“When I started all this effort 25 years ago, I said I wanted to create a locomotive to take Egypt forward,” says Dr. Hassan El Kalla, Chairman and founder of Badr University, which strives to be a premier place of learning and scientific discovery, and a guiding light for the Egyptian renaissance in the 21st century. Mr. El Kalla also discusses some of the main challenges for the education sector in Egypt, the use of technology in the classroom, as well as Badr University’s collaborations and partnerships with internationals institutions in the fields of science and research.
Before you get into the role that you play in the education system, you are a private sector representative, so I wanted to engage you and get your opinion on the current state of Egypt. As we mentioned, a lot of reform have been put through, mostly fiscal and monetary reforms, which have created macroeconomic stability in the country and has led to some of the highest growth in the last few years; however, some of the challenges still remain in order to achieve sustainable and increasing growth for the good of the Egyptian people. I want to get your opinion on the impact of the reforms so far, and on the importance of pursuing further structural reforms in order to achieve in Egypt the 2030 vision.
You have just mentioned that there’s a lot of effort going on regarding improving education and achieving the vision of 2030 in education. Basically, Egypt has three challenges in the education system. One of them is accessibility, where many families find it difficult to find a seat in schools in many parts of the country for their kids. Another challenge is equity; some people who are financially enabled would have access to better education than other people who are not. The third challenge is the quality of education; there are a lot of highly educated Egyptian people, but that’s because of an individualized effort. That’s not the mainstream practice where the quality of education is standardized along every governorate in Egypt. The vision has brought solutions for all three challenges presented; however, if we’re speaking today, still most of the work is going on now to improve the quality of education, especially the curricula, offered in schools, teachers’ trainings, and other drivers that will certainly lead to improvement in quality. We still, however, need a lot of work in the area of accessibility like building schools to accommodate all the newly born Egyptians. Egypt is growing by almost 2.5% a year, which is one of the highest rates of natural increase in the world, and this adds to the problem. We need between 50-75 billion Egyptian pounds to build enough schools to accommodate this issue. The government has promised to find ways to finance those resources, but they are not yet here. That brings us to the role of the private sector. I believe the private sector could help fill in part of this gap and they could do this in a couple of years.
You mentioned the role of the private sector here. Specifically in the education sector, what is the role of not only foreign investors but also foreign collaboration with national, international, and academic bodies in the US?
I believe there is a big opportunity for academic institutions in the US to really work with Egyptian institutions to improve the quality of education or higher education or both. Egypt could be beneficial even to the institutions in the US in terms of recruiting students to be educated in the US and bringing knowledge about the institutions here also. On the other hand, they will help Egyptian institutions in practices and skills in higher education. This will lead to a win-win situation both in Egypt and in the US.
There’s lot of more investment from the private sector to the more luxurious segment of the education sector. We see that the American University is one of the most expensive, and there’s a series of universities. Through your group; you have dedicated yourself to filling the gap for the middle-income level in Egypt. If you look at the demographic as you mentioned this 2 or 3 million or more people every year are coming to the market, What is the opportunity that you see within the middle-income level for the private sector in the education sector?
I believe addressing the issue for the middle class would be the major effort which should be done because there are other eyes are on the funding capacity of Egyptian families. If they cannot fund the education of their kids, then there’s no way in putting them under severe pressures. So while we’re keen to provide quality education, cost containment is our religion. There’s always a way to save money and still produce a quality product, and that’s what we’re trying to do all the time since we started. We started by creating a model; that was our vision 25 years ago. We thought we’d create a model and this model for other people to follow. Through modeling, we’re going to contribute to Egypt's progress, but after we succeeded in showing that this model is working and replicable, we then moved to creating our bigger mass to be really able to impact education in Egypt.
Access to financing in Egypt is rather complicated today through the banking sector. In your case, you’ve found a solution of the IPO, opening the access to the education sector as well to foreign investors. When the IPO came out, it was over-subscribed. How important is that confidence that you receive from investors in your business model?
We feel very confident because we have reached the place where foreign investors trust that institution. From here I ask every foreign investor to really give some attention to smaller organizations, and they do have the potential because at the beginning you really suffer to find a partner because of your small size. Generally, the size of the Egyptian economy is small, so for investors who are looking for financial returns only, this doesn’t open their appetite. I pray to find more investors who put their social costs in parallel with their financial gains. Looking at both will make them win, not lose, and it’s very much needed nowadays in Egypt.
What do you believe should be the role of universities, especially yours, in helping the students transition into the labor market so that they get access to the jobs of tomorrow?
Introducing the use of technology to support and improve educational outcomes is the core of what we’re trying to do. It’s not easy because we’re working on the infrastructure, in raising awareness on how to use technology, and in getting students engaged. Students who are not engaged in using technology will not be able to succeed.
It’s not easy but we decided to use technology 15 years ago. We were the first school to bring the smart board to Egypt. In fact, the first smart board which I put in my school was bought from Canada smart technology in 1998. Since then, we’ve been moving from five students using one computer, to three using one computer until finally one student per computer. Nowadays you are familiar with flipping the classroom technique. We use this technique because it’s mainly shifting education from teaching into learning. By doing that, the teacher is no longer the sole person on the stage, but the students now engage and do the real work on the classroom level. They learn how to communicate, work in groups, divide work, and present the outcomes of their session. That's how they acquire real-life skills. It’s not easy because a lot of teacher training is going on. It is also new for school administrators who were not trained on that in their schools. So it requires a lot of effort in teacher training, in training the schools' managers on school-based management techniques and new methods of classroom delivery. So it’s a big effort in all frames at the same time. I know however that technology is a game changer today. Education will no longer be as we knew in the past.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the efforts that you have made or the actions you have taken to make Badr University more globally connected?
It’s not only Badr University, it’s all the Future Schools. In all cases, we are very open to international practices and experiences. For example, we were among the early schools in the Middle East working with Microsoft, Intel, and other international technology providers. Google education system has also been recently introduced in our schools. We have taken a decision which is a little bit different than other universities in Egypt. You probably hear about the American University in Cairo, the British University in Egypt, or the Russian University. We decided not to partner with a country. We decided to partner with each center of excellence wherever it exists, even in the middle of a department. In the school of pharmacy for example, there’s one department that’s working with a university in Scotland, where another department is working with another university in the US. If we take for example the school of physiotherapy, we have an agreement with Winston State University and another with Virginia Commonwealth University. We are here working in spinal rehabilitation with a musculoskeletal system. So that’s the kind of partnership we’re trying to build in our university. The school of nursing is also having partners. So we’re trying to open up with any university. Last week we have invited official surgeons from South Korea who have collaborated with the school of dentistry – 23 very sophisticated operations.
You are young and gaining critical mass. When it comes to making an impact on your students, what do you want it the main common denominator to be among the students that graduate from your university?
When I started all this effort 25 years ago, I said I wanted to create a locomotive to take Egypt forward. So I need to see my graduates everywhere occupying leading positions to make Egypt the star it should be. This country is the cross section for history. If you visit any place like Italy for example, you’d say I have seen some Roman archeology, or in Greece there was Greek monuments. However, If you come to Egypt, you’ll safely say I have seen pharaonic, Greek, Roman, Islamic, Coptic, and even modern civilization. This is a great country where you can see the history of all humanity. We want Egypt to occupy the place it should be. It’s well located by God, so it’s not a coincidence: Abraham came to Egypt to pick up the mother of his first child, Moses was born in Egypt, Jesus fled to Egypt for safety, Joseph came to Egypt to make it the basket of food for the whole world. All these historical facts are not coincidences. There isn’t another country in the world that has seen all revelations other than Egypt. I say this wholeheartedly because I feel that this country is blessed; in spite of all the difficulties we have seen for 7,000 years, I still believe that Egypt will make it. We’re not working for money, believe it or not. When I ask to make sure that we’re on track, I ask about the number of workers in our organization, not about how much profit we made. When I find the number of workers increasing, I feel comfortable. That’s the way I see it.