Rector of Sana’a University Dr. Naser Al-Awlaqi to te Yemen Times, “Sana’a University will be the first Arab university in which all staff members have their own PCs and are connected through a network” [Archives:2003/639/Culture]
Born in Shabowa, 1946 Dr. Naser Al-Awlaqi progressed through life, achieving one success after another. He graduated from high-school in Aden then availed his first degree in Agricultural Economics from New Mexico University in 1969. He got his master degree from the same university in the same field in 1971.
Dr. Al-Awlaqi completed his PhD from Nebraska University in USA and worked hence between 1975 and 1977 as an Assistant Professor at Minnesota University. When he returned to Yemen, he was the first specialized Yemeni to work in faculty of economics at the university in 1978, where he remained until 1980 and became an Associate Professor and the Associate Dean of faculty of Business and Economics. In 1982 he became dean of faculty of economics and in 1984 he became founding dean of faculty of agriculture. Dr. Al-Awlaqi was selected as Minister of Agriculture in 1988 and in 1993 he became vice rector of Sana'a University. In 1996 he was the first president of Ibb University and in 2001 the rector of Sana'a University and in 2003 he became rector of the University again. Nadia Al-Saqqaf from the Yemen Times met with Dr. Al-Awlaqi and filled in this interview;
Q: How do you evaluate the level and situation of university and higher education in Yemen? And is there hope of granting masters and PhD degrees in the main disciplines?
A: Higher education is essential for any country's development, since we spend so much money on our students who are sent to study abroad. But unfortunately I must admit that the situation here in Yemen is quite bad. Although we are trying to enhance the situation further but it's not easy, especially with the very limited resources that we have got. In Sana'a University alone we have 160 different departments; we only have masters' degree in a few, such as chemistry, physics, in environmental engineering and many soft fields.
We have in Yemen 15 universities out of which 7 are governmental. Only Sana'a and Aden Universities provide post graduate courses. As for university level we have 215,000 students and this is a big improvement considering numbers, but the quality of education is not so good. Reason being lack of resources; we don't have enough financial resources to provide good higher education. Especially with the current situation where we have to accommodate many returning master and PhD students from Iraq.
What we are hoping to do is to enlarge the graduate program in order to accommodate the Yemeni students coming from Iraq as a consequence of the crises that took place there. We have around 500 students alone in Sana'a University who due to the war in Iraq had to cut their programs short, and we have to attend to them and help them complete their degrees here. So there is a lot of tension and efforts in order to provide the adequate schooling for the students so that their career is not lost. And that is really a big problem. We try to get professors from outside the university to help the Yemeni cadre in supervising those maters and PhD students.
Q: Doesn't the government know about the financial requirements of the university? How does the government influence the policies and strategies of the university, and what is the relation between the council of higher education and the university?
A: Most of the finances of the university come from the government; we don't get tuition fees from the students to help us in our programs. So the budget is basically government's budget and we have problems with the ministry of finance regarding this issue. We don't have for example any financial allocation for scientific research; until now the allocated budget is for the teaching programs.
The Higher Council for Universities headed by the prime minister consists of minister of finance, minister of planning and development, minister of civil services and minister of education along with representatives of the all the universities and others. This council is a planning institute, and meets on regular basis and decides the budget, the strategies, entrance and registration procedures and the number of admitted students for every year. Unfortunately, there aren't any basic researches or studies upon which sort and number of students to be admitted. So far we are relying on experience and what we view as important steps. The government does the same.
Every university presents a number of proposals and plans that it wishes to achieve in that year and these are discussed at the councils meetings. Then the results are forwarded to the government which includes whatever it approves in its 5-year plan. We have put the financial problem in this council for discussion and we raised the budget issue there. We hope to get enough finance to support the higher education and to improve the level of education.
Q: So this means that the main obstacle that the university is facing is providing resources to your students? How do you tackle them?
A: We raised the issue to the Higher Council of Universities and the ministry of finance and expressed our complains, we have presented proposals that include building new premises for the language and information and the dentistry faculties. We also proposed establishment of a main conference hall that would accommodate thousands of students at the new university site this hall alone would cost more than 3 billion YR. This is all proposed to be included in the 5 year plan of the new government. What actually is approved and implemented is yet to be seen when the government decides its plan.
Another obstacle that we encounter when trying to improve the level of education is the students themselves. Many of the students already have a job outside the university so they hardly attend any classes. Students depend on their personal efforts in many of the colleges. True that they are generally forced by the hard living circumstances to work before graduating but this comes on account of their studies so they don't do well.
Q: What are the plans and hopes that you have for the coming years in order to improve the situation and develop the university?
A: Our most stressing aim currently is to accommodate the students who have come from Iraq, because 90% of the students have come to Sana'a University.
We are greatly dependant on the allocated budget. So many hopes and plans remain as ambitions until resources are available. But what we hope for this time is along with the mentioned new premises; we want to organize summer orientation programs for the new students in order to achieve two aims; firstly through this scheme students would be made aware of the various faculties and prospective and secondly through the orientation programs we'd be able to steer the students desires to an extent to join one college or another, in a way of balancing schemes. These orientation programs used to be conducted by the student unions in the pervious years, now we wish in cooperation with them of course that the orientation programs are conducted by the university.
We also are planning and hoping to subsidize books and lecture material for the students in the universities so as to provide financial support for the students. This way perhaps they would need to work outside less and perhaps focus on their studies. More over this will support poor students and help them complete their education.
The latest development was 1000 personal computers were provided by president Ali Abdullah Saleh to the staff at the university as a donation to the university. And to connect those computers through a network so that at any point any staff member could connect through the wide area network and retrieve any information. This way Sana'a University will be the first Arab University in which all staff members have their own PCs and are connected through a network.
Q: What about extra curricular activities for students?
A: There are several extra curricular activities especially those concerned with competitions and debates and some sports. Yes I admit that compared to the rest of the world perhaps the students here are in disadvantage, but we are doing our best with the limited resources we have. Last week at the department of English, I attended an English debate competition at the college of Arts and I was duly impressed with the level of students and their debates. Also we have regular sports competitions and contests. In every college there is a sports center or a ground field for basket ball or other sports.
We also send around 40 students every year to Arab countries for a three weeks to one and half months visit so that they get acquainted with the life and education else where. But you must remember that we have more than 90,000 and just an 8 million USD budget. If we were to avail better resources we would have done much more for our students like for example invest in the scientific research and development section and scientific experimentation and laboratories.
Q: Does the university attend to the markets needs in quality and assortment of students? And who decides the number of admitted students in every college?
A: We lack resources and that is why we are not able to do all that we aspire. There is a limited number of seats provided in every university each year. And according to those seats the admission takes place. The availability of seats is the only criteria in the assortment of graduates that is there at this stage. We would love to dedicate the required seats to the needs of the country but neither do we have sufficient equipment and lecture halls nor do we have the needed number of teachers. One of the main problems we suffer from is that there is no attention whatsoever to research and development, the ministry of finance only allocates in our budget what is sufficient for teaching expenses, such as salaries and the like.
The problem with us is the number of students that we have to accommodate, we are pressurized a lot to accept many students, and thus the level of instruction deteriorates. Actually this is why we raised the percentages every year.
Q: Private Universities, do they pose as a threat to the government university? And why do you think the level of education there does not live up to the standards?
A: Private or public universities have turned up as a natural consequence of the need for education. The demand was more than the available offers so it was a situation where other than the government university would appear, now we have 8 of them. We at Sana'a university can not accommodate all the high school graduates moreover we require certain grades and percentages for admittance. So the surplus of those graduates is forced to turn to private universities. The problem with the private universities however, is that they started with so many education programs without having the needed infrastructure for them, such as laboratories and devises. They stretched themselves too thin. For example they provide such critical disciplines such as medicine and engineering without having sufficient staff or enough experience in handling such hard studies. Many of those universities depend on the teachers at the government universities to work as part-time teachers for them.
Some of those universities improved with time like the Science and Technology University, these have reasonable programs, but others are still lagging behind and this reflects on the quality of students. In general higher education in Yemen needs a lot of improving.
Q: Students complain that the materials recommended for them are inadequate and that they are highly priced and reach them late, what do you have to say about that? Should there be any supervision on that?
A: There is no supervision on the type and costing of the materials by the university administration. Teachers without the University's interference decide the material and the prices of their books if they were to provide them for the students as course books. However, we do have a monitoring committee that is composed by teachers of each department must agree to the content of material set forth for the students. Before any teacher can suggest his or her books to the students the teacher has to avail an agreement from the department to approve the material suggested. Unfortunately this is not implemented in many colleges, but we are going to enforce this from now-on on all departments. As for the pricing it remains an issue particular to the teacher, yet any way we hope that with the financial support we are planning to provide to the students that the prices of these materials is not so high. Actually comparing the prices of the books in Sana'a University to any other around the world you would notice that they are provided quite cheap, perhaps the relatively expensive ones are those at college of medicine or so on.
Q: Students at the faculty of dentistry are complaining that they are deprived of a summer training course that was given to them, and that their dean is not a dentist and hence does not understand their technical problems, any comment?
A: Yes it is true that the dean of the dental college is not a dentist but a doctor, yet he is a good administrator. But in any case this is a temporary measure and we are looking into this case. As for the summer course, this was provided to the previous batch because they were short of certain practical programs and we had to cover this in the summer. Students this year have completed their course in time and have done all their decided practical training during the year, this is why the summer training was not repeated again.