Education in Yemen: To Be or Not To Be [Archives:1999/20/Focus]

May 17 1999

This is an OPINION page. 
Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue!  

Mohamed Hatem Al-Qadhi, 
Taiz Bureau Editor, Yemen Times. 
It is common knowledge that education and development go hand in hand. Education is a main factor in the development process. Any progress in society is attributed to the skills and abilities of the people. These generally depend on the kind of education they get. 
This reality explains why education claims the largest budgetary allocation in most countries. It also explains why families insist on giving their children the best education they can. It finally explains why education in most societies is provided free to all. 
In other words, education is an investment. 
In Yemen we cannot deny that we have made some laudable strides in the field of education after the Yemeni revolution. But, we should say that our educational process is now facing a large number of ordeals and pitfalls, which I want to discuss. 
Low Competence: 
It is obvious that the performance of most of the students is very low right now. The competence of the students is continuously dropping, since they suffer under many shortcomings in the educational system. But the most important problem must be the performance of teachers. 
Owing to economic hardships, teachers are not giving the students their best. They feel that if they rely on the government salary only, they will not be able to make ends meet. Hence, they are busy with other jobs. Some work as shift cabbis – taxi drivers; some do part-time office work, some even do menial labor. In short, the students don’t get their full attention. 
Teachers are now beginning to lose their respect within the community. 
Curriculum & Syllabus: 
Another menace facing education in Yemen is the curriculum or syllabus. Curricula are defined by the government to achieve long-term, vital goals of the nation. Books and teaching aids are the tools to use in reaching those goals. 
Therefore, we should ask the people in charge of education whether the current curricula will take us to our goals. I am not an expert in curricula, but as a person who has taught English for some time, I feel that some of the subjects taught in schools are archaic and outdated. They cannot be useful to our students living in the era of the computer, internet, and intranet. The volume of science courses is too small in comparison with the theoretical courses. Besides, there is hardly any hands-on training and experiments. 
In most countries, there is a periodic review of the curricula in order to upgrade the information the students receive. In Yemen, this is lacking. That is why some of the things taught in our classes are rather funny, if not absurd. 
Even if the syllabus is good, the teaching aids going with it are not available. Let us take an example. The English Crescent series is provided with good recorded songs and dialogues that could make learning very exciting. Unfortunately, the tapes and recorders are not available in schools. Conditions in schools in the countryside are even more pathetic. Over 120 students cuddle up to each other in each small classroom, and often must sit on the ground. 
Sometimes, the people in charge of restructuring educational plans and amend syllabuses are not among the most capable educators persons. The committee appointed by a republican decree a few weeks ago was largely composed of people who are qualified in religious matters rather than in education. The people included in the list were those who made the most noise, but not those who were the most qualified. 
Unified Educational System: 
Another nagging problem is the issue of unifying the educational system. There are still two educational systems today. The first is controlled by the government, and the other by the Islah Party. In spite of heated debates regarding the issue of unifying the school systems, nothing has been done. Politics is standing in the way. 
Education should serve the development process, and not the political interests of parties. The question of unifying educational systems should be the main concern of the government, whatever its political colors. The existence of two educational systems in one country will lead to different results among many of the children. It means having two generations of different beliefs, attitudes, and tendencies towards national issues. It creates a chasm between our students. 
Private Education: 
Private education has spread remarkably in the last few years due to the privatization drive. In theory, this is a good thing, as the state has been unable to provide high quality education to all. 
In practice, however, some businessmen have found they can make a lot of money by investing in private schools. Unfortunately, given the lapse in adequate supervision, these “investors” have cut too many corners in the way they manage their investments. So, some flats were converted into schools. The children of rich families also discovered that “money talks” even in schools. Thus, certificates have become available on sale! 
There are already 300 private schools all over the country today, mostly in the large cities. The Ministry of Education claims it has licensed less than 30% of this number. Yet, they are all in operation. 
In the continued absence of the supervision of the Ministry of Education, private schools will exacerbate an already bad educational situation. Privatization should not mean chaos, especially not in education, which is the lifeline of our future. 
To add insult to injury, we now have private universities which offer BA, B.Sc., MA, M.Eng. M.Sc.and other degrees. We have 7 private universities and preparations for establishing another in Lahej are in full swing. But can these be labeled as true universities? 
Some investors rented flats and buildings and converted them into universities. Just pay a visit to Al-Rabat Street in Sanaa, you can find three universities on this small street. These investors have also come up with ingenious new ideas. Students who are busy with some other business, can just pay the tuition, and come at the end of the term/year to take the exam. They are basically assured of success. And because the government is oblivious to the long term impact, it is very easy for a person to “BUY” a license to establish a university. 
I was once discussing this issue with a rector of one of our new universities. He told me that he is not satisfied with the situation of the undergraduate education, let alone the higher study. He said that he was against the idea of establishing universities all over the country. Even the large state universities in Sanaa, Taiz and Aden, are lacking in many of the proper facilities. They do not offer appropriate academic services, especially not in research and laboratory work. 
Yemeni universities focus on humanities and theoretical studies. Enrollment in the hard sciences in the academic year 1997-1998 was estimated at 16% of the total university student body. 
Are we aware of the fact that only vocational and technical education can generate the skills our country needs? Are we aware that there are thousands of university graduates who are unemployed today because they do not have employable skills? 
I once read a fine article in the “Focus” page of the Yemen Times, issue 14 by an American expert, Bob Sherman. He noted that Yemen would be better off if it applied a “community college” approach. 
University Curriculum 
The question of university curricula is another pitfall facing university education. It is clear that there are no strategic or long-term plans for post-graduate education. Everything moves erratically. University education is different from that of schools, for the former depends mainly on researching and referencing. Universities are places for discussing issues. This is why university education becomes the principal factor of development. 
Due to the lack of reference materials, some teachers either copy from books or summarize books into hand-outs. It is unfortunate to find that some teachers engage their students in memorizing their hand-outs, and require them to reproduce them on exam sheets. 
Students’ lives now revolve around their hand-outs. Imagine, some students spend more than four years in college without even having stepped into the library. In this way we produce parrots rather than scholars who can repay their nation. 
Examination-oriented syllabuses make students receptive rather than interactive. 
There is a workshop on curricula planned for 18-19 of May at Taiz University. I hope this gathering will address this issue fully. 
The question of university curricula is very important. It must be undertaken by educators who have experience in this field. It is not wrong to fallback on the experience of others, but I believe indigenous solutions are necessary. 
Let me give an example. The government adopted the idea of establishing institutes for teacher training from Jordan. That is fine. But, letting Jordanian educators work out the syllabus for these institutes in Yemen is not fine. Why? Because these people do not understand our educational situation well enough. This makes our syllabus a carbon copy of the Jordanian one, which does not serve us well. 
I believe Yemen has enough educational experts who, if given a chance, could work miracles for our educational system. But, may be because everything is measured by political considerations, fools have become scholars. 
To conclude, the question of education should be given top priority by the government and the public, because it is our ticket to the future!