John Casson, Ambassador of the United Kingdom to Egypt, is renowned for seeking to build on historical links between the two countries, while focusing with particular enthusiasm upon affording opportunities to young Egyptians. He talks to Law Today about the importance of education in ensuring that people, entities and communities are able to respond to the demands of a rapidly-changing global business environment.
LT: You are a prominent advocate for a strong and robust education system and, during your tenure, initiatives between the UK and Egypt focusing on education and training have proliferated, with a consistent emphasis on partnership and collaboration. How does this concept of partnership, which is so important in terms of creating shared goals and values, translate into practical cooperation?
HMA: Education is a really good example of how modern diplomacy works, in a way that is perhaps a bit different from how people imagine that it works. We have a lot of government work and embassy activity, but the partnership between Britain and Egypt runs deeper than purely what the embassy or the Ambassador can know about. On any given day, there are hundreds – thousands – of Brits and Egyptians doing business together, studying together, falling in love, going on holiday…collaborating in every imaginable way. The great strength of the relationship between Britain and Egypt is that it’s so deep, wide and diverse.
So there are three main ways in which this partnership works.
At the top of the iceberg, there is formal government-to-government activity. The MoU signed by our two governments provides a framework for universities to have the confidence to undertake all manner of activities. Sometimes the governments stay very involved in these university partnerships. We’ve been involved in making introductions and, in particular, explaining the Egyptian context to British universities, attending some of the meetings between stakeholders, seeing when there is an opportunity and helping it take shape. Where this works best is in helping Egypt to create a policy framework for education to flourish.
We have a longstanding relationship with the Supreme Council of Universities, which enables us to learn from one another about what global best practice looks like. We also do a lot of work with the Minister of Education, helping to secure technical assistance to the Ministry.
The second layer of the partnership is where the embassy is less directly involved, but where an Ambassador often has the most fun. The great thing about being Ambassador is that you can knock on almost any door and people will talk to you. So we use that convening power to spark partnerships – whether between two universities, university delegations, NGOs, technical experts, or any number of other entities – and bring them to life. We’ve introduced some of the really exciting Egyptian social enterprises working in the education space, like Nafham and Educate Me, to the British Council. We can use the access we have to foster those contacts so that great ideas spark.
The bottom of the iceberg is where many exciting things happen. There is a fantastic partnership between New Giza University, King’s College London and UCL, which was driven by those institutions themselves. They only came to me at the end, to tell me about what they had achieved. I love that – knowing that there’s such strength to the relationship that it is continually producing good things. It has a deep organic life.
LT: People are drawn to and inspired by your personal commitment to educational outreach and your engagement with, in particular, young Egyptians thirsty for knowledge. Would you be able to pinpoint where your passion for supporting this kind of collective education began and what has kept it so strong?
HMA: There’s an element of the head and an element of the heart. By far the most powerful thing is the heart. The more I have seen of Egypt, the more I realise that its life and potential will not be realised exclusively through traditional diplomatic channels. The future of the country lies in whether we can unleash the potential of young people. And the more you meet young Egyptians, whether in education or anywhere else, the more you feel their energy, their talent and aspirations. People at large often focus on Egypt’s challenges but when you encounter the reality of the Egyptian people, it’s impossible to be anything other than optimistic. I find myself constantly energised and inspired by the people I meet, who have given me a much deeper, richer, more hopeful vision for Egypt.
As well as the work we are doing in education, we’ve created an initiative called Inspire Egypt, which is based on this idea and principle. We want to find these people, listen to them, learn from them, rally them, celebrate them and introduce them to other brilliant people, whether Egyptian or British. This has gathered a momentum of its own and I hope it can inspire Egyptians to see what their country is capable of becoming. So the level of the heart is very much centred on meeting and working with young people.
At the level of the head, my job is to think strategically about the relationship between Britain and Egypt and how we can make a strategic impact here, as a country. We want to support Egypt to find the path that is best for it, so I’m looking to understand how Britain can help Egypt succeed – and by that, I don’t mean short-term success. Clearly, Egypt has a long-term history and long-term challenges for the future, so we its partners need to ask ourselves the question – where does Egypt want to be in twenty years’ time? How do we help ensure that it’s more prosperous, more stable, better able to defeat terrorism and extremism?
With virtually any question you pose, your answer is education. If we want an economy that gets the best out of people, where the population has the necessary skills, where jobs have been created and opportunities can be seized, we need good education. If we want politics to work well and institutions to be full of people who can face challenges and operate with accountability, we have to educate them to be good citizens. If we want to defeat extremism and hatred, education is the answer. All the aspirations Egyptians have for their country, which we want to support, take you back to education.
There was actually a defining moment for me, in the autumn of 2015, where a friend who used to be my boss asked me ‘If you could choose just one thing that you want the British government to really put its heart and soul into, to support Egypt and get it where it needs to be, what would you choose?’. He challenged me to write my answer in two pages. As soon as I started thinking, looking at the relevant data, it was obvious that education was the big thing that needs our focus.
Egypt has a moment of opportunity, with a new government and a new Education Minister who sees things in very similar terms. I know that if we don’t invest now, in twenty years we will regret it. So that’s the strategic – head – side of the question.
The other thing I realised when I started talking with Egyptian education experts is that there is so much more potential than is widely realised or acknowledged. Often when you talk to the general public, they are quite pessimistic about the education system and they don’t believe it can change. But when you start reading about education and talking to experts both within and outside Egypt, you realise that the challenges here are neither insurmountable nor unique to this country. There have been enough people trying things, seeing what succeeds and what fails, for us to know a considerable amount about what is needed to turn things around. The reason I think we have a golden opportunity now is that we have a leadership that understands this. The sense that people don’t need to be pessimistic or give up, that there are solutions for education challenges, is the other thing that makes me feel really passionate about this issue.
LT: 2016 was the British-Egyptian Year of Research, Innovation and Education. What do you feel was the impact of the initiatives that started or grew during this year on Egypt’s overall education climate?
HMA: For me, the idea of having “a year” that particularly focuses on education is about switching on the awareness of both Brits and Egyptians to this potential in education we have talked about, to the fact that this matters, and to the need for a comprehensive and innovative approach as part of convening this “coalition of change”. Egypt is hungry for education and looks to Britain as a partner. We both have historic systems: Al-Azhar University is even older than Oxford and Cambridge, and both countries have had school systems for well over one hundred years, both of which need modernising so that our young people are equipped for the 21st Century. We have a lot in common.
Throughout 2016 I think we saw people’s awareness growing and we stimulated it with some flagship British initiatives. So, for example, we had a big expansion of our traditional scholarship programs. Newton-Mosharafa, a British-Egyptian initiative that focuses on providing access to science education, is a £50 million program (over 1 billion EGP) currently supporting 128 Egyptians to undertake science PhDs. The Chevening Scholarship program, focused on providing Master’s level educational opportunities, has also expanded, with a 249% increase in the budget, equivalent to £1.4 million, in the last four years. Last year we broke the world record, here in Egypt, for the number of Chevening applicants.
The new Minister of Higher Education is focused on Newton-Mosharafa. Two weeks ago, we were with him in the UK, collectively asking how we could take the knowledge of a university and transfer it to the economy. Around Cambridge we are trying to create a hub of high-tech industries, feeding off the Cambridge science space. Now we want to see together how Egypt could do something similar, taking young minds and helping them turn their inventions into entrepreneurial ideas and businesses.
Building on these concrete initiatives and awareness-raising, we were fortunate to have perfect timing. We found a window of opportunity, partly because the country had a moment of breathing space after many difficult, turbulent years, and had the chance to think about the long-term developmental issue of school reform. Then this was given expression as the year came to an end, with the cabinet reshuffle that put new ministers in at the beginning of this year. So it was the perfect culmination of all the work we had been doing to bring together champions of this initiative and get them on the same page, with international partners like the World Bank.
LT: It is clear that a good education (including knowledge, skills acquisition and critical thought) is absolutely key to developing an effective and empowered workforce and therefore crucial in the economic development of any country. Within the context of the Egyptian government’s current focus on enacting policy reforms pertaining to investment, to stimulate economic growth, are there also specific education reforms that could happen that would contribute to the same broad goal?
HMA: The quality of the workforce, and with that the education that goes into them, is very important for investors and for the overall competitiveness of the Egyptian economy. There’s already some good news in this regard. If you talk to a company like Vodafone, a British company that is the biggest payer of corporation tax in Egypt, they will talk about the talent of the young people they can recruit here. I’ve visited their call centre in Alexandria, which handles calls from around Europe; the people are energised, engaged, talented and multilingual.
But there’s still further to go; if you look at the macroeconomic data, some of Egypt’s competitors have more productive workforces at the moment because their education system is a bit further down the road, so that’s the gap we need to fill.
There are two specific areas in which we need to do this:
Firstly, we need to provide hard, technical, vocational education: specific skills for specific purposes. The government has a role to play, through establishing vocational colleges and different routes to skills acquisition, but the private sector also has to do more to define what it needs and to equip its workforce. Vodafone is a great example of a company that is fostering Egyptian leadership, as is Samcrete, which is trying to build an industrial base by creating training centres for people to learn engineering, carpentry and other core skills.
Secondly, we need to empower people to be able to keep learning throughout their lives. This is about having the ability to think critically, to manage yourself, manage difficult relationships, manage conflict, to turn up on time, to make an argument, to listen to someone else’s argument. These skills are very important for the economy, especially given the pace of change. This is why I believe that there is one particular reform that needs to sit alongside the purely economic measures currently being taken and that is broad school reform, moving away from a world where people just memorise things to one where they are taught to think for themselves and access knowledge for themselves, to discuss both sides of a difficult issue themselves. We know what the DNA of successful school reform is, around the world. It’s about training teachers and ensuring they feel valued, about defining your outcomes and then measuring them. It’s about focusing on early childhood education and about creating a comprehensive sense of responsibility and accountability for learning. This is what we’re seeing in the Egyptian school reform program that is currently being laid out, so our job now is implementation. This is a hard, big, long-term job – but we all know it’s what we have to do.
LT: I would like to ask about a specific program, led by the British Embassy in partnership with other core entities: the Al-Azhar-UK scholarship scheme. Could you give us a little more information on this initiative and outline where and how you see it developing in the coming months and years?
HMA: Britain has a long-standing relationship and close partnership with Al-Azhar, going back ten years. There is an English language training centre, run in partnership with the British Council, inside Al-Azhar.
Naturally, when I was newly appointed as Ambassador, I went to pay a courtesy call and introduce myself to the Grand Imam, Sheikh of Al-Azhar. He told me that he had a dream to see the very best graduates, the future leaders, of Al-Azhar studying alongside the very best theological and religious minds at British universities. And I’m the kind of person who likes a challenge. Holding a postgraduate degree in theology myself, I immediately saw the value of the idea and I had lots of contacts within that world at British universities, so I was determined that we would make it a reality.
Over the course of a year, we got the universities on board and found some extremely generous partners to fund the initiative – mainly Egyptian entities, including the CIB Foundation, the PICO Group and the Mansour Foundation. I think what appeals to everybody – Brits and Egyptians – is the sense of restoring Al-Azhar as the centre of renewed, strong, positive religious voices. We want to make sure that the future leaders of Al-Azhar have access to the very best learning and to the experience of living in another country. Meanwhile for future leaders in the UK, of every religion, it will be very valuable for them to spend three or four years studying alongside these brilliant Egyptian minds.
In the first year, we didn’t know how everything would turn out but we brought three very high-powered academics from British universities to interview the Al-Azhar graduates and they were extremely impressed by their talent and quality. We selected three candidates and this gave us the confidence to keep going. I’m certain that every year we will find excellent candidates, which is what has happened again in 2017, and now we are recruiting for the 2018 scholarships.
With this encouraging progress, we’re now asking how else we can make their time in the UK really count. So when the Sheikh of Al-Azhar comes to London next year for his annual dialogue with the Archbishop of Canterbury, we’re hoping these scholars become involved in a wider conversation related to that dialogue. We intend to create other forums for them to foster deep relationships with emerging British leaders. That’s our long-term goal.
LT: Finally, Egypt’s corporate legal system works with businesspeople and the government to try to improve the country’s business climate and this relationship between lawyers, businesspeople and the government is crucial to driving such development forward. Do you think there are also ways in which the legal community could better support the development of a continually strengthening educational environment?
HMA: I’m sure there are many ways, but truthfully I have to say that I would love to hear the perspectives of the legal community, in terms of understanding what amongst the things I am saying resonates with them. I had three main thoughts on this subject:
1) There’s a general role for them as educated citizens of this country, with access to opportunities and the power that comes with that. I would encourage them to push the concept that education really matters and that Egypt can have a world-class education system. We need to set the vision and support each other.
2) As leaders within the community, they have an opportunity to lead outside the purely corporate world. I know prominent lawyers who are on the boards of schools and on the boards of some of the amazing new initiatives being started up by entrepreneurial thinkers, examining how we test new ideas and offer them up to the Egyptian government system. There is much scope to get involved in this flowering of initiatives: everyone needs legal advice, brains and philanthropy.
3) There’s obviously a very big overlap between law and policy. So whether it’s through working with parliament, providing advice and suggestions to the Ministry of Education or the trade bodies, or through contributing to AmCham policy papers, we need legal minds to keep coming together to produce high-quality regulations, legal frameworks and policy ideas. We are all hungry for good ideas and good policy in government, so if these are offered to us we will definitely make use of them.