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What We Could Learn From Higher Education In Egypt

Last week, I was honoured to be an external consultant to the Egypt-OECD country programme which aims to be a key source of information, practices and guidance for the successful design and implementation of structural reforms to address Egypt’s main economic challenges.

My focus was specifically on aligning higher education with labour market needs and I had an intensive five days of meetings with government ministries, universities, and businesses to discuss a range of subjects including the integration of high-demand skills into study programmes, collaboration with employers in the design and delivery of the educational offer, and support for teaching staff to keep abreast with key developments in related industries.

But the learning process was not only one way, and it was an eye-opening experience to be find out more about what was happening within the Egyptian economy and how universities were supporting the process of economic transformation.

Certainly, Egypt has many challenges and analysts have noted that the economy is currently experiencing some turbulence with a very uncertain outlook. Immediate pressures on the economy including a substantial cost of living crisis that is being fed by an inflation rate that is almost 33% and a recent halving of the value of the Egyptian pound against the dollar.

Yet, despite this and having reflected on some of the meetings since I arrived back in the UK, there are also several developments which are worth examining as being innovative in themselves and where our own higher education sector could learn some lessons.

The scale of the higher education sector is something that I did not expect at all. For example, we visited Cairo University to meet with their senior team and were informed that it had over 250,000 students, equivalent to the entire population of Swansea. In contrast, there are 149,045 students in the entire Welsh higher education sector.

Whilst this was impressive, what was mind-blowing especially for someone with my academic background was that every single one of these students must undertake a one credit module in entrepreneurship. In other words, hundreds of thousands of young people studying at the largest university in Egypt will have some exposure to enterprise during their studies over the next few years.

Compare this with universities in Wales where, despite having far lower number of students, there remains a reluctance to embrace entrepreneurship within most institutions and, from my experience, almost no desire to integrate it into the curriculum.

Another impressive visit was to Nile University, a modern institution that seemed like the model for the future of higher education. It is the first non-profit, research and entrepreneurial university in Egypt whose programmes and research centres have been designed to create know-how, transform research into innovation and technology, and contribute to a knowledge-driven economy.

For example, it has a Graduate School of Management of Technology and has developed applied research centres in collaboration with the ICT community and other key sectors such as robotics, energy optimisation, smart manufacturing, and artificial intelligence. Its innovation hub was one of the best I have seen in the last thirty years and its programmes are having a tangible impact in developing both start-ups and scaleups across the economy.

Again, there remains much to be done at Nile University, but can you imagine having a Welsh institution where entrepreneurship, technology and innovation is not only embraced by every part of the organisation but an integral part of its vision and mission in developing the regional and national economy? Unfortunately, I think it will be some time before that happens, if ever.

But it is not only within the university sector where we found some interesting examples of innovative learning that are creating a real opportunity for the future.

On the last day of the mission, we visited the Information Technology Institute which is now located in “New Cairo”, the new administrative capital of Egypt that is currently under construction. Established in 1993, it has been developing a training portfolio of courses to empower young Egyptians in areas that meet both existing and future industrial and business demand. Its flagship nine-month programme, where 10,000 of the best students in Egypt apply for a thousand places, gives students the digital skills needed by industry.

It is exactly the type of educational programme we should be developing here in Wales at a time when such skills are in demand but their provision to young people are still being largely ignored by existing suppliers. Certainly, I will be exploring how we can do this with Welsh businesses over the next months as they deserve better than what is currently being provided.

Therefore, the OECD team will soon be putting together its report and recommendations to the Egyptian government on how the nation’s university sector can be improved and developed for the benefit of the economy.

However, it is also clear that there are examples of good practice in how universities can support businesses, especially in developing work-ready graduates, and other countries would do well to look carefully at these initiatives to learn how to develop a more entrepreneurial and innovative environment within the higher education sector.

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