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Going too far?
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 22 - 05 - 2008

With one of Egypt's oldest universities set to leave its location in the heart of the city next fall, Hannah Mintz examines Cairo's education exodus
Starting next year, AUC students are going to miss interacting with people from all walks of life on the street," said Mohamed El-Guindi, a senior at AUC. "Tahrir is a vital place. They're going to miss watching the demonstrations. It's like taking us out of the heart of the action."
Next fall the American University in Cairo (AUC) will move from its campus near Tahrir Square, in the heart of downtown Cairo, to the suburb of New Cairo. "The move was a controversial issue," Ashraf El-Fiqi, AUC vice-president for student affairs, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Some people have an emotional attachment to the old campus place, but at the same time the campus was limiting our ability to attract new students."
While professors and students are debating whether the dusty and harrowing commute is worth trading for the cleaner air and open spaces of the new campuses, the local small businesses surrounding the old campus have a lot to lament.
To Amr Sayed, owner of a stationary store across from AUC's main gates, the move is an "enormous problem", since the nearly 5,600 AUC students who use his services make up 90 per cent of his business. "The move will devitalise the neighbourhood by removing a big source of income," Pascale Ghazaleh, assistant professor of history at AUC told the Weekly, explaining that the university has been part of the fabric of downtown Cairo. "Its move will change these blocks in a very visible way," she said.
On a parallel note, Ayman Mohamed, owner of one of the copy centres that supply course packets for many of AUC's professors and students, said he will be forced to change his business next year.
Though AUC is the latest campus to exit busy Cairo, the idea is certainly not novel. Over the last decade, several universities have built spacious new campuses in Sixth of October City and New Cairo. The German University, Modern Sciences and Arts University (MSA), Sixth of October and many others have now moved to new residential compounds bordering the desert.
"I have to set my alarm clock two hours earlier because of the commute," complained Alaa Khrais. "But I finally have room to breathe!" Khrais is a student at MSA, which completed its move from its Doqqi campus to a new one in Sixth of October City last semester.
With the increase in commute duration, transportation has become a pivotal issue. Although the buses run by MSA cover most of Cairo, many students complained of the high bus fees and its limited schedule. For its 6,500 students, MSA provides one bus in the morning and one in the afternoon for each geographical area. The MSA bus servicing the location of the old campus in Doqqi scoops sleepy students and professors up at 7:30am and returns between 5-6pm, depending on traffic. For the bus service, MSA students shell out LE2,800 on top of their tuition, which is on average around LE24,000 annually.
AUC is presently working out its own transportation system to bring students and professors out to the new campus. Some students who live in newly developed suburbs are thrilled about the move. "Avoiding traffic is heaven," said Sarah Rashdan, a junior at AUC, though she is still upset about the hefty parking fees that will be imposed by the university. The university's fees are already high, around LE38,000 for Egyptians per semester. Other students and professors are even moving homes to shorten commutes. Josh Middleman, a graduate student at the AUC, said he is moving from Zamalek to Maadi, "mainly to be closer to school".
"Decentralisation is very important," argued Ghazaleh. "There is a situation of over-urbanisation. The city cannot take any more." Ghazaleh, who teaches a course on Middle Eastern cities, said the university's move after nearly 90 years in the heart of downtown Cairo, makes sense from an urban planning perspective. "I teach in a classroom where we cannot hear ourselves speak over the sound of the traffic," she said. "That is not conducive to learning."
Extreme crowding at the downtown campus was the chief rationale behind the move. AUC's $400 million campus in the desert suburb of New Cairo, which will be ready for classes in September, covers 260 acres, compared to the current campus's footprint of less than nine acres.
Even Cairo's enormous public universities, such as Ain Shams and Cairo universities, are contemplating suburban development. The universities have been given land by the Egyptian government and are planning new development projects. Administrators at these universities have insisted, though, that they will not move from their existing campuses in Abbasia and Doqqi, but are rather establishing additional campuses.
Ain Shams University has plans to build an extension of its campus on land in Al-Obour City, which have been approved by the Ministry of Housing. "We will keep this campus, and we are not going to transport existing faculties," Atef El-Awam, vice-president for student affairs at Ain Shams University, told the Weekly. "The new campus will be an extension; we are planning to have new faculties. But these faculties will have small numbers of students. We are not going to have the same problem again," referring to overcrowding in Egypt's public universities.
According to the government's Information and Decision Support Centre, Egypt's information portal, the total number of enrolled college students in Egypt in academic year 2006- 07 reached 1,447,413, scattered among 18 public universities and 15 private ones. Out of this total, some 49,400 students are enrolled in the country's 15 private universities. The number of students in Ain Shams University reached over 172,100 during the same academic year.
Egypt's public universities do not themselves determine the number of students to enrol. Instead, the Supreme Council of Universities fixes the number of students each university must accept. El-Awam told the Weekly that the ideal enrolment of Ain Shams is 50,000 students. This year, he said, the university has approximately 190,000 students enrolled. El-Awam sees building an extension of the university outside of central Cairo as the first step for Ain Shams to provide higher quality education to a smaller number of students.
Ironically, some private universities in Egypt are moving to the suburbs for the exact opposite reason: they want more students. While the government sets a lower limit on the number of students public universities must accept, it sets an upper limit on how many students private universities are allowed to enrol. MSA University currently has around 6,500 students, but wants to grow the student body to 10,000. Afifi explained that each year a panel from the Ministry of Higher Education evaluates the university's facilities and staff and then determines the number of students the university is permitted to enrol. "The main reason we moved was that space was required for labs," he said.
The story is different for AUC. Ever since its establishment back in 1919, AUC's downtown campus was meant to be a temporary location. The university purchased land in the suburbs just two years after its establishment, yet failed to raise enough money to build a new campus, and eventually sold the land after 1967. Many at AUC see the move to New Cairo as the fulfilment of its longtime intentions. Though AUC is a private university, it is a non-profit institution, and its move out of Cairo "will open fresh opportunities to attract new faculty, to deepen learning and to increase our attractiveness to international students from the Middle East and around the world," said AUC University President David Arnold.
While AUC's new site has its technological and logistical advantages, there are undeniable downsides to uprooting the historical campus. "The move will be a radical change" Walid Kazziha, chair of AUC's Political Science Department, told the Weekly. "Students will be torn away from centres of cultural, political and intellectual activity." Middleman also asserted that the current location of AUC is vital to its connection to Cairo and Egypt. "The very act of moving away from that area in view of the Nile, the Saad Zaghloul statue, the Egyptian Museum, the Qasr Al-Nile Bridge with its lions and lights, away from the Mugamma and the Shura Council, away from government, all of this feels like a rejection of Egypt," he said.
Others are worried that the move to New Cairo will further isolate AUC students from Egyptian society. "Even being downtown, the university is in a social bubble," Middleman said. "When you physically separate it by taking it out of an area that encompasses all levels of society, you create an even more elitist environment. This will affect the type of people the AUC produces," he added. AUC Provost Tim Sullivan is worried about this downside too. "Now our rather privileged student body is reminded about Egypt's social and other problems. Out [on the new campus] there will be a certain amount of isolation. I hope we can retain that level of interest in the society; that sense of being in Egypt."
Not everyone views the move this way. "I don't see the move as an abandonment of Egypt at all," said El-Fiqi, noting that AUC will retain part of its downtown campus, including Ewart and Oriental Halls, where many public lectures and events are held. The School of Continuing Education, the Management Centre, and the Law Department will also remain on the old campus.
AUC maintains that it tried to incorporate traditional Egyptian, Arab and Islamic architectural components into the design of the new campus. For example, the façade of the new library is cloaked with a mashrabiya -like wooden screen. But it remains to be seen how the Western students, whose numbers on campus have more than tripled since 11 September 2001, will react to the move out of the heart of the city. "I wanted to go to school in the middle of Egypt's cultural capital," said Nadia Arginteanu, who is studying abroad at AUC this semester. Another American student said, "I probably would not have come to the AUC if I had known it was going to be out in New Cairo." While it has built dorms on the new campus, AUC will retain its Zamalek dorm, where many of the Western study-abroad students live.
While practical concerns, like costs for busing and parking, are worked out, students and professors are enjoying their last days in the downtown campus. "I have a sentimental attachment to this place," Kazziha said, sitting in his old office. "My air conditioner might not work and the rooms in the new campus will be advanced and functional, yes, but this place has character. I'm going to miss it."

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