CAIRO – 15 May 2022: The “Princess of Biology” is in hot water after a picture of her surrounded by four bulky bodyguards circulated on social media as she was headed to a famous theater to in Cairo to perform in a “scientific play” for hundreds of students.
On Saturday, biology teacher Asmaa Emad was arrested along with her husband and four bodyguards to be investigated over “unlicensed private tuition,” but were released on bail on the same day. Although she is not a teacher at any school, she has specialized in private tuition and, like many teachers, gave herself a title.
If she is the “princess of Biology,” there are posters and graffiti on many walls and trees in Egypt advertising the “Monster of Math, the Chemistry Giant, the Ogre of Geography, the Physics Legend, the Dean of Arabic,” etc. Their ads include bold, colorful designs and do not shy away from anything that is “too much.” Indeed, the most successful private tutors in Egypt have a lot of charisma, creativity, and sense of humor. However, they are also an integral part of an educational system that has failed million of students over decades.
The picture went viral on social media along with rumors that thousands of students attended and each paid L.E. 250 for the ticket on May 4. However, on May 12, she told Alhayah T.V. that the theater was full and that it takes around 1,000 students, confirming the play was held more than once.
On her Facebook page of 28,000 followers, one announcement of the show said the ticket would cost 55 L.E. Her page is full comments from students and parents commending her work and defending her against the investigation.
The bodyguards, whose pictures may have provoked the public for the kind of status that private tutors enjoy under the traditional educational system, were there to reassure the parents that their children would be safe, and were not there for Emad, she told Alhayah T.V. In the picture, she had just arrived, and they came to greet her and followed her when she went into the theater. But she hired six bodyguards to accompany girls into the place from one entrance, and accompany boys from another, according to her interview.
The young biology teacher, 25, told AlHayah T.V. the play had actors licensed from the Ministry of Culture, and that there was a director, a producer, and sound and lighting engineer, adding that she paid for the entire show without any financial benefits. She explained that the L.E. 25 were the cost price of the theater seat and biology sheets and that the cheapest theater ticket in Downtown costs L.E. 150, but she decided to give her students a “gift” by inviting them to a five-hour show for “the cost price.”
On her Facebook page, the play lasts for an hour, a scientific film is played for 35 minutes, a talent show is organized, and she revises the subject on stage for 40 minutes and provides tips on dealing with the new educational system as well as deciding on humanities or science for their path in high school.
She told the T.V. channel the actors were licensed from the Ministry of Culture and that Alhosabir Theater also gave her licenses that the show was a comedy play, not private tuition. The turnout gives a glimpse of her successful business at private tuition centers, which is also evident on her Facebook page.
Private tuition: how it became a culture
The National Center for Social and Criminological Research said in a 2010 study that Egyptian families spend 75 percent of their budget for education on private tuition and it increases to 84.4 percent in high school. Some 66 percent of students go to private tutors, according to the 12-year-old study.
The number of students continued to grow over the years to reach more than 70 in one class as schools failed to grow proportionally. Meanwhile, teachers continued to complain about their low salaries, and some of them are even struggling to land an official appointment at all as the government strives to cut down on wages. Some teachers even do not explain their lessons properly either to compel the students to go to their private classes outside school, due to their frustration at the low salary, due to the huge number of students sitting in front of them, or simply due to their inadequacy. The quality of education that the teachers received in universities has also worsened over time.
Private tuition, which is not by any means for students who are struggling, given how mainstream it is, is a major business for teachers, and the demand is so huge that the number of students in a private class may reach 100, or even 1,000 such as in the case of Emad.
Hence, if a student is struggling in a class of 50 to 70 students in many government-owned schools, they would face the same struggle in private tuition and pay extra for it, except that they would have a laugh in the class, wear regular clothes rather than the school uniform, and hang out with their friends before or after the class. Some may even take the money for themselves and skip a class or two.
Even poor students who were lucky enough to join a school, such as children of “bawabeen,” or guards of apartment blocks and villas who are mainly from rural areas and have never finished their own education, resort to private tuition despite the financial burden.
And bawabeen are not the poorest in Egypt. Some families in rural areas do not recognize the importance of education, but when they do overcome their skepticism, their children walk long distances to reach a school, only to find that some of them are still unable to master reading and writing in preparatory school and needed private tuition for extra money.
Even in upscale areas, private tuition is a solid business as it slowly became a culture. Students at international schools, although in percentages lower than those at government-owned schools, resort to private tuition. In their case, however, a teacher may demand up to 250L.E. per hour, but the number of students in one group reaches 50 or less. They are in hundreds during revisions ahead of exams, however.
Dr. Hamdy Arafa, professor of government and local administration at the Faculty of Administration, the International University for Science and Technology, told Akhbar el-Yom newspaper on Feb 1, 2022, that private tuition costs Egyptians some L.E.33 billion a year, while an average salary of an Egyptian citizens amount to just L.E.2,000.
He added that there are more than 11,234 private tuition centers in the country with an average income of each center of L.E.30 million a year. Other education experts claimed centers make up to L.E.5 million a month.
The minimum wage in Egypt increased from L.E.2,000 to L.E.2,400 in 2021. In February 2022, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said the figure would increase to 2,700. This gives a glimpse of the salaries of teachers at government-owned schools.
The Ministry of Education Teachers responds to the issue of salaries by saying teachers have a share in all digital platforms of the ministry and that it gives them remuneration for videos they make on the platforms as well as 85 percent of the benefits of extra classes at school for students who apply for them.
Back to the Princess of Biology. Whatever did she do wrong?
The technicalities Emad defended herself with are probably not the issue. Even when the anchor challenged her by saying private tuition is illegal, she responded that no law prohibits private tuition. She is also a graduate of the Faculty of Education, something that may save her the technicality of that a teacher in government-owned schools must be a graduate of this faculty or has a diploma therefrom. Nevertheless, the issue is, most probably, taxes.
Given that successful private tutors make millions, drawing some doctors and engineers to become private tutors for high school students to make more money than they would in their regular jobs, the Ministry of Finance in November 2021 demanded that private tutors come forward to the Tax Authority to pay taxes for their informal work.
Interestingly, the Ministry of Finance also said that by registering at the Tax Authority, private tutors and private tutoring centers do not legalize their work or reconcile their situation with the Ministry of Education. However, at least they would not be tax evaders before the law, and the ministry gave them a time frame of one month. In 2020, the Tax Authority collected L.E.850 million from centers and teachers who registered.
Many private tutors responded at the time that they are willing to pay taxes if their informal profession is legalized. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education announces every so often that a number of such centers have been “detected” and shut down.
Princess of Biology: the new tests ask about “general life”
Minister of Education Tarek Shawki has attempted in recent years to reform education, but every change is strongly resisted by parents who have been accustomed to the old system for many years, despite how ineffective and burdensome they confess it is.
The curriculum, the tests, and the evaluation are different, and students should rely on various sources of learning such as the Knowledge Bank and other learning platforms, and private tuition would not help in the new system, officials in the ministry have repeatedly said.
“In light of the new system, the students have fears from the questions that they may be distorted or on slang life rather than the core of the curriculum,” Emad told Alhayah T.V.
“What do you mean by slang life?” asked the confused anchor, Mostafa Sherdy.
“It means, for example, agricultural land, bilharzia [worm] that comes from the earth, polluted food, things like that. I mean they are situations that we may have inside our homes or diseases…”
“Oh, you mean general things, not slang?” Sherdy interrupted her. In Arabic, “ammiya” means slang, and “amma” means general.
Emad, who complained that she secured the highest score in her four years at the Faculty of Education but has not been officially appointed among the academic staff as per the law since her 2019 graduation, continued to say that she tries to acquaint the students with the new system in an innovative fashion and to give them a comic relief ahead of the final exams. She also emphasized that she and many private tutors calls for legalizing their informal profession.
The Ministry of Education announced in 2018 it was drafting a law that criminalizes private tuition and penalizes them offenders with a fine of L.E.5,000-50,000 for every teacher who gives private tuition in a center or a place open for the public. If the same teacher is caught again, the penalty is prison for 1-3 years. However, the law never saw the light.