According to recent research by the Yemen Poll Center the right to education is considered the most important human right. For many in Yemen, this means the right to go to university. And the government makes it possible by offering ‘parallel systems’.
“Is your brother a regular student or a muazi, a student in the parallel system?”
“A parallel student. He didn’t have good grades at high school so he had to pay to go to university.”
“Should everyone have the right to go to university, even with low grades?”
“Yes, it is important to get an education.”
“But if you are really stupid, should you still be able to go to university?”
“Yes, because there you learn how to be less stupid?”
Mohammed Noaman Aldais is speaking outside the giant new 22 May Conference and Sport Centre in Sana’a, where his brother and 400 other students are celebrating their graduation from the faculty of Mass Communication at Sana’a University. Inside, Shakira’s Waka Waka booms out of loudspeakers and the students dance.
Half of these graduates are regular students. The rest are ‘parallel’, like Mohammed’s brother. These students who flunk out at high school can buy themselves a university place on condition they study with private tutors. These instructors do not come cheap and are not necessarily qualified. But you will end up with a diploma, and that’s the most important thing for many people.
No other options
“They learn nothing and society does not need them. We should have more technical mid-level education. That’s what we need”, says Mohammed’s cousin Rodwan Aldais. The Yemeni system does lack alternatives at the tertiary level; it’s either university or nothing. But young people don’t really complain about the lack of vocational education. They want to become doctors, dentists or managers, not electricians or plumbers. This is also what their families expect of them - better be an unemployed surgeon than a successful butcher.
“Everyone should be able to study for free. It is a matter of humanity”, Jabr Alghazeer says. Alghazeer is a regular student who graduated today. He admits that the academic and educational quality of the university suffers from the presence of parallel students. “But it is not their fault. The entire educational system is wrong.”
Alghazeer’s referring to the fact that high school grades don’t really mean much. The dean of his faculty, Abdulrahman Alshami, agrees: “It is no secret that there is a lot of cheating going on at secondary schools. Grades are not reliable.” This doesn’t mean Alshami is in favour of the parallel system. He is not. But he’s pragmatic. “We need it, like we need private universities, simply to absorb the enormous numbers of students. And it also generates income for universities.”
For him, the system is just a symptom of the real problem: Yemen’s population explosion. “We create our own problems and then start complaining. How can you complain about the lack of educational opportunities if you have seven children?” Yemen now has 24 million inhabitants, with a population growth rate of 3%, that number’s expected to double in the next 20 years.
Road to nowhere
Higher education has become a convenient means of keeping young people off the streets. “Otherwise they go into the army or other fundamentalist groups”, Alshami says. So for four years, they are being kept occupied but not much more than that. “I learned nothing” , says student Alghazeer.
Seemingly unstoppable population growth, a socialist view on free education for all and a reluctance to shift the focus to vocational training all add up to a one-way ticket to disaster for the country. Unemployment among graduates is at least 50 percent, and those who do manage to find a job usually end up doing something unrelated to their background.
Sense of entitlement
This situation has led to growing anger among young people. One of the first students to demonstrate against the regime in February 2011 was Yaser Aldradhmi. He began his protest sitting on the street in front of Sana’a University, fifteen diplomas spread out in front him. He was holding a placard reading: “What other certificates are needed for a job?”
That’s the other side of the problem. Not only do people expect to be able to enroll at university, they also expect the government to give them a job afterwards: one for life, with a pension and sick leave. Most students who graduated today believe that they are entitled to that, by right. However, it more often ends like this:
“I am now a taxi driver but I studied English literature.”
“Why did you study that? It doesn’t seem to be very useful to me.”
“Because I like it and it was easy to get in.”
“What is your favorite book?”
“I don’t know, I don’t remember.”
“Now the government should give me a job.”
The Arabic version of this article has been widely read in Yemen, it has appeared on 14 Yemeni websites and in three newspapers. Ed. 04-01-13