The Impact of Global Unrest on Egyptian Students Studying Abroad

The challenges faced by Egyptian students studying abroad in Ukraine, Sudan, and Kyrgyzstan due to conflicts and violence
Aya Yasser

Tarek Abdel Aziz, a young Egyptian in his twenties, dreamed of studying medicine. However, his final grades in high school did not qualify him for admission to a public medical school in Egypt. Thus, he turned to Sudan, specifically to Khartoum, to study at an internationally accredited private university for an annual tuition fee of about $8,000. He completed his first two years and the first semester of his third year before clashes intensified in April 2023 between the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces.

“Abdel Aziz” had already returned to Cairo on holiday with a copy of his official university documents and did not have to go back to war-torn Sudan. He had no choice but to transfer to Nahda University (the first private university in Upper Egypt, established in 2006, located in eastern Beni Suef governorate), which accepted his transfer on the condition that he start from the second year of dental school instead of the third year he had already completed in Sudan. He said, “I did not agree because of the effort, time, and money I had already invested.”

He returned to Egypt from Sudan in April 2023, along with several Egyptian students due to the war. They did not know where to continue their studies, especially since their peers who had returned from Ukraine and Russia had been out of school for over a year and were uncertain about their future. The crisis was soon resolved when the Cabinet issued a decision to open transfers for Egyptian students returning from Ukraine, Russia, and Sudan, exempting them from the minimum admission requirement for private and national universities, provided they do not exceed 10% of each college’s capacity.

Under this decision, “Abdel Aziz” could have joined Nahda University if he agreed to restart his third year and cover the tuition fee difference. He chose instead to transfer his file last year to a dental college in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan (a Central Asian country located between Kazakhstan and China, where residents speak Russian), with an annual tuition fee of about $1,300. He was pleased that he would not have to redo a year of study and could make up for any missed courses through summer courses.

While things were stable for “Abdel Aziz” in his fourth academic year, along with about 1,200 Egyptian students studying in Kyrgyzstan, most of whom had transferred from Ukraine, Russia, and Sudan after enduring wars, an incident on the 13th of this month threatened their personal safety and put their lives at risk, causing many to wish to return to Egypt immediately. So, what happened in Kyrgyzstan?

Assaults

Tarek Abdel Aziz recounts his testimony, saying: “We have two student housing locations for Egyptians, one main housing 400 students, and the other a secondary one with only 200 – where I stay. The housing administration enforced rules requiring us to return before 11 p.m. as the streets become dangerous after midnight with drunken people wandering around. On that day, three of our colleagues with a Moroccan friend were late returning and were standing at the corner of the street where the housing is located, chatting. Then, five drunk Kyrgyz youth started harassing them, trying to steal their cigarettes. When they resisted, the youth attacked them, causing the Egyptian students to run back to the housing to hide and seek protection.”

The medical student was standing in the hall near the housing entrance, talking on the phone when he was surprised by the Kyrgyz youth breaking in. One of them asked him, “Where did the Pakistanis who entered here go?” He tried to tell them that there were no Pakistanis in the building, but they did not listen and punched him hard. The five then began attacking everyone they encountered. Within minutes, all the students on the first floor woke up and began fighting back. Injuries ranged from bruises to minor cuts, and the attackers tried to enter the female Egyptian students’ dorm on the ground floor, but their male colleagues prevented them, according to “Abdel Aziz,” who noted that four attackers managed to escape, while the students caught one and handed him over to the police, who took him to the hospital for treatment, but he managed to escape from there.

He adds: “On the 17th of this month, we discovered that a colleague had filmed the incident and shared a video showing some of our peers beating the attackers along with their Pakistani friends. It was posted on his personal page, then shared by a Kyrgyz citizen in a Facebook group with over 100,000 members, spreading rapidly among the enraged locals who misunderstood the situation. This sparked incitement against foreigners (mostly Pakistanis), angry demonstrations, and violent acts. The address of our residence was circulated, and there were calls to beat the four Egyptian youths seen in the video to death.”

For a week, the Egyptian students were terrified, and the secondary housing where the incident occurred was evacuated. The students were secretly transported in small groups to the main housing with their Egyptian peers, under police protection. The police also detained the four Egyptian students seen in the video for three days to investigate and protect them from the Kyrgyz mob. The situation was calmed down with the help of the Grand Mufti of Kyrgyzstan and some local celebrities, especially after the police report showed that the Kyrgyz youth were at fault.

“Abdel Aziz” told Zawia3: “There is no Egyptian embassy in Kyrgyzstan. The Foreign Ministry sent us a delegation from the Egyptian consulate in Kazakhstan as it is the closest to us. The official spent about five hours with us to listen to our demands, including allowing transfers from Kyrgyzstan for those who want to leave due to the lack of safety. The official replied that this is limited to wartime and not riots, promising to convey this request to the authorities. They also ensured safe access to the airport for those who wanted to return to Egypt, which happened to me as I returned to Egypt on May 20.”

In a statement on Friday, Ahmed Abu Zeid, the official spokesperson for the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, announced the successful resolution of the crisis with Egyptian students in Kyrgyzstan. The necessary procedures for the release of the detained students were completed, and they were returned to their residences. Exams were rescheduled for those wishing to return to Egypt early, and first-year students were allowed to leave with the commitment to return for their exams after the summer break, to mitigate the negative psychological effects on the students.

Changed Promises from Officials

“Abdel Aziz’s” journey from Sudan to Kyrgyzstan and the hardships he faced were not as severe as those experienced by Mena Rafaat, who had completed his fourth year at the Faculty of Dentistry at Odessa National Medical University in Ukraine (with an annual tuition fee of about $5,000) when the war between Russia and Ukraine broke out in February 2022. He and his peers endured about 40 days of terror and anxiety, trapped in their student housing amidst the sounds of random shelling and explosions or hiding in the basement of a shopping mall with residents, fearing air raids.

Rafaat recalls: “The country went into lockdown. No banks or ATMs were open, cash machines were empty, and most stores were closed. Ukrainians were prioritized for everything, even buying essentials from the market. The shelling was random at the beginning of the war. I couldn’t return to Egypt until after 40 days, and Odessa University refused to give us our academic files. However, officials in Egypt promised us that we would find seats in universities when we returned.”

In March 2022, Minister of State for Immigration and Egyptians Abroad Affairs, Nabila Makram, announced that applications from returning students from Ukraine who wished to continue their studies in Egypt would be accepted, following the guidelines set by the Cabinet in collaboration with the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. This included accepting the transfer of Egyptian students enrolled in Ukrainian universities before the outbreak of events, provided they could prove their enrollment in the 2021/2022 academic year and submit a certificate of the courses they had studied along with their academic content, and take a placement test at Cairo University or Ain Shams University according to their scientific specialization. If they failed to submit the course certificates within three months, the transfer decision would be void.

Conversely, former Minister of Higher Education Khaled Abdel Ghaffar stated at the time that there was no place for returning students from Ukraine in public universities and that they could continue their studies in private and national universities after undergoing a placement test in Egypt, provided they had passed the qualifying subjects for the faculty they were studying in.

The promises made to “Rafaat” and his peers seemed to change after their return to Egypt. They were given a test and then informed by the Ministry of Higher Education that dental students would have to repeat a year, and medical students would have to repeat two years. They were only allowed to enroll in one of three private universities: Pharos University in Alexandria, Nahda University in Beni Suef, and Badr University in Cairo. Thus, “Rafaat” and some of his peers abandoned the idea of studying in Egypt and sought to negotiate with their Ukrainian university, which offered them to go to an alternative university in Georgia.

Rafaat says he waited eight months for a travel permit to Georgia, accompanied by a tourist visa with several peers, as the university there did not grant them study visas. Therefore, Georgian authorities deported them back to Cairo. At that time, Rafaat felt hopeless, having spent nearly a year without knowing his academic future until he heard from his peers about studying in Kyrgyzstan. He immediately contacted the Educational Missions Department at the Ministry of Higher Education to inquire about it and proceed with travel and application procedures for a university in Bishkek.

Rafaat says, “There’s no doubt that studying and living in Ukraine is better than in Kyrgyzstan, but we couldn’t find universities in other countries that would accept us after our return from Ukraine without having to repeat years of study. Here, we pay $3,800 in annual tuition fees, split into two semesters, and a mediator between us and the university charges us between $2,000 and $3,000 annually. I completed my dentistry studies two months ago and was preparing for my internship and postgraduate studies.” He explains that the disturbances in Kyrgyzstan, the riots, and the targeting of foreigners, including Egyptians, made him anxious and reconsider his plans for further studies in the country.

Growing Demand for Studying Abroad

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the number of Egyptian students studying abroad has more than tripled over 20 years, from 8,800 in 2000 to around 34,900 in the 2017/2018 academic year. Former Minister of Higher Education Khaled Abdel Ghaffar stated in 2020 that about 20,000 Egyptian students were studying at foreign universities, with an estimated expenditure of approximately 20 billion EGP.

There are no official statistics showing the number of Egyptian students studying at foreign universities for the 2023-2024 academic year. However, the last statistic from the Central Administration of Missions at the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research in 2021 showed that the number of students who traveled abroad for the 2021-2022 academic year was about 2,213. According to the statistics, Russian universities ranked first among the universities where Egyptians registered, with about 5,579 students, followed by Ukrainian universities with about 2,169 students, Sudanese universities in third place with about 1,453 students, German universities in fourth place with about 1,379 students, and British universities in fifth place with about 1,243 Egyptian students.

Despite the increasing number of Egyptian universities over the past ten years by about 122%, from 49 universities in 2014 to 109 universities in 2023, according to a report from the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, there is still a growing demand for studying abroad. Egypt has 28 public universities, 32 private universities, 20 national universities, ten technological universities, nine branches of foreign universities, six universities with international agreements, two universities with framework agreements, one university with special laws, and an academy supervised by the Ministry of Higher Education, along with institutes and 11 research centers.

The QS World University Rankings for 2024, which includes the top 1,400 universities globally, listed 18 Egyptian universities this year, an increase of three from last year. Four Egyptian universities were among the top 20 universities in the Arab region: Cairo University, Mansoura University, the American University in Cairo, and Ain Shams University. Cairo University ranked 330th globally, Mansoura University 364th, the American University in Cairo 609th, and Ain Shams University 695th.

Exception for Scores in Case of War

Mohamed Helmy Al-Ghar, Advisor to the Minister of Higher Education and Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Private and National Universities, attributes the travel of many Egyptian students to study abroad to their low high school grades, which did not qualify them for the government colleges they desired. These grades were also below the minimum required for private universities, in addition to the lower economic cost of studying at some foreign universities in Sudan and some Eastern European and Central Asian countries compared to their counterparts in private universities in Egypt. However, this cost difference has narrowed with the rise in the value of the dollar needed for studying abroad.

Al-Ghar points out that the Ministry of Higher Education publishes an annual list on its website of foreign universities worldwide whose degrees are accredited in Egypt. After graduation and return to Egypt, the student applies for an equivalency and review of the courses studied, and whether they need to take an exam depends on the academic level of the university from which they graduated. He advises any student planning to study abroad to check the list to avoid enrolling in a university whose degree is not recognized in Egypt, as they would be considered to have only a high school diploma without a university degree according to Egyptian regulations.

The advisor explains to Zawia3 that transfers from universities outside Egypt to Egyptian universities are open for Egyptian students at any time, not just during wars, provided the student’s high school grades are not below the minimum required for the equivalent faculty they are studying abroad. The state has made an exception to the minimum grade requirement for transfers for students returning from war-torn countries, under a decision issued on May 13, 2023, which does not apply to those who enrolled in a university in those countries after the decision was issued, to prevent any attempts to circumvent the minimum admission requirements.

Private and national universities opened the application process in May last year for Egyptian students returning from Russia, Ukraine, and Sudan to apply and transfer to continue their studies at Egyptian universities until October 1, 2023, following the Cabinet’s decision to allow the transfer of Egyptian students studying at Sudanese, Russian, and Ukrainian universities to continue their studies at private and national universities under certain conditions and procedures.

The Decision Does Not Apply to Violence

MP Ghada Ajami, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee in Parliament, confirmed in her conversation with us that both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Higher Education are working hard in coordination with the committee to address and resolve the issues of Egyptian students abroad, especially in countries experiencing turmoil. She explained that in the event of war in a country where Egyptian students are studying, the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs works to communicate with the universities they are enrolled in to obtain their academic records. However, some universities sometimes resist due to their internal issues, such as financial resources and student fees, which delays returning students from enrolling in a new university. The Ministry of Higher Education, in cooperation with the Supreme Council of Universities, issues a decision to open transfers according to the council’s regulations and requirements, as was the case with the Ukrainian and Sudanese wars. Tests are conducted to evaluate students’ levels in the current or previous academic year, and the student returns to study the previous year or two to align with the university curricula in Egypt if they plan to continue their studies there. However, this does not apply to riots and violence, as occurred in Kyrgyzstan.

Ajami advises students planning to study abroad to avoid universities in conflict and war-torn countries, emphasizing that there are many government, private, and national universities and institutes in Egypt where they can study. She explained that the low high school grades of students below the minimum required for private university admission set by the Supreme Council of Universities drive them to study in countries like Sudan or Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Kamal Moghith, an expert at the National Center for Educational Research, believes that the lower cost of living and tuition fees at universities in some countries compared to private universities in Egypt and the lack of alignment between the minimum admission scores for public and private universities and the students’ desires to join top faculties like medicine, engineering, and pharmacy, drive them to study in Sudan and Eastern European and Central Asian countries. Additionally, there are backdoor opportunities for students with arts backgrounds to join medical and engineering faculties at some universities in Ukraine, Bulgaria, and other countries. He considers that enrolling returning students from abroad in Egyptian universities is unfair to their peers if their high school grades are below the minimum required for admission, to prevent studying abroad from becoming a way to circumvent the grade requirement.

Moghith explains that the high minimum admission scores for public and private universities compared to other countries are due to the lack of sufficient university seats to accommodate the large number of high school graduates in Egypt. Each faculty determines the required grades for admission based on its capacity. The Egyptian education system relies on grades as the sole criterion for university admission, with some faculties adding entrance exams as an additional requirement. In contrast, educational systems in other countries may use entrance exams or personal interviews for college admission or require passing a preparatory year or specific courses.

Aya Yasser
Egyptian journalist, writer, and novelist holding a Bachelor's degree in Media from Cairo University.

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