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Monday, 29 June 2020

USAID’s support to Egypt’s education sector: how does it work and will it be impacted by covid-19?

USAID’s support to Egypt’s education sector: How does it work and will it be impacted by covid-19? The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has been active in Egypt for over 40 years, providing financial support to the tune of over USD 30 bn since 1978. Education is a key focus for USAID and its projects in Egypt, and the organization leverages government and private sector partnerships to run education programs aligned with the priorities of the Egyptian government.

We sat down with Sarah Banashek, the deputy director of USAID Egypt's Office of Education, to learn more about these public-private sector partnerships, which of its education programs USAID Egypt considers to be the flagships, and how covid-19 is impacting its work.

The key highlights:

  • Strategically, USAID is working to support Egypt’s shift towards critical thinking and skills acquisition — and away from rote memorization.
  • Much of its current focus involves building technical knowledge and capacity, as well as facilitating employment through career centers and scholarship programs.
  • Covid-19 is having an impact on program implementation, but not on USAID’s priorities and strategic support.

USAID works with multiple partners in Egypt at all levels of the education sector: This spans kindergarten through secondary school, all the way up to undergraduate, graduate, and even post-doctoral work, says Banashek. It has a very broad partnership with the Higher Education Ministry and the Education and Technical Education Ministry, and also collaborates quite a bit with the private sector, she adds.

These partnerships are guided by a strategic focus on skills acquisition and a move away from rote memorization. USAID has supported the Egyptian government in its planning and implementation of Education 2.0, the sweeping reform announced by Education Minister Tarek Shawky, says Banashek. At the basic education level, this involved establishing a new curriculum focused on imbuing children with critical skills. USAID helped to train over 28k kindergarten teachers in the summer of 2017. “So we have been very much involved in this pivot to bring learning back into the classroom,” she says.

USAID’s work here also focuses extensively on supporting science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in high schools through its Support for STEM Secondary Education program. Starting in 2011, the program helped establish Egypt’s first two STEM schools and it built the capacity of their teachers. Now, USAID partners with the education and higher education ministries to train future STEM teachers. USAID has built this program from the ground up, working with the Education Ministry to help schools produce world-class graduates and supply them with the best-trained teachers, says Banashek. The private sector plays a key role in the STEM schools’ capstone projects (or final student assignments), where students look at issues including food and water scarcity, electricity supply and other challenges facing Egypt’s government and people, and apply their best skills to see how they could bring about broad-based economic growth. USAID and the Education Ministry’s STEM unit seek private sector partners who can bring the best of these ideas to market, she continues.

USAID considers the STEM high schools to be among its most successful education projects in Egypt. The program didn’t exist before 2011, but now there are 15 STEM schools reaching over 12k students, owned and operated entirely by the Education Ministry, says Banashek. And while the first part of the project involved getting the schools on their feet, now the focus is on working with the Higher Education Ministry and faculties of education to provide the schools with well-trained staff. “At the beginning, we found that a lot of the teachers working in these schools just didn’t have the skills to teach using an enquiry-based curriculum,” says Banashek.

USAID leverages public-private partnerships to provide support to technical schools and establish university career centers. Through its Workforce Improvement and Skills Enhancement (WISE) program, USAID Egypt works with 60 technical and tech education schools, and with the private sector, to ensure that students have diplomas and degrees that will help them get jobs, says Banashek. To date, USAID has established two diploma programs in these technical schools — one in renewable energy and one in logistics — both designed with private sector involvement and ministry approval. Students graduating from technical secondary schools are now able to get jobs immediately after graduation. All of this constitutes a huge success, says Banashek, especially because technical schools are often not the prime focus either for governments or donors.

Private sector support is also key to USAID’s university centers for career development program, run in collaboration with AUC and the Higher Education Ministry. So far, the program has seen 15 centers established in 10 Egyptian public universities, says Banashek. When the pilot phase of the career center program was launched in 2012, it was much harder for students to link their educational experiences to the workplace, says Banashek. “I think of them at that time sort of cooking in this bubble, completely separate from the outside world.” The career centers open their minds up to questions about how they will use their degrees, how they will provide for their families, what skills they need to master to get the jobs they aspire to, she adds. Students learn critical skills, including presentation and interview skills, that tend not to be taught in traditional university classes focused on the theory behind different disciplines. And the career centers organize things like employee-employer roundtables and job shadowing. “So for example in Beni Sueif, Titan Cement Egypt has a manufacturing facility close to the university, and through the career center some very strong ties have been developed between the two,” she says.

Egypt has one of USAID’s largest scholarship programs, having provided almost 4k Egyptians with scholarships over the past 40 years, says Banashek. These programs are predominantly merit-based, and they offer selected students support to get into fee-paying sections at Egyptian public universities or to attend private universities. “It’s an entire package that offers leadership, entrepreneurship and English-language skills, to give a well-rounded experience,” she adds. USAID Egypt is currently recruiting for two scholarship programs now, but in the covid-19 context, they are not able to physically visit Egypt’s 27 governorates as they would in the past, and are instead relying on online recruitment and word of mouth.

As for projects going forward, Banashek notes that the Higher Education Ministry has been very forward-leaning in moving to online learning. She also notes, however, that there are always areas where support is needed — whether to improve access, upskill faculty, or roll out blended learning models. Projects are selected for funding after identifying market gaps where USAID would be well-placed to set up a program, says Banashek.

All USAID projects are regularly monitored and adapted when necessary. USAID programs are designed to be flexible and adapt to different circumstances. “Our activities are iterative every year, and we always incorporate what we call collaborating, learning, and adapting methodologies,” says Banashek. This process entails the regular review of a project’s work plan, and monitoring it against targets agreed upon with partners.

And performance measures can also be adapted, if let’s say a global pandemic hits: “We’ll be modifying a lot of our initial targets for this year due to covid-19.” All projects include a monitoring and evaluation component and a learning plan that adheres to USAID policy, and they have very strict standards for the data collected through implementing partners, she adds.

So far, covid-19 is impacting program implementation but not USAID’s overall financial or strategic support. From a practical perspective, USAID Egypt is trying to learn from its own experience and from other countries in the region, in its response to covid-19 challenges, says Banashek. They are doing everything they can to enhance distance learning across the board, she says.

In some cases, the crisis has enhanced the impact of programs, including the career centers: The career centers are physically located in the faculties of Egyptian public universities, so when campuses were closed in March, they moved to an online learning platform, says Banashek. “Now, not only are they reaching their target audience, but they’ve even expanded their reach.” In the past, each center could accommodate 60 students for an in-person class, Banashek estimates. “There was always huge demand.” Now they’re able to reach some 13k students through their online platforms, and they made that shift in 3 months, she says.

Strategically speaking, the US government is committed to continuing its support to the government and people of Egypt during this crisis, she adds. USAID Egypt is still pushing its scholarship recruitment during this time, and even launched a new project earlier this month called Teach for Tomorrow, supporting teachers during the transition to Education 2.0. “Our partnership is important to US foreign policy and the American people, so we will continue to move forward with all the programs I’ve mentioned. We will continue to support both the government and the private sector as they adapt to the economic shifts related to covid-19. Our priorities haven’t changed.”

Monday, 29 June 2020

Your top education stories of the week

Your top education stories of the week:

  • The academic year for Egypt’s universities will now end on 15 September to accommodate end-of-year exams, which will begin on 1 July.
  • President Abdel Fattah El Sisi and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau discussed potential investment and cooperation in higher education programs in Egypt in a phone call last Wednesday.
  • Palm Hills, Taaleem ink MoU to set up university in Badya compound: We recap the full story in Speed Round, above.
  • The nationwide Thanaweya Amma exams kicked off last week for some 650k students amid preventive measures to curb the spread of the covid-19.
  • Noon Academy has raised USD 13 mn in its latest funding round as more students resort to distance learning through the Saudi-based company’s educational technology platform.

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