CAIRO — Like a balloon filled with so much air that it eventually bursts, Egypt's state-run educational system has been swelling from the strain of trying to absorb hundreds of thousands of children who reach school age every year.
For some time now, there has been a growing premonition that something would have to give. Finally, it has: Effective this school year, Egypt has abolished the sixth grade.
The reaction to this unusual decision, which cuts the period of compulsory education in Egypt from nine to eight years, has been sharply divided along age lines.
"I think's its great," said Sarah Naguib, age 10. "I get to wear a 7th-grade uniform a whole year earlier. Also, it means one less year of school. I can be a grown-up sooner."
"It's a catastrophe," said Faten Naguib, Sarah's mother. "The children now have to finish both the fifth- and sixth-grade curriculums in one year."
The mother added that, to keep up with the workload, Sarah must spend at least six hours a night doing homework--too much, she feels, for a 10-year-old. "Sometimes I say, 'To hell with the homework, to hell with the teacher. Sarah, go to bed,' " she said.
Drastic but Necessary
Although the decision has also been widely criticized by educators and commentators, it is defended by the Ministry of Education as a necessarily drastic, if partial, solution to the even more drastic problem of overcrowding in Egyptian schools.
The number of primary schools in Egypt has increased from fewer than 12,000 in 1981 to more than 14,000 in 1989, largely because of a construction program financed by U.S. aid. But the increase has not been anywhere near fast enough to keep pace with Egypt's burgeoning population, which now stands at 54 million and is growing at the relatively unrestrained rate of 3% a year. Worse, from the demographic point of view, 40% of the population is under the age of 15.
Most experts agree that Egypt's failure to control its population growth is now the country's main problem. Indeed, it is the underlying illness that, like an infectious virus, complicates virtually everything else that ails this anemic giant of the Arab world, from overcrowding and unemployment to chronic commodity shortages and an increasing dependence on foreign aid.
Education was one of the first victims of this virus, and what has happened to the school system over the past several decades reflects with fair accuracy the overall decline of Egyptian society as it sags, ever more precariously, under the sheer weight of its own numbers.
The promise of free and equal access to education, from Grade 1 through the university level, was one of the two main clauses of the social contract that the late Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser made with the people back in 1952, when there were roughly 33 million fewer Egyptians than there are today. The other key clause: guaranteed government employment of the thousands of professionals and other white-collar workers churned out by this system every year.
Technically, these two clauses remain in effect; but long ago the government was forced to default on its promises because of the system's inability to absorb the 400,000 graduates that Egyptian universities now disgorge every year.
The waiting list for a government job following graduation is now five years, and there are million university graduates who remain unemployed. More catastrophically, those who are employed are hardly better off: Starting salaries of about $35 per month for most entry-level government jobs are ridiculously low in a country where one meal in a five-star hotel restaurant would cost more than that.
The best and brightest graduates find higher-paying employment in the private sector or in jobs abroad, primarily in the Persian Gulf states. But the employment capacity of Egypt's still relatively small private sector is limited, and the employment taps are slowly being turned off in the sheikdoms of the gulf, where the oil boom days of the 1970s are now history.
"The educational system in Egypt was designed by Nasser to produce hundreds of thousands of while-collar bureaucrats. Maybe there was a rational reason for this in 1959, but in 1989 it's a real disaster," a Western diplomat said. "It no longer has anything to do with the needs of society, and the pressures it puts on the educational system are impossible."
One effect of the system's inability to cope with the numbers confronting it has been a steady decline in educational standards. This has long been apparent at the university level, where a typical lecture hall is crammed with upward of 1,000 students, most of whom cannot even hear what the professor is saying because of the lack of public-address equipment.
Indeed, the lack of adequate infrastructure is so acute that one diplomat, who a few months ago visited a suburban branch of Al Azhar, the oldest and most-respected university in Egypt, came away shocked.