Unpacking Egypt's low education score in the Global Competitiveness Report

25 September 2013

Last week, people have been sharing news of Egypt ranking last in the quality of primary education according to the latest Global Competitiveness Report issued by World Economic Forum. Shocked Arabic and English newspaper commentators drew particular attention to the embarrassingly low score on education, while online social network users wondered whether this figure is really true and Egypt did really rank the lowest among countries listed in this report.

While recognizing the significance of the figures cited and admitting that public education in Egypt is in a dismal state, it is problematic to be citing the Global Competitiveness Report on this matter,  for a very simple reason:
There are two figures in the report that cover primary education in Egypt. One is the net enrollment rate, which means the percentage of children from a given age group enrolled in the academic year for that age group. So if we assume that 5th grade is for ten year-olds, then the net enrollment rate for 5th grade would be the number of ten year-old children enrolled divided by the number of ten year-olds in the country. It is the first, most basic indicator people use to get a sense of how big the education system is and how many kids are enrolled in schools. Access to education is by no means an indicator of the level of quality. Egypt has famously done fairly well on enrollment rates while doing very poorly on other quality indicators. So Egypt's net enrollment rate for primary education is listed in the report as being 95.6%, with a ranking of 58/148. Generally not bad but also not good either. 95.6% sounds nice and high but it's important here to remember two things: 1) it is an average rate and the rates for girls and for children in rural, remote and economically marginalized areas are lower than the average, and 2) again, it is just an indicator of how many kids are going to school and mentions nothing about what type of education these children receive there.
The second figure related to primary education, and the one that has everyone up in arms is listed as "Quality of Primary Education" and the figure given in 2.0, which ranks Egypt at 148 out of the 148 countries covered in the report. According to the report itself, this figure is the average score given by respondents to a question on the Executive Opinion Survey. The survey provides the bulk of the data the report is based on. The respondents of this survey, and here is the important part, are people from various sectors within the business community. For this year’s report, the survey in Egypt (conducted by the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies) collected responses from 71 business people. The question they were asked about primary education was “How would you assess the quality of primary schools in your country?” (or most likely something very close to it, as this was the question used for the same item in the 2009 survey and I doubt much has changed). Respondents were to give their answer as a rank, ranging from 1, indicating “Poor” to 7 indicating “Excellent—among the best in the world”. So the average rank for the quality of primary education, from 71 executives from various sectors and business sizes, was 2/7. This was the lowest rank among all the countries.
So let us, for precision, rename this indicator, describe it differently. We can say something like, on average, Egyptian business people have the lowest opinion among all other business people (from countries covered in the Report) of the quality of their country’s primary education system. This is of course assuming that the sample is representative, and there’s no reason not to, for the purposes of the Report. 
It is important here to recognize that the Global Competitiveness report aims primarily at providing business people and policy makers with an insight related to factors affecting the economic performance of countries. The bulk of these factors have to do with processes and contexts that immediately impact businesses, which is why the demographic they address in their unique survey is business people, not even government policy makers. The report also references contextual factors using quantitative indicators that have nothing to do with people's opinion or impression, and these are things like the primary education net enrollment rate or the infant mortality rate. So what do we make of the opinions of business people regarding education in Egypt?
Business people are important stakeholders in education. Their work requires people who have skills and they have a unique and important perspective when it comes to assessing the quality of education. What matters to them is the skill level of their employees. They are, in theory at least, totally pragmatic and are only interested in the actual economic value of the education of their workers. They aren’t educators but their opinion on skill level of their employees is to be taken seriously. (Of course, education is about much more than just technical skill and economic value, it’s about socialization and personal development and other things, and this is a debate in its own right.)

In this light, one would imagine it more useful to consider the opinions of business executives on secondary and higher education, as these would seem more immediately relevant to the business world Here, the survey has the average rank for both the “quality of education” [overall] and the “Quality of science and math education” as 2.2, with a rank of 145/148. Not much better than rank for “Quality of primary education” but more useful and relevant, presumably than the figures on primary education. Even more relevant, the average rank given for their opinion on the “Quality of management schools” is 2.3, ranking also at 145/148. Still, despite the low scores, none of these figures have been cited as frequently as the ranking on "Quality of primary education", and this is probably because they are not as sensational as ‘last place’.

Another point to consider is that business people are also stakeholders in education by virtue of also being, almost invariably one might assume, parents of children in school. This is likely, I believe, the primary source of their opinions on education. Also, these being business owners, one might also assume that they are, on average (because they include owners of both small and large businesses) of above average wealth. This means that their children likely attend private schools or at least fee-paying special public schools (Tagreebi). In this respect, if respondents are people who can afford to send their children to private or more-costly schools, and probably do, what does their low opinion of the quality of primary education mean? Maybe they mean that even their children's more affluent education is itself of sub-standard quality, maybe because of poor and un-engaging curricula or unmotivated teachers. If we assume that they are referring mostly to public primary education then that would suggest that for them the decision to enroll their children in private schools is seen more as a necessity than a luxury.

To conclude: the Global Competitiveness report is not the report to consult on the quality of primary education in Egypt. Quality indicators are notoriously difficult to manage. There are international standardized tests such as TIMSS and PISA that test student language and mathematics skills, in addition to a whole range of qualitative indicators based on ethnographic observation and on feedback from students, teachers, families and employers. In that sense, the opinions of 71 business people in Egypt are worth considering because they provide one piece of the very complex bigger picture, except it is not immediately clear in the Report that that is what the indicator of "Quality of primary education" is measuring. In the end, we needn't be alarmed that a fancy international report says education in Egypt is bad. We should be alarmed because that's what we're all saying here in Egypt already.