Originally posted October 2010

The Arab Republic of Egypt is the largest country in North Africa in terms of population. In July 2007, its population was estimated to be more than 80.3 million, with a projected population of more than 84 million by 2010.[1] From 1996 to 2006, the proportion of males increased to 51%. Meanwhile, the average family size has declined to 4.18.[2] The total fertility rate (births per woman) has decreased from 3.9% in 1990–1995 to 2.9% in 2005–2010. The adult literacy rate during the period 1997–2007 is much higher for males (74.6%) than for females (57.8%).[3] In addition, though the illiteracy rate for women over 15 years of age during the period 2003–2005 decreased, it was still far higher (43.8%) than for men (18.3%).

This essay provides an overview of the higher education system in Egypt with a focus on students’ access to universities and women’s participation in higher education. The universities and higher education institutions in Egypt, as in other countries, accept students graduated from secondary schools. Therefore, understanding male and female access to university and higher education requires a thorough examination of the structure of the education system in Egypt.

The Structure of the Education System in Egypt

The education system in Egypt is structured to begin at the primary level (six years), followed by three years of preparatory schooling; this constitutes basic/compulsory education for all Egyptian children.[4] After completing grade nine and based on students’ final scores in the Basic Education Certificate, students with higher scores join general secondary schools (a three-year program) while students with lower scores attend technical secondary schools (i.e., three-to-five-year industrial, agriculture, or commercial programs).[5] Graduates of secondary schools compete for admission to universities and other higher education institutes. There are 17 public universities, of which 11 are located in the Cairo, Alexandria, and Delta regions (in the north of Egypt), while only six universities are in the Upper Egypt regions (in the south). In addition, there are specialized institutes as well as a private higher education sector comprised of 15 universities. “The duration of study ranges from two years in middle technical institutes to four, five, or six years in university colleges and higher institutes. Master’s and PhD degrees need at least two years and three years respectively to be rewarded.”[6] In parallel with the public education system, there is Al-Azhar (religious) education, which provides primary, preparatory, secondary, and university education. Al-Azhar institutes are spread out in different cities and regions of the country, serving diverse groups of the population.

Unequal Access to the University Education

Secondary education is of crucial importance in the Egyptian education structure because its graduates compete for university admission or for work. According to the structure of the education system in Egypt, graduates of general secondary schools may attend university, while graduates of technical secondary schools may only attend non-university higher and middle institutes or proceed to the job market (in many cases remaining unemployed).[7] This means that access to the university depends on enrollment in the general secondary schools with one exception: students graduating from three or five-year technical secondary school may apply to the university faculty appropriate to their curriculum.[8] Technical secondary graduates must have obtained a high grade on their final examination and a supplementary examination may be required for admission into some faculties.[9]

As of the 2005–2006 school year, 56% of students were enrolled in technical secondary schools while 32.9% attended general secondary schools (see Table 3). Only 8.9% of the technical school graduates, however, were admitted to universities and higher education technical institutes, and just 1.9% to public universities.[10] In contrast, over 80% of the general secondary school graduates entered the universities and higher education institutes, including 58.5% in public universities.[11] Clearly, there is unequal access to the university due not only to the dual/tracking system of secondary education but also to limited places available to its graduates at public universities in Egypt (see Table 4).

The female enrollment rate in secondary education reached 46.9% in technical schools and 51.9% in general secondary schools in the 2004–2005 school year, representing 48.8% of total enrollment in secondary education.[12] Gender disparity in education, however, is further influenced by the socioeconomic background of students. In poor and disadvantaged areas, according to the 2010 Egypt Human Development Report, “the twin problems of school dropouts and non-enrollment continue as a phenomenon that is mostly peculiar to poor girls, and reflects the persistence of gender disparities, with Upper Egypt [in the south] being the most disadvantaged region.”[13] The following section examines women’s participation in higher education by regions and academic disciplines.

Women’s Participation in Higher Education

In her discussion of gender inequality and female opportunity to participate in post-secondary education in Africa, Assie-Lumumba explains that,


Even where enrollment ceased to be an issue decades ago, the boundaries between social groups have been moving, not disappearing, and the grounds for inequality have been mutating or shifting in terms of emphasis. For instance, the issue of unequal opportunity has moved from access to basic education to (a) post-secondary education, (b) the type of higher education institution attended, and (c) the disciplinary specialization that is characterized by the concentration of female students in humanities and social sciences and some specific sub-fields within the scientific disciplines.[14]


Egypt is no exception. Gender inequality in higher education is present in terms of male versus female enrollment rates and women’s representation by economically-advantaged versus disadvantage regions as well as fields of specialization.

In recognition of gender inequality in higher education, the Strategic Planning Unit (SPU) at the Ministry of Higher Education in Egypt stated in its 2010 country report that “while there was a slight increase in women’s enrollment in Higher Education between 2002/2003 and 2005/2006 (from 45% to 46%), this percentage still needs further improvement … Percentages are lower still in governorates [provinces] such as Assiut, … Suez Canal, and Aswan, where in 2005/2006 female enrollments were 34%, … 41%, and 40% respectively.”[15]

The 2010 SPU report further explains that women’s enrollment in higher education is influenced mostly by the unequal distribution of higher education institutions across governorates. Thus, it is not surprising to find that the lowest female enrollment rates exist in the Upper Egypt governorates, which are not only the poorest in the country but considered socially and culturally to be more conservative and protective toward women. For example, the overall higher education enrollment rate in 2006–2007 in Upper Egypt region, including Assuit governorate, was only 16%, with the lowest female participation rate (35%) occurring in Assuit. Table 5 presents the percentages of overall enrollment in higher education by regions and gender.

In terms of women’s participation in different fields of specialization in Egypt, as commonly seen in other countries, female enrollment in the fields of education (72%), humanities (72%), and arts (73%) tend to be much higher than their male counterparts, as opposed, for example, to the engineering discipline (28%). Interestingly, however, women show higher enrollment rates than men in the fields of basic sciences (54%) and medicine (57%), as shown in Table 6.

In conclusion, examining male and female access to post-secondary education in Egypt reveals how educational inequality has been structured through a two-track system of general versus technical secondary schools. According to the World Bank, the gender gap in secondary education enrollment rates was 6.0 in 2003, which consequently reduces the opportunities for female participation in post-secondary education.[16] Gender inequality in Egyptian higher education is exacerbated by the unequal distribution of higher education institutions across regions. Women’s participation in higher education remains lower (46%) than that of men, especially in poorer areas (35%) – an issue that is recognized by the Ministry of Higher Education and constitutes an essential part of its reform strategies.


[1]. UNDP Human Development Report, 2009, http://hdrstats.undp.org/en/countries/data_sheets/cty_ds_EGY.html; and Egypt State Information Service, Population (2009), http://www.sis.gov.eg/En/Story.aspx?sid=9.

[2]. Egypt State Information Service, Population (2009), http://www.sis.gov.eg/En/Story.aspx?sid=9.

[4]. In 1984, attendance at preparatory (junior secondary) schools was made compulsory. As a result, increasing the number of teachers for basic education became a necessity. In 1988, the Primary Teacher Training Schools were transferred to the Basic Education Teacher Program in the education colleges at the university level. In upgrading primary teacher training schools from the secondary level to programs at the university level, the attempt was made to improve the quality and performance of primary school teachers and encourage the enrollment growth of such program.

[5]. Megahed, “Secondary Education Reforms in Egypt: Rectifying Inequality of Educational and Employment Opportunities,” pp. 44–71.

[6]. Ministry of Education, National Strategic Plan for Pre-University Education Reform in Egypt, 2007-2008-2011-2012 (Cairo: Ministry of Education, 2007), p. 12.

[7]. Nagwa Megahed, “Secondary Education Reforms in Egypt: Rectifying Inequality of Educational and Employment Opportunities.

[8]. Graduates of five-year technical schools, if admitted to the university, are placed in the second year of the university program. Based on the five-year technical school curriculum, the first year includes theoretical and preparatory subjects that are similar to the subjects in the first year of the university level. For example, commercial graduates apply to certain faculties of commerce and industrial graduates apply to certain faculties of engineering.

[9]. The score of the final examination that would be accepted to enter the universities is determined annually. Each university proposes the number of new students (general and technical secondary school graduates) to be enrolled in each faculty according to its faculty and physical resources. The Supreme Council of Universities makes the final determination. See Nagwa Megahed, “Secondary Education Reforms in Egypt: Rectifying Inequality of Educational and Employment Opportunities.”

[10]. Ministry of Education, National Strategic Plan for Pre-University Education Reform in Egypt, 2007-2008-2011-2012, p. 26.

[11]. Ministry of Education, National Strategic Plan for Pre-University Education Reform in Egypt, 2007-2008-2011-2012, p. 26.

[12]. Ministry of Education, National Strategic Plan for Pre-University Education Reform in Egypt, 2007-2008-2011-2012, p. 274.

[13]. Egypt Human Development Report, Youth in Egypt: Building Our Future (2010), p. 7, http://www.undp.org.eg/Portals/0/EHDR%202010/NHDR%202010%20english.pdf.

[14]. N’Dri Assie-Lummumba, Women and Higher Education in Africa: Reconceptualizing Gender-Based Human Capabilities and Upgrading Human Rights to Knowledge (Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire: PanAfrican Studies and Research Center in International Relations and Education for Development, 2007).

[15]. Strategic Planning Unit, Ministry of Higher Education, Higher Education in Egypt: Country Background Report;and UN Human Development Report for Egypt, Youth in Egypt: Building Our Future (2010), http://www.undp.org.eg/Portals/0/EHDR%202010/NHDR%202010%20english.pdf, p. 32.

[16] World Bank, Gender and Development in the Middle East and North Africa: Women in the Public Sphere. MENA Development Report (Washington, DC: World Bank Publishing, 2004).


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