Exhausting bank accounts and changing plans: the cost of private school education in Egypt

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It’s the back-to-school season that parents dread every year. From tuition fees to school supplies and non-school educational books, the undeniably surging prices due to the rising inflation rates are making the 2023-2024 school year all the more overwhelming for the entire family in Egypt.

Egyptian families spend an average of 11 percent of their household income on education. Education  ranked third among the categories of spending of Egyptians in 2012, according to the Egypt Business Directory.

Many Egyptian families choose to enroll their children in private schools in an attempt to give them better education and less dependence on private tutoring, but with ongoing fluctuations in the value of the Egyptian pound and the rising prices, is the dream of enrolling at private schools gone with the wind for many?

The ‘school supplies’ scare

Egypt has generally seen price hikes in the majority of its goods, especially basic commodities, in 2023. Associated Press reported that Egypt’s annual inflation rate reached a record high in July. “Consumer prices rose 38.2 percent from a year earlier, up from 36.8 percent in June, according to data released by the state-run Central Agency for Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS),” it mentioned.

The prices of school supplies are barely an exception from these sweeping increases, as the prices of stationaries have soared significantly compared to last year, according to Egypt Independent. The prices of books and school supplies at some stationery stores in the famous area of downtown Cairo saw an average increase from 30 to 50 percent.

The administrations of private schools don’t seem to be making this any easier for parents. “My child’s school asked me for supplies worth over EGP 4,000. We’ve already paid a major tuition fee this year. I wonder why the school still lacks the financial capability to provide these supplies for the students itself?” wondered Maria Ayman, a mother of a 7-year-old in a private school in the upscale neighborhood of Maadi.

Tuition: the only way is up

In January of this year, the Ministry of Education announced that there are over 25 million school students in Egypt, receiving their education in 60,254 schools across the country.

According to the latest statistics from the Ministry, 10.6 per cent of the total number of students in Egypt are enrolled in private and international schools. “The annual tuition in private schools ranges between a little less than $1,000 and up to a whopping $10,000 for American and international schools. It is estimated that there are more than 7,000 private schools in Egypt, over 100 of which are categorized as American or international schools,” says Al-Ahram Weekly.

Furthermore, over three months ago, a number of private schools across Egypt announced that they will be increasing their tuition fees for the new academic year by 35 percent, as reported by Amr Adib’s El Hekaya TV show, amidst parents voicing their discontent with the skyrocketing hikes. Despite the fact that Education Minister Reda Hegazy decided to maintain the 7 percent annual tuition increase cap on private schools, according to Enterprise, many private schools across the country haven’t consistently adhered to the decision.

Changing plans to survive

Attempting to adapt to the consequent financial burdens, many parents are opting for transferring their children to less expensive schools.

Nariman Khaled is the mother of twins in the third grade in an international school located in the neighborhood of Heliopolis in Cairo. Khaled and her husband are employees in private-sector companies and their salaries combined barely covered the annual tuition fees of their children’s school last year. After the increases, the annual tuition fees per year for both their children have become impossible to cover this year, so they had to make last-minute changes to their plans.

“We have decided to move our children to an experimental school. We know the decision was difficult on our kids as they had already made friendships and got used to a certain system, but we were forced to make that change being certain we can no longer afford the new fees,” she said.

Ayman Kamal, a single father with a son in high school, says that his son’s tuition fees increased by at least 50 percent this year. Additionally, the fees of the school bus have equally increased, leaving Kamal and other parents like him grappling with the unaffordable services a private school provides, and compromising the quality of their children’s education.

Making education inequality worse

The 2022 Global Education Monitoring report by UNESCO showed concerns about the inequality in education resulting from the continuously increasing fees of private schools in Arab countries, including Egypt. “Private education is increasingly popular in many Arab countries, but the high cost of private schools and a lack of state oversight threatens to make educational inequalities worse,” the report read.

Private schools have undeniably expanded and flourished over the past decade in Egypt, especially international schools, which account for 50 percent of the total number of private schools in Egypt, according to this Colliers International Egypt report. Private schools haven’t gained their popularity from nothing, though. Allowing teachers to focus their attention on a smaller number of students, providing better facilities, and ensuring less crowding inside classes, these schools have been an excellent alternative to public schools for many families wishing a higher quality education for their children. But these advantages don’t come without a price.

Originally, “the expansion of private schools came to meet the shortage in public schools. However, the lack of real control over private schools, in terms of the quality of education, made them a commercial for-profit means only,” said Abdul-Latif Mahmoud, a professor of educational research at Sohag University, according to education-focused news organization Al Fanar Media.

Unfortunately, the large package of services that comes with enrolling at a private school goes beyond just a tuition fee. Abdul-Latif Mahmoud added, “Private schools reap profits not only from tuition fees but by commodifying educational services such as transportation and administrative services.”

Government action

The cap set by the Ministry of Education to set a maximum of 7 percent for the annual increase of fees is one of many ways the government tried to intervene to improve the situation for both students and struggling parents, as well as create some limitations when it comes to education inequality. In addition to that, schools were advised that they must notify the Ministry of any increases at least one month before the beginning of a school year in order for the Ministry to oversee and approve the increase. Furthermore, international schools are obliged to collect tuition in the local currency, CNN Arabic reported.

On the school supplies front, Prime Minister Moustafa Madbouly announced in late August the launch of a new edition of a fair to support families with school-age children to buy stationery at affordable prices with the increasing prices of stationary this year.

Minister of Supply and Internal Trade, Ali Al-Moselhi, said in early September that the fair is held under the supervision of the Ministry, in collaboration with the Cairo Chamber of Commerce, under the name “Ahlan Madaris” (Back to School). It will take place in Nasr City, with several of its outlets available in the rest of all Egypt’s governorates. The fair sees the participation of major firms as well as the Chamber of Food Industries and the Holding Company for Food Industries.

Ahlan Madaris opened its gates to visitors on 15 September with discounts on the wholesale prices of stationery, school bags, and school uniforms that range from 15 to 30 percent, Youm7 reported.

While concerns seem to dominate the scene, the situation is not all gloomy. The Egyptian government has ongoing projects to better education in Egypt, whether in public or private schools.

The Egyptian Ministry of Education has been making effort, in cooperation with the United States Agency of International Development (USAID), to create seven education reforms in Egypt in 2020. The investments injected into this reform project are estimated to be $500 million, according to the Borgen Project. It aims to improve the level of education and conditions in Egypt. The reforms start from kindergarten, all the way to secondary school.

The reform categories included revamping the teacher training programs, linking education to technology, improving general assessment skills of students, implementing learning villages, and more.

The efforts made today pave the way for tomorrow. While education in Egypt has its struggles, the fruit of hard work could soon be reaped if that hard work is consistently continued.

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