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CAIRO (Reuters) - Sawsan Gomaa, 18, thought memorizing vocabulary and grammar from the ministry textbook would be enough to ace Egypt's yearly national language exam for high school graduates, the main gateway to university.
After all, that's how everyone did it.
But this year's exam took her by surprise, requiring tough translations and idiomatic phrases not taught in class. She was caught out by what experts say are disjointed education reforms that have changed exams but not teaching methods.
"These questions were definitely not from the curriculum we studied," a tearful Gomaa said.
Egypt's secondary education needs an overhaul, teachers and employers say. High school teaching, based mostly on rote, does not give students practical skills, leaving them unprepared for college and hindering their transition to the workplace.
If the Arab world's most populous country is to extend a run of economic growth, now edging back to 6 percent a year, the roughly 300,000 university graduates churned out annually must be better prepared.
"Improving the quality of education is the number one factor that needs immediate attention. There is a unified call in Egypt for improving primary and secondary education to prepare people for the workforce," said Angus Blair, head of research at investment bank Beltone Financial.
Overcrowded classrooms, poor attendance and a lack of good libraries or office space for teachers are problems that run through the system from the earliest years to final classes. Facilities like computers and science labs are often rundown if they exist at all in state schools.
Frustrated parents scrimp and save to pay for private tutorials. Teachers, who usually earn no more than 1,600 Egyptian pounds ($281) a month, often rely on that extra income.
The government admits problems but says it will take time.
"School textbooks really need to be updated. There are many problems in education and we are putting in place plans to gradually resolve them. But we cannot solve these problems overnight," Education Minister Ahmed Zaki Badr told a parliament committee, the official news agency reported.
Nawal Saadawi, a government critic who has drawn threats from Islamists for her views in the past, says religious dogma had permeated some schools in Egypt, where she said the beliefs of conservative-minded teachers can seep into the curriculum.
Religion has a modest place in the school timetable. Parents and teachers say the curriculum covers maths, science and other core subjects but these are based on facts to learn not problems to solve. Memorization has long been the key to final school exams that determine what a student can study at university.
"National exams in Egypt are based on specific lessons taken from textbooks in the last two years of high school. SATs, however, test the student's ability to draw inferences and think critically," Laila Iskandar, an education consultant, said.
Deviations in exam questions from expected memorized material can ignite panic among students.
In June, local media reported scenes of hysteria as students like Gomaa emerged from exam centers in disbelief. In an effort at reform, the Education Ministry had inserted new questions aimed at pushing students to think beyond memorized material.
Girls fainted in their mothers' arms while outraged fathers screamed and hurled insults at examiners. One newspaper said ambulances were called in to treat traumatized students.
Asking more challenging questions may be an essential part of reforms, but instructors say it is pointless adding them unless methods are reformed first.
"For decades now, the student's way to success has been memorizing material that will ensure passing the exam. No thinking is required, just commitment to a set of rules," said Refaat Ibrahim, a high school teacher in Alexandria.
"Suddenly, these students must think creatively. Of course they will fail."
The picture does not improve once students get to university, where they face overcrowded lectures, underpaid professors and outdated textbooks.
So when they enter the workforce, they don't have the skills for jobs in banking or technology, the kind of fields where Egypt is seeking to become a regional power center.
The United Nations Development Program's (UNDP) 2010 Human Development Report highlighted the weaknesses in university education, saying more than 40 percent of employers ranked graduates' ability to apply their knowledge to work as "poor."
The UNDP report said at least 90 percent of Egypt's unemployed were under 30, saying this was "high by any measure." Many youth resorted to the informal market indicating the mismatch between education and labor market needs, it added.
Indicating weaknesses in the system, Egypt had no universities in the 2010 Academic Ranking of World Universities, a ranking of the top 500 institutions. In rival markets, South Africa had three, Saudi Arabia had two and Turkey had one.
Cairo University was in the bottom fifth of the list in 2007 but was bumped out the next year. It has not reappeared since.
"Compare new graduates in Egypt to their counterparts, say, in Pakistan, and you'll find the latter are way ahead on capacities to use technology and critical thinking skills in higher-skilled jobs," Simon Kitchen, an economist at investment bank EFG-Hermes, said.
Many international companies in Egypt pay for training programs to teach university graduates technical and language abilities they say should have been learned in college or that they must pay a premium to secure qualified recruits.
The government is trying to narrow the gap, including a $10-12 million program set up by the Information Technology Industry Development Agency (ITIDA) in 2008 to teach university students English, Microsoft software and other skills.
The EduEgypt program trained 3,000 students in its first year, and aims to train 40,000 graduates per year by 2011, according to information from ITIDA, a Communications Ministry body set up to promote and nurture Egypt's offshoring industry.
EduEgypt is due to be replaced within a few years by a broader program that includes curriculum developed by IBM and other firms. Oracle and Microsoft have also been involved in helping develop education programs.
Still, the current pool of trainees who benefit from such programs is small compared to the hundreds of thousands graduates each year, leaving most scrambling to catch up.
($1=5.702 Egyptian Pound)
Editing by Edmund Blair and Samia Nakhoul