Towards Educational Reform in Yemen: Back to Basics with a Focus on the Future [Archives:1999/51/Focus]

December 20 1999

Part 1 of 2
Dr. Mohamed A. Qubaty
Professor of Surgery, Sana’a University, Advisor for the Presidium of the Yemeni Parliament
It is sometimes claimed that the education system, by definition, is a conservative one, meaning that its function is to acquaint the new generations with the knowledge already agreed upon and the values that enable individuals to be integrated with their society. However, the new fact that we must confront nowadays is that there is no “agreed upon knowledge.” The old wisdom is being revised and reconsidered and scientific knowledge is renewing and developing. So the prime responsibility of the education system is to train people in the expectation of change and teach them how to deal with its issues and challenges, and also to help develop the capabilities that ensure the education will influence the direction of change.
The present educational system in Yemen might have been, to a large extent, established on the basis of the experience, concepts and visions of the Egyptian system of education, and those had been transferred to Yemen in association with the Egyptian backing of the 26th of September Revolution of 1962.
Educational concepts then prevalent in most of the Arab countries, were of consumptive nature, mostly aimed at bragging and preparing educated people, away from the real approach that dictates that education in general must be kept in line with the reality of the society and its problems.
Throughout the past three decades Yemen has been achieving great expansion in educational opportunities in all of its stages, but in absence of a the vision of a clear-cut educational philosophy confirming that the function of education lies in preparing creative individuals. These individuals must be capable of dealing with the developments of society. We find that the great achievements in increasing quantity are now confronted with scores of problems pertaining to quality. So the educational system, with its high output of poor quality training, has become a burden on society not only because of its high cost but also for impeding the economic advancement and probably its potential dangers to social and political stability, now represented by the phenomenon of well educated and college graduates being unemployed.
It has become clear that the policies of admission, qualifications and training at university and specialization institutions in Yemen do not correspond with the requirements of economic development, but they have rather become a major impediment to learning, creating impregnable obstacles representing a major challenge to the economic, human and social development in Yemen. A balance should have been created between the said requirements and the policies of universities in Yemen. It seems that such a change will not be realized in the near future. All indicators point out that the problem is getting more complicated. This can be more clearly seen in the uncontrolled and rapid increase in the number of public and private faculties and universities. Their number has jumped from 21 faculties and 2 universities in 1990 to 111 faculties and 15 universities in 1998. The number of those registered at universities has risen from around 40,000 in 1990 to 150,000 in 1998. A report recently presented by the Ministry of Planning and Development shows that the number of unemployed university graduates at the end of 1999 will be around 25,000. On the other hand statistical projections indicate that by the summer of 2004 the number of unemployed university graduates will rise to more than 100,000. All data and indicators show that the institutions of higher education and specialization in Yemen have effected a compound problem which is progressively getting more complicated. The most apparent phenomena of that problem could be summarized with:
1- A large number of graduates of various specializations which vastly exceed the number required in the labor market. Their education is of a low standard, which could not even be accommodated in the markets of the neighboring countries.
2- Graduates in specializations needed in the market, but with low standards and efficiency both in theoretical and practical qualifications.
Undoubtedly, this big failure in the educational system lies basically in the weakness of the relationship between what the students learn and the requirements of the social and economic development. Therefore, the work force, provided for the labor market by such an educational system, lack the knowledge, skills and orientations which a modern economy requires. The factors behind this failure are very many and there must be an emphasis that they are interrelated and should be tackled as a whole so that the targeted results could be achieved.
Diagnosis of difficulties does not necessarily mean knowing the causes of failure, as the causes may be many and divergent, or they could be of the nature of a vicious cycle, meaning that a society that is suffering from high rate of illiteracy and other dimensions of backwardness is incapable of building effective educational institutions and these in turn are unable to accomplish the intended qualitative change in the society. We know, nonetheless, as a historical fact that some other societies that were also suffering from backwardness managed to succeed in creating educational institutions which in turn worked to modernize and activate their societies.
All indicators and issues related to the quality of performance of higher education institutions confirm that the Yemeni education system is living a progressive crisis. This crisis begins from the university system of admission and affects everything through to the efficiency of graduates. This means that the outlet must be through a comprehensive revision of all the system’s aspects in order to effect an overall reform and development in all of its foundations and components.
It would not be an exaggeration to emphasize that reforming the higher education system could not be realized save by reforming and developing the pre-university education system. The situation necessitates a reform of the education establishment as an integrated whole, while putting stress on the aim of reconciliation between the goals of education and the means and particulars of the few environments wherein the educational process is thriving.
In the world of today, scientific knowledge has become the most important economic element and so the relationship between education and economic growth has become an unquestionable axiom. Unfortunately, the philosophy of education in Yemen is characterized by the absence of this essential viewpoint towards education. Educational policies in Yemen are following an orbit having no connection with developmental priorities in general and the actual needs of labor market in particular. Such a deficiency is starkly clear in the predominance of general education over the technical and vocational education in the secondary stage and that of the theoretical over practical at the university stage. All that has led to a sharp contradiction between a surplus in the number of those qualified in the theoretical fields and a startling shortage in other practical areas. This last discrepancy is what has largely caused this high degree of unemployment among graduates.