By Mary Compton
This week I have been meeting leading members of the independent teachers unions in Egypt and learned about their struggle for properly funded public education.
The visit, with other trade unionists, was organised by the Middle East and North Africa Solidarity campaign, which invited me to come along on behalf of teachersolidarity.
The teachers I spoke to told me that under the Mubarak dictatorship, education spending was steadily run down, partly at the behest of the IMF. This situation persists, as does the fact that more and more money is extracted from the poor to fund public schools. This takes the form of fees extracted from parents for books and even building maintenance, but most especially from institutionalised systems of private tuition, which bring in money for the management, as well as supplementing teachers’ salaries. Teachers on permanent contracts earn between $65 and $115 a month in regular salary. The majority of teachers however are on temporary contracts and they earn up to $16 a month – some earn nothing at all – on the basis that they will obtain the money for survival by taking private tuition lessons at the end of the school day. These lessons, which are more or less compulsory, can have twenty plus students per teacher and those who cannot pay, cannot attend. This situation forces teachers – themselves poor – to become the oppressors of other poor people who typically pay twenty per cent of their incomes for their children’s education. It is a form of insidious privatisation which enables the state to cut education budgets and offload its constitutional responsibility onto teachers and the poor.
The IMF, USAID and the World Bank have had a decisive influence on Egyptian education policy. In 2006 they helped the Egyptian Government to prepare a lengthy tome which purported to ‘reform’ education. Needless to say it did nothing to address the real problem of education – its chronic underfunding and the impossibility for teachers to survive on their salaries, the huge class sizes – up to 100 in poor urban areas – and the poor or non-existent facilities such as laboratories and libraries. Instead the policy demonised teachers and institutionalised ‘reform’ along standard neo-liberal lines – privatisation, national testing, teacher ‘evaluation’, performance related pay and so on. One result of this document was the requirement introduced in 2007 that serving teachers pass an exam in order to be allowed to continue working. This was seen by teachers as a gross insult and vigorously resisted. As a teacher from the Egyptian Teachers Federation (ETF) said, ‘If you went to the countryside or the desert, you would want people to love education – how does insulting teachers help to bring that about?’
Teachers had begun to organise an independent union in 2008, under conditions of dictatorship. However after the revolution in 2011, they and other workers were at last free to build their own unions, independently of the state. Until that time the so-called unions were simply an arm of the state and wholly controlled by it. In fact Abdul Hafiz a leading member of the other independent teachers union (ISTT) told me that the chairman of the official union is the owner of a chain of private schools. (Interestingly, the old state controlled education workers union was affiliated to Education International, despite their stated policy of only allowing democratic unions. When ISTT affiliated they refused to work with the state union and only then did EI disaffiliate them – for non-payment of fees.)
With the election of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) President, Mohammed Morsi, many teachers hoped that conditions would begin to improve. However this is far from being the case. In fact Morsi is using the neo-liberal framework from the Mubarak era to further develop the privatisation and segregation of education. The MB itself has many private schools and an ISTT activist described them as racist since they see educational achievement, or failure to achieve, as based on innate talent rather than class circumstances, which put any kind of meaningful education out of the reach of the poor. The MB has recently had talks with the IMF about fresh loans. One of the conditions the IMF has imposed according to the ISTT activists I met is that all public schools must have at least one ‘experimental’ classroom. (So-called experimental schools are part of a long-standing system whereby richer people can pay much greater fees to have their children educated in better conditions, by better paid teachers and often through the medium of English.)
Both the ETF and ISTT are organising resistance to the neo-liberal policies being pursued by the MB government. They struck in September 2011 and again in September 2012 demanding the outlawing of private tuition and proper funding for education, including decent pay and pensions for teachers and the making permanent of all temporary contracts. Meanwhile the government and managements have increased their attacks on the independent unions. Activists have been demoted, have lost pay and been transferred to far-flung areas. The leaders of the unions are often prevented from travelling abroad or collaborating with other unions in the rest of the world. The chair of the ISTT was arrested last week, detained for five days and told he was under investigation by the Attorney General’s office. The MB uses the rhetoric of the right to strike but as Abdul Hafiz put it, Morsi agrees with that right under one condition ‘never stop work’!
The ITSS and ETF agree that the education system is biased against the poor – discriminatory, rapidly privatising, with public schools and their teachers being blamed and deliberately prevented from providing the kind of education to which the best teachers aspire – one that is democratic and encourages the kind of critical thinking which enables students to question the world in which they live or as a statement by the ETF puts it, ‘an education which frees children’s minds and spirits’. As an ETF leader told me, ‘Education liberates the student and the teacher.’
What is most striking is that while the Egyptian context and educational system has many unique problems, most of the ‘reforms’ being imposed – both by a government which appears to have swallowed neo-liberalism whole and by international organisations – are similar to those being foisted on teachers and communities globally. The imposition of ‘experimental’ classrooms in public schools is similar to what is happening in the slums of Mumbai and low income schools in New York. The insulting teacher exam is being replicated in the UK with demands that new teachers be required to pass basic literacy and numeracy tests. The discourse of derision of public education in order to privatise it is a global phenomenon. For this reason, my visit to Egypt and my discussions with the brave activists who have forged their unions in dangerous conditions and helped to bring about the revolution which ousted Mubarak, have only reinforced my conviction that this struggle is a global struggle and that international solidarity is a matter of urgency.