So You Have a Degree? [Archives:1998/32/Focus]

August 10 1998

This is an OPINION page.
Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue!
Dr. Murad Ahmed Ali, Ph.D.
Industrial Electronics,
Kiev University, Ukraine
To discuss the ordeal of Yemeni degree holders sounds like a funny story. University graduates, post-graduates and educated people generally now find themselves unable to find jobs, and thus unable to feed themselves. It is a tragedy that gets sadder and sadder with time.
The Educational System:
The educational system in more advanced countries differs markedly from the Yemeni system. There, the system inches gradually towards abolishing class divisions. People realize that progress can only come through closely associating science with work. Therefore, their school curricula concentrate more on applied sciences that are more in tune with everyday life’s requirements.
Such a system is able to give the students a bigger opportunity to put what he or she studied into practical use. On the other hand, the educational system in Yemen, tends to rely on theoretical studies. In primary education, a pupil is made to cram in a lot of information in science, literature and religion.
At the end of the first year in secondary education, a student can choose one of four fields: science, arts, commerce or vocational curricula, the last two being more work-oriented. At this stage, a societal bias for degrees pushes the majority of students into the regular secondary system.
The Bottleneck:
Once a student completes secondary education, there is another nightmare. It seems that the future of the student in terms of continuing university education depends on the grades on the last secondary year. The system relies heavily on the grades of the final secondary-school year to determine a student’s eligibility to go into this or that college.
Secondary-school graduates of the scientific section generally have a greater choice. They can enroll in any college at Sanaa University, provided they have the required final grades. Graduates of the literary section have a lesser choice: commerce, Sharia, arts, education, and similar disciplines. Commerce students, on the other hand, have only one choice – college of commerce. The unfortunate are graduates of vocational secondary schools. They are not allowed to proceed to university level, no matter how brilliant they are.
In order to go to their choice of college at the university – and better still, in order to qualify for scholarships to study abroad, students resort to cramming information from text books. Thus, the secondary school leaving certificate becomes a determining factor in the future of our students.
Studying Abroad:
It used to be easier to get a scholarship to study abroad. Even the conditions and education bureaucratic procedures were simpler. Nowadays, the story is different.
If you are lucky and got one of those scholarships, you are shielded from the complications of Yemen, for a few years. Actually that is not completely correct, as many students have to worry whether their scholarship money will arrive in time, or at all. But still, you are away, and that is a blessing. Yet, it is not without its troubles.
Students going abroad, especially to non-Arabic and non-Islamic countries, find it difficult to adapt to the social rules, morals and standards of a completely alien society. Cultural and religious differences can mostly cause deep psychological struggle within a student from Yemen or any other eastern culture.
Many get accustomed to the more permissive way of life. Many others, however, shield themselves and successfully continue their studies, overcoming all sorts of emotional and material obstacles on the way.
Finally it is done!
You Have a Degree, So What?
Now you have come back to Yemen. A proud young man or woman, and you think the President of the Republic should come to receive you at the airport. Well, he did not come, but still, that is okay.
Then you go around to explain your achievements, meaning the degree you got. At first, people listen politely, then you get wicked smiles. Finally, one day someone tells you to shush. They want to talk about the latest political gossip. You are shocked that not many people are taking your degree seriously.
Well, there is a bigger shock. You can’t get a job. Imagine in a poor and backward country, and you with your university, or post university can’t get a job.
Your ambitions start to crumble. First, you had wanted some important job, then a lesser one, and a lesser one. Finally, you would settle for anything that will generate income, but it isn’t there. You don’t believe me, just go out there and ask.
You know why?
Because this system in Yemen today does not respect hard work or knowledge. Degrees don’t matter. The fact that you have the skill and ability to do something don’t matter.
Personal Experience:
When I started my studies at the former Soviet Union, the three months allowance granted by the Yemeni government was $120. This sum was enough due to the low prices and the availability of the currency exchange black market. This state continued until the early 1990s when the communist system began to crumble.
When the former Soviet republic embraced the market economy, Yemeni students there started to feel the bite of the economic crisis. While studying for the M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees, I used to get $300 per quarter, which still was not enough even for the most basic requirements.
Despite all the hardships, economic and otherwise, I and several of my colleagues were more than determined to go on with our studies. We were motivated primarily by the hope of returning home to serve our people and country. We were not fully aware of the deteriorating economic circumstances and the drop in living standards experienced by the Yemeni people. We did not realize that the difficulties we will face back home will be more oppressive.
Before coming back home, I used to weigh matters with a different scale. I was full of hope of finding a suitable job to compensate for all the years of hardship. There are few people in Yemen who have my specialization – industrial power electronics. So the possibility of not finding work did not even strike me. I felt I will be one of a few pioneers.
I thought I will start by applying as a lecturer at the university. First there is the paperwork. It takes forever to complete that. But more disturbing, the people you come in contact with give the impression that you are one of hundreds of candidates in the same field. They would say, “There are hundreds of other applicants just like you.”
Administrative corruption and nepotism still rule supreme not only in government, but also in universities. Thus, the fate and future of an educated intellectual is governed by non-academic factors.
What is the way out?
There seems to be three possible ways out of my situation:
1- Forget about your high academic qualifications and the years of hard work put into it. Be involved in commerce or any other activity that is going to generate a decent income. Quite a few holders of Ph.D. degrees now have modest public or private-sector jobs.
2- Working in the increasing number of private universities and colleges seems to be a reasonable way out. However, due to the marked lack of appropriate legislation to regulate employment in these private universities, there future is as yet unclear.
3- When the prospects become gloomy and all hopes are crushed, there seems to be no other alternative but to leave the country. Despite our country’s need for them, educated people leaving for work cannot be blamed if they cannot have a decent life at home.
To solve this problem and many others, real reform must be constituted. The principle of reward and punished must be fully and effectively adopted. Favoritism, nepotism and other kinds of -isms will have to be abandoned. New criteria for evaluating people according to their own merit and achievement must be the norm. Otherwise, the nation will move from bad to worse.