Coventry University signs deal with private education firm to open Egypt campus

Screenshot of the New Administrative Capital promotional video

Increasing market competition between UK universities and declining student numbers from Europe is prompting a new round of investment in branch campuses in the Middle East. An investigation for Middle East Solidarity magazine looks at the background to Coventry University’s announcement of a partnership with a private education firm in Egypt for its campus in Egypt’s New Administrative capital. Read the full story in Middle East Solidarity here

Egypt’s military regime is counting on enticing universities to establish international branch campuses in the New Administrative Capital, which is taking shape in the desert around 40km from Cairo. The construction of this huge new development, designed to replace the thousand-year old current capital, was meant to attract foreign investment, although the project is actually being overseen by a company which is split 51-49 percent between the Egyptian Armed Forces and the New Urban Communities Authority, another Egyptian government agency.

As we reported in our last issue, UK universities have been the targets of an extensive charm offensive by the regime, with the full support of the British government. However, a campaign by UCU members at the University of Liverpool and University of Cambridge, which was backed by hundreds of academics from across the UK, won a significant victory. According to a leaked document published on the Academic Freedom Watch website, the University of Liverpool was worried about the potential for “reputational damage” if it pressed ahead with plans to build a new branch campus in Egypt. Although no official announcement has been made, activists in Liverpool say that the drive for a new campus has stalled under the pressure of the campaign.

The Liverpool document reveals just how deeply investing universities would be indebted to the Sisi regime, as officials had apparently “indicated willingness to meet initial investment costs” to University of Liverpool managers. Meanwhile, fee income would have been set at a level very few Egyptians could afford: £8,000 per year in a country where the annual salary for workers on the minimum wage is around £600.

While Liverpool’s Egypt expansion plans remain on ice, Coventry University is pushing ahead with a partnership to open a campus in the New Administrative Capital. In December 2018, the university announced a partnership with El Sewedy Education, an Egyptian “education investment and management company”, to open a branch in “The Knowledge Hub”, “a world-class multidisciplinary higher education campus.” The company is headed by Ahmed El Sewedy, CEO of El Sewedy Electric, an Egyptian cables and electrical components manufacturer. The parent company has done well in recent years, and now boasts 30 production facilities in 14 countries. Like the bulk of the business elite in Egypt, the El Sewedys have long been well embedded in the structures of the regime: under Mubarak the family was represented on the business secretariat of the ruling National Democratic Party, while under Sisi two members head up the powerful industrial and energy and environment committees in parliament.

The company’s track record in providing education at any level is somewhat thin, consisting of a technical secondary school in 10th Ramadan City providing places for around 500 students, and a primary school. The company’s website also highlights donations of equipment and the renovation of classrooms and toilets at a handful of other primary and early years schools. Despite this, El Sewedy Education has ambitious plans: the Knowledge Hub campus alone will cost around $400m. The first students are expected to arrive in September 2019, to study for degrees in Engineering, Computing and Digital Media and by 2028 the campus will accommodate around 1,500 – 2000 in total. Recruitment is underway for Heads of School who are “looking for their next global adventure”, according to the Coventry University website. At the time of writing, clicking on the links to job descriptions produced a series of ‘page not found’ error messages.

Despite the attractiveness of the shiny new buildings pictured on the Knowledge Hub’s website, anyone applying for these roles would be advised to ask some detailed questions about the conditions of employment. According to Coventry University’s website, staff recruited will be “employed by the Knowledge Hub and not by Coventry University”. Yet the picture painted by Ihab Salama, CEO of El Sewedy Education, in an interview with Daily News Egypt is somewhat different: “All the heads of the departments will come from the mother branch and will be supported by professors from the same university as well” he declared.

The overall legal framework for the IBC itself, as laid out in the law which came into force in August 2018, also raises troubling questions as to whether the “free exchange of ideas” promised in El Sewedy Education’s promotional materials about the Knowledge Hub, is just a mirage. The president of the IBC’s appointment is subject to approval by the Egyptian Minister of Higher Education, and two representatives of the Ministry will sit on the Board of Trustees. In addition the Ministry will appoint an ‘advisor’ to the IBC. Even Universities UK notes that “such a degree of oversight is likely to be unappealing to universities.” There is no explicit commitment that IBCs will be able to operate according to the requirements of UK law, for example in relation to equalities legislation, just a vaguely-worded statement that the IBC will operate within a “framework of academic and institutional autonomy and freedom”. It is hard to see how much “institutional autonomy” would be enjoyed even by senior management in the IBC, as according to the law, Ministerial approval is required for all academic and senior management positions.

The new law also states that IBCs must: ‘provide the concerned authorities with the facilities to enable them to verify the IBC observance of the requirements of security and public order’. Students and academics expressing dissenting views about the current regime, trade unionists calling for safer working conditions, and LGBT+ Egyptians have all been targeted under ‘public order’ legislation in Egypt, including highly repressive ‘anti-terror’ laws. What would the penalties be for failing to provide security forces offices on campus, or refusing to share data about student activism or failing to report on the content of teaching which might put “security” at risk?