"Everybody wants to be a mudir"

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This article is part of the RNW archive. RNW is the former Radio Netherlands Worldwide or Wereldomroep, which was founded as the Dutch international public broadcaster in 1947. In 2011, the Dutch government decided to cut funding and shift RNW from the ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the ministry of Foreign Affairs. More information about RNW Media’s current activities can be found at https://www.rnw.org/about-rnw-media.

Huge unemployment but a lack of skilled workers. That’s what happens when the only education considered important is an academic one. It’s like betting on the wrong horse and that’s just what Yemen did.

By Judith Spiegel, in Sana'a

‘Everybody wants to be a mudir,’ a friend says when asked why there are no good plumbers around. Everybody wants to be the boss, the manager, the one who supervises. Everybody wants to go to university. Very few opt for anything practical.

Abdulhalal (22) did. He studies interior design at Sana’a Community College, a practical alternative for university, located on the dusty outskirts of the city. ‘But it wasn’t easy. My family is not very helpful, they think you cannot make a living with interior design, they think people can do their own interior design.’

"Education is about exams"
The disdain for anything other than a university degree is still widespread in Yemen. According to the General Statistics Organisation, figures for 2009 (the most recent available) show some 200.000 students were enrolled in public universities and another 60.000 in private universities. Just 6,500 students were registered in vocational and technical training programmes.

Cees van Maarseveen, international project manager at the Higher Professional Education Project: ‘People think good education is about lots of theories and lots of tests and exams. This starts in primary school and continues through secondary school and onward. So it is not surprising that practical education is considered inferior.’

Too many academics
Abdulhal suffers from this prejudice: “My family sees the sons of others going to university and think that is the best you can do. But I want to study something I like.” That’s one reason for studying at a technical institute in the face of parental opposition, but there are sound economic reasons as well.

Van Maarseveen: ‘For economic development a society needs around 6% of academics, you take the brightest people for that, university should not be general education. For the rest you need educated practical people.’ In Yemen it is the other way around. Which is why the labour market is overflowing with jobless academics and lacking practically skilled people.

Learning by doing
Aziz (20) knows this. He is studying computer network engineering. ‘We have a chance on the labour market.’ He likes what he is doing. ‘Here, I learn by doing, at university you only start learning after you leave the university. And here we learn other useful things as well, such as English.’ Aziz is worried too. ‘We do not have enough good materials and teachers.’

The lack of rrespect for vocational education is not only a problem on the personal level, but also on a governmental level. For years the authorities have focused on developing higher education, building university after university, creating an enormous army of unemployed academics.

Foreign workers, foreign products
Aziz is upset by what he sees in his country. ‘We should do our own work, not import Indians or Malaysians.’ Many jobs in hospitals, hotels and housekeeping are done by foreigners - Yemenis cannot or will not do them. Van Maarseveen: ‘You know a country has problems when you see foreigners working in hospitals and hotels.’

And Yemen not only imports workers, it also imports most of its consumer goods. The country hardly produces anything itself. ‘We just hope that one day we do not have to import everything from China, that we can make things ourselves,’ the girls in the fashion design class say.

Little prospect of change
This morning they are doing batik design, embroidery and drawing. They are practicing how to sew a zipper on a skirt. Proudly, they show a heap of beautiful children’s clothes they made. ‘They are not for sale,’ the girls giggle. ‘But you can come back and we’ll make you new ones.’

The ministry of technical education and vocational training, with the help of international organisations, is trying to turn the tide. But lack of money, experience, and other more pressing problems in the country mean they’re making slow progress. Not to mention the fact that everybody still wants to be a mudir