called “the Harvard of the Middle East,” this outsider-insider contrast is not surprising. In a country with a desperate need for greater investment in education at all levels, AUC is conspicuously wealthy. With tuition fees comparable to universities in the United States, AUC is not an institution that most Egyptians could ever consider attending. Even with plentiful financial aid, the educational credentials and English language skills of most Egyptian secondary school graduates are insufficient for admission. 

Despite the glaring chasm between the University and the rest of the country, through its continuing education (“extension”) programs, AUC teaches English and career-skills courses at market rates to Egyptian public university students wishing for an AUC certificate of some sort and exposure to the university and its educational resources and social capital. Colleagues from public universities around the country gladly and quickly take any opportunity to come to the campus for conferences. And parents from across Cairo pay high fees to get their children into the University’s summer camps.

With a nearly 100-year history, AUC has promoted itself as Egypt’s most distinguished educational institution; parents, students, and the public alike have treated it as preparation for life in the elite, well-connected, global classes of the country. Parents are generally happy to pay the high fees for prestigious engineering or business degrees. Yet sensing decreasing public admiration for the university as a result of growing populism in the face of declining economic conditions in the country, the leadership and trustees of the university have embarked on various initiatives that would bring the University closer to the various communities within the country and break down the walls of elite education and society by generously applying the intellectual and scientific resources of the university on the biggest social, economic, and technological problems in the country. Increasingly around the world, especially for universities located in urban areas, such strategies have not only increased local affection for the institutions, they have allowed universities to expand the scope and applicability of their research and become more relevant to the societies they serve.

Among the many approaches AUC has taken was to open a school of education. While there has never been any expectation that AUC students might choose teaching as a career, particularly given the low pay and social status of teachers in Egypt relative to the cost of AUC’s fees, Global Commons Review 1 s Oct. 2017 s Cover s Contents s About Us 69 it was expected that this new school would prepare policymakers, researchers, and development staff to be advocates for reform in education, especially in the public sector. In particular, given the long history of foreign development work on education in Egypt, whereby experts fly into the country for a week at a time to set up complicated processes or structures then leave to go to another developing country for the same type of work, this new school would aim to build internal capacity within Egypt for reform. Given Egypt’s status as a developing country, it seemed natural that the first degree to be offered by the school upon its opening in 2010 was a master’s degree in International and Comparative Education. As a sub-field within the larger academic community that studies education, International and Comparative Education has been the specialization of choice when hiring people into development firms and international aid agencies. Faculty and researchers who publish in the field look, largely, at the very issues affecting educational development and reform in Egypt. And many of the short-term experts who had worked on developing the country’s educational infrastructure have had degrees in International and Comparative Education from the US, Canada, or Europe.


Among the various specializations in the field of education, International and Comparative Education is also considered to be one of the more theoretical and intellectually-driven, particularly in comparison to specializations that aim principally at preparing practitioners to work in schools. In 2011, I published a book on the transformations in the professionalization of the teaching workforce in the US (Purinton, 2011). One theme running through the volume focused on the knowledge base for the field and its diverging avenues: in the mid-20th Century, to gain greater prominence within universities, education scholars emulated disciplines in the social sciences and humanities, and at the same time emphasized work that had little impact on the day-to-day tasks of Global Commons Review 1 s Oct. 2017 s Cover s Contents s About Us 70 teachers. Closer to the turn of the century, scholars across specializations in education began to put more emphasis on research that directly impacted teaching, such as subject matter pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment. This shift was a response to rapidly declining public support for university-based teacher certification. If the certification did not immediately impact teaching quality, policymakers presumed, certification should not be mandated. Fearing for their professional jurisdiction, scholars quickly adapted by putting more emphasis on practitioner knowledge and skills.

Just like AUC trying to find the right balance between public approval and academic admiration, the field of education is still straddling an elite-populist divide. The practical research for teacher education may be more acceptable to professional bodies, taxpayers, and policymakers, but it is not as intellectually exciting, or as provocative to the existing social order, as research looking at contextual facets. This sentiment is best summarized by Ball & Forzani (2007, p. 530):

Ironically, the low status often assigned to education creates an incentive for education faculty members to emulate work in the other social science disciplines. This has meant that research that is ostensibly “in education” frequently focuses not inside the dynamics of education but on phenomena related to education–racial identity, for example, young children’s conceptions of fairness, or the history of the rise of secondary schools. These topics and others like them are important. Research that focuses on them, however, often does not probe inside the educational process. Until education researchers turn their attention to problems that exist primarily inside education and until they develop systematically a body of specialized knowledge, other scholars who study questions that bear on educational problems will propose solutions. Because such solutions typically are not based on explanatory analyses of the dynamics of education, the education problems that confront society are likely to remain unsolved. For Global Commons Review 1 s Oct. 2017 s Cover s Contents s About Us 71 example, knowing that the number of books in a child’s home and the educational level of the child’s parents are major factors in predicting school success does not explain how these factors influence learning. Nor does such knowledge help in the design of interventions for particular students.

With concern for the profession at large, I came down on the side of practical knowledge in my 2011 book. And at the same time, I moved to Egypt to help establish AUC’s new Graduate School of Education (GSE). As with nearly everything that AUC does, GSE was intended to emulate American practices and to follow the trends and approaches used in USbased universities. Faculties of education in Egypt are large and bureaucratic; due to minimal English competency among professors and students, the global knowledge base is not as prominent in their work, and their ability to publish in international journals is limited. Egyptians complain incessantly about teacher quality, but in all fairness, the system at large encourages rote memorization, the resources are minimal, class sizes can exceed one hundred, and teacher pay is extremely low. It should be really no surprise that most teachers bribe their students to pay for private tutoring and that many students just stop showing up to class by a month or two into each school year. The faculties of education are perceived to be part of this dysfunctionality in that teachers appear to have neither strong content knowledge nor pedagogical skill. Thus, a foreign-style faculty of education at the country’s most prestigious educational institution undoubtedly seems preferential to the country.

But as an elite institution in a large country, AUC is small in comparison to the nearby institutions of higher education. AUC enrolls around 6,000 students; Cairo University enrolls around 250,000. And given that AUC has an elite image to maintain, the programs in the Graduate School of Education have been of the intellectually interesting variety, most notably International and Comparative Education.

I must admit that when I arrived at AUC in 2011, I was dismayed: enough of all this talk about education, I thought; as urged by Ball & Forzani, this new school needed to give teachers the skills, knowledge, and dispositions necessary to be professional-quality educators. Despite my feelings at the time, the founding Dean, Samiha Peterson, an Egyptian woman who spent many decades as a sociologist at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, recognized what I did not: in Egypt, the more intellectual and academic a program, the more likely it is to be accepted by a faculty senate, students, and the public. Indeed, we have seen this throughout the short life of the program so far as we have encouraged our graduate students to take a capstone exam as opposed to write a rigorous academic thesis. As much as we try to encourage students to stay professionally-focused, they seem certain that the academic route is superior. Indeed, across the University – as well as at other Egyptian universities – tenured faculty members are respected in society much more than they are in the West.

Yet we still see a gap in professional skills – the skills that would, over time, raise the status of teachers and school leaders in the country; that would allow educators to demand higher pay; that would display the need for consistent and high standards for teacher licensing. But with a rapidly growing population, much of which is poor, and very small capacity with AUC to penetrate the deepest problems in the country, the Graduate School of Education has decided to first build the skills of development specialists and organizational leaders.

While we still enroll over 600 public school and private school teachers each semester in our professional development programs, our core work, through its MA programs, is on building the capacity to end the stream of development specialists who fly in from the West for a week at a time. Egypt does not deserve any longer to be the developing country laboratory for ideas that have worked in the West. The field of internation- Global Commons Review 1 s Oct. 2017 s Cover s Contents s About Us 73 al and comparative education has given us the grounding to be a unique cultivator of expertise and skill on development within a target country. And it has slowly but steadily helped our own students to recognize that the best talent to drive educational reform does not and should not come from abroad. It has given them the stimulus to look inward to recognize that from their own privilege as AUC students, great responsibility for the social good should be expected.

This point has not been lost on our students, particularly as the School was founded just one semester before the January 25th Revolution in 2011. In a country that on many levels appeared satisfied with its rigid social stratification, the revolution encouraged middle class and wealthy youth in Egypt to pay closer attention to the educational inadequacies of the poor; it reminded them that a stratified country is not a unified one. Sensing great opportunity from this sentiment, we sent delegations to the Paulo Freire Summer Institute at UCLA for a few years in a row. With this experience, we collectively realized that our roots as advocates for empowerment of individuals through global citizenship education was the area in which we needed to search for the School’s soul. If we were really going to inspire lasting reform, we felt, we needed to not look at transformative pedagogies from a scholarly perspective, then turn immediately around and express panic at Egypt’s rankings on international standardized exams.

Now with nearly a quarter of our graduates in PhD programs and nearly full employment for the remainder, we know that we are making progress on our goals. Over the past few years, we have sent over 15 of our graduate students each year to the Comparative & International Education Society annual conference to present their work. Our graduates are employed by multilateral organizations and governmental ministries; they are called on to be consultants to schools, universities, and governmental officials; they get employment opportunities across the Global Commons Review 1 s Oct. 2017 s Cover s Contents s About Us 74 region and are in demand to lead educational initiatives in refugee communities throughout Europe. In short, they discovered their own power as educational innovators and experts by spending just a bit of time examining the rest of the world. And by doing so, the people of Egypt, as well, realized the potential within their own country.


Ball, D. L., & Forzani, F. M. (2007). 2007 Wallace Foundation Distinguished Lecture – What Makes Education Research “Educational”?. Educational Researcher, 36(9), 529-540. Purinton, T. (2011). Six degrees of school improvement: Empowering a New Profession of Teaching. Charlotte, NC: IAP.

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