The Need to Focus on Education [Archives:1999/47/Focus]

November 22 1999

Common Sense
By: Hassan Al-Haifi
The population of the Republic of Yemen is the highest (17,000,000) in the Arabian Peninsula, perhaps equaling in number the total population of the other countries in the peninsula combined, assuming that the official figures of the latter are not exaggerated, which is not an unlikely speculation for some of these other countries. Moreover, the population indicators show that the age distribution puts about 50% of the population below the age of 15 years-old. They also show the growth rate of the population approaching 4% per annum. Such population figures represent serious challenges to the development efforts of the country (assuming that these efforts are indeed serious) and a heavy strain on the already exploited limited resources and overburdened and mostly inaccessible social services.
Perhaps the education sector is the area of greatest significance, as far as Yemen’s hopes of ever meeting the requirements for sustainable economic development and for making that long leap of cultural enhancement needed to overcome the centuries of isolation that Yemen endured, keeping the country and many subsequent generations of Yemenis almost out of touch and out of reach with much of the progress that has come to mankind, especially over the last five centuries or so (The intervening intervals of partial Ottoman Turkish occupations of the country did introduce certain elements of this progress into the country, especially in military hardware, but most of these elements, for some reason or another Ð instability and language Ð could not find their way into the mainstream of life, although many Yemeni chroniclers over the period were able to provide detailed observations of the components of these elements and the principles by which they were operated).
On a broad scale, and considering the many constraints that the development of the country faced, especially in the education sector, including the absence of a modern infrastructure, the poor educational policy guidelines Ð and clearly defined objectives Ð which would coincide with the overall development agenda of the country, the social, geographic and demographic features of the country, as well as the limited resources that were harnessed for the development and growth of the sector, there were some significant achievements that were realized. These achievements were bolstered by the extensive regional and international donor support and the access to some 30,000 teachers from other Arab countries (the majority being from Egypt), also financed by donor support to a large extent.
It should be noted that, in the early years of the Revolution against the Imamic rule of Yemen (the early Sixties), the traditional existing educational infrastructure was eradicated, as excessively zealous revolutionaries associated this system with the Imamic regime, although it should be recognized that the system, despite its typically traditional features, was able to produce highly credible graduates in literature, philosophy, theology, religious law, history and other liberal arts, as well as many of the leading personalities of the Revolution itself! This abrupt elimination of an existing educational infrastructure and system left an educational vacuum, which was not replaced by a modern educational system for some time. Thus, Yemen’s educational output, at the start, was confined to the scholarship students that were sent overseas on educational scholarship programs donated by, or arranged with, other Arab countries and member states of the East Bloc, including the People’s Republic of China, prior to and after the Revolution. It would be some fifteen years later after the 1962 Revolution that Yemeni schools started to generate their own graduates, at the primary and secondary levels, with a trickle of Sana’a University graduates, at progressively increasing numbers, who would start flowing into the work force of the country.
While the emphasis on the numbers occupied the attention of the educational planners over the first two decades after the Revolution, the substantial donor support (over the Seventies and Eighties) to the sector, along with the relatively more highly qualified teachers, had been able to produce significantly better qualified output than what the system in its present state could generate. The Gulf War (1990-1991) brought an another abrupt transformation to the educational sector. This culminated in a sudden end to most of the donor support to the sector, the lack of resources to sustain the access to the better qualified expatriate teacher corps, the reduction of overseas scholarships in higher and professional educational levels and the lack of support for further growth investment in the sector. Thus the educational sector had to face another serious adjustment at the expense of quality output, adequate operations and maintenance Ð sustainability Ð of the existing educational infrastructure and the ability to carry on the expansion of the infrastructure to meet the growing needs of a rapidly growing population. This was made the more difficult by the obvious poor attention of poor education planners to work towards meeting the human resource needs of the educational sector itself, from its own output, in order to gradually replace the more expensive reliance on expatriate teachers and to meet the staffing needs of the new schools. As such, the void that was left by the departed expatriate teachers had to be filled by the reliance on conscripted teachers, who were mostly either secondary school graduates, or university graduates, who, more often than not, were not opting for professional teaching careers, or by poorly trained career teachers. On the other hand, the teachers that were recruited as such had to face delayed payment of their highly inadequate salaries that ranged in delay from six months to a year.
It was obvious that the system suffered a heavy blow to its ability to produce highly qualified and culturally enhanced output throughout the present decade. At present, despite significant growth, quantitatively speaking, the system could only absorb 52% of the school age children of the country, of which the female enrollment represents only 30%. Thus, a significant proportion of the population still remains without access to a formal education of some sort, which could be a serious breeding ground for social disarray and inequity, producing potentially serious social ills and problems for the forthcoming millenium, the dynamics of which are hard to predict.
Private inroads into the sector, visibly on a rapid increase, featured by a lack of any form of regulation and a very strong commercial focus, have not been able to overcome this serious handicap to the sector or the quality shortfalls of the public educational sector, especially when considering the excessive tuition and other charges demanded by these private schools.
Further, the educational system, at the primary, intermediary and secondary level, is subjected to a rigorous curriculum that focuses on stuffing vast amounts of knowledge, most of which would not be of use to the student, and which tends to neglect important basics of education that are practically needed by the students in everyday life (This observer was astonished, when asking fifth grade students about how many minutes to the hour, that the children were unable to reply, stating that they have never been taught to learn this!). On the other hand, there is no proper guidance programs provided to students to guide them as to their possible career orientation and the system relies on statistical data to determine which career possibilities are opened to the students, without regards to the aspirations and desires of the relevant students. The curriculum seems to be highly academic oriented, that does not take into consideration the human resource needs for vocational and technical skills. In fact, the vocational and technical training centers and institutes are unable to take in more than 15,000 students, which presents serious problems in meeting the operational and maintenance needs of the development infrastructure and assets of the country.
Clearly, the government needs to carry out an overhaul of the educational system (including the elimination of corruption in the sector, which is one of its most serious handicaps), with a view towards increasing government budget allocations to the sector to the tune of 25% of the budget, at least, if it is ever to see any substantial improvements in the quality and capacity of the sector to gear the forthcoming generations of Yemenis to mobilize all their intellect to overcome the obstacles and constraints to development which this generation has unfortunately created by poor planning and poor allocation of resources, as well as poor arrangement of priorities.