Where to, after school [Archives:2006/994/Education]

October 30 2006

Shareen Abdul Aziz
3rd year BDS,
Sana'a University,
[email protected]

Yemen faces a huge crisis in terms of availability of advanced education for its students. This needs to be recognized and dealt with urgently, for mere exam reforms are insufficient. The first set of the 'dreaded' Board results are out and will soon be followed by more, that will see thousands of students and their parents collapse into a whirlpool of entrance exams, admissions and 'stress'. Even as the government finally seems to be waking up and has announced a spate of measures to reduce exam-related stress levels, one wonders whether exams are the crux of the problem, in so far as it is not certain whether a student who gets above 90 per cent is good enough. What are the other systemic weaknesses that should be addressed to give the upcoming generations a chance to participate effectively as we evolve into a 'developed' country?

A large part of the stress building up to the final exams stems from the need to be in the top ten percentile of the student population passing out of high school, so that they stand a chance for securing admission into a decent graduate college. Obviously, and as everybody in the education sector has known for a long time, there are too few options being chased by hordes of aspiring young minds. As such, one of the first key steps the government needs to take is to significantly improve the quality of the plethora of institutions offering advanced degrees. This would require a number of actions. First, there must be regulatory supervision that would require educational institutions to file information reports on physical infrastructure and the qualifications of teaching staff. Then, the financial health of such institutions needs to be strengthened either through a system of performance-based incentives or greater flexibility in fee structures, again with appropriate regulatory guidelines.

But perhaps the key issue is that there is an urgent need to make teaching an attractive profession. At current remuneration levels, it is no surprise that, with the exception of a few dedicated teachers, it is the people with no options or those who consider teaching to be a low-level convenient activity are the ones who end up becoming teachers.

Every educational institution must necessarily define a time-path for achieving academic excellence. For this purpose, it is important to define the evaluation criteria for different types of educational institutions. Inability to achieve such excellence over a specified time frame should result in a management takeover.

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Thankfully, the mindset that the successful people of the world are either engineers or doctors, or IIM grads, is changing, but we are woefully lacking in career aptitude testing and guidance mechanisms, at the school and graduate levels. In spite of valiant efforts by some mainline dailies to fill this gap, students, and indeed their parents, are unable to think beyond the clutch of options that will yield the desired 'successes'.

It may be useful for the government to set up a 'committee' to chart out various educational options leading to alternative careers and maintain a dynamic website, apart from using other media, to inform interested parties about the same. While doing so, the committee could go into the issue of the relative value and attractiveness of such career options to check for effectiveness of regulatory correction. This relates to our current focus, that is the relative value of teachers is huge for the country but the attractiveness of teaching as a profession is at the bottom of all career paths.

Yemen is poised to become an economic super power. Its performance on social indicators, however, continues to be abysmal. The government needs some desperate help to provide entrepreneurship capabilities in rural areas, to take primary and secondary education to poorer segments of the society, to stem the spiraling rate of school dropouts and to create awareness on management of critical natural resources such as water. Can we devise a scheme wherein, in exchange for a couple of years of life of a high school graduate or an undergraduate devoted to social service, we are able to facilitate their access to a more advanced educational qualification in a quality institution? Can a partnership of this nature emerge between the academia and the governments? What role can the corporate sector play?

It will not be easy, but unconventional methods have to be adopted. Yemen has a huge crisis of advanced education on its hands that needs to be recognized and dealt with urgently. Yet, the numbers of graduates that emerge from the few good quality institutions that we have in the country have the global marketplace to choose from. The disparity is worth studying. As we look at it today, the government needs to take a longer-term view and evaluate the human resource base on which we hope to sustain the country's development.

Merely addressing the problem of school leaving exams would make only a marginal difference to ease the stress on students. Shifting to the system of grades would move the pressure point from school exams to college entrance exams. On the flip side, for those who would not like to, or cannot, pursue further studies, the option would be to provide high quality vocational training institutions and career options.