SANA’A–Sana’a University, the oldest and largest university in Yemen, has been shut down for weeks as a result of conflict between students and the administration.
Since the revolution, the institution has been sporadically closed, due to both political and financial problems. It is riddled by student protests, threats of violence, and students’ complaints that they don’t have academic freedom and can’t afford the university fees. Administrators say they have been trying to secure and stabilize the campus.
Much of the conflict centers on the university’s complicated system of fees. Some students with high qualifications are only charged $37 a year. Others, with lesser qualifications are in a “parallel system” and charged moderate fees, ranging from $1,500 for studying medicine to $210 for studies outside of science and engineering. Others with even lower qualifications are considered “self-paying” and pay even higher fees. The administration contends it needs the money from the fees to keep the university running, but students say that the fees make it difficult for them to afford an education and that the administration wastes money with corruption.
Since September 25, university students have been staging protests calling for the resignation of university officials and a reversal of the president’s decision to suspend 30 students who protested against a fee increase for the parallel system.
The president of Yemen, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, ordered in June 2012 that tuition be reduced, but the university’s presidency rejected that proposal.
“If we accept this reduction, the government should cover our budget deficit,” said Sinan al-Marhadhi, deputy head of student affairs at the university, in an interview.
In a meeting on September 30, students surrounded the university council and prevented council members from leaving their headquarters for four hours. An administrator accused the students of threatening to attack the chancellor with stones and shoes. Eventually security forces arrived and the protesters disbanded relatively peacefully. On October 9, the council considered re-opening the campus but decided not to until the security situation was improved.
The council said there should be government procedures in place to prevent repetition of the chaos.
“Doors will not open again before taking all measures to ensure the safety of professors and staff,” Abdul-Hakim al-Sharjabi, the university president said. The campus is currently secured by private security guards and armored vehicles left since the days of the revolution. The council called for creating a more highly trained private security force to stabilize the campus.
“We support the students’ right of demonstration peacefully,” said al-Sharjabi. “But it is not allowed to use this right in rioting and threatening the faculty members.”
The university is close to Change Square, the center of the 2011 revolution. The post-revolution political freedom has its minuses as well as its pluses. “The intervention of political parties in university life makes the situation more complicated,” said Magdi Aaklan, the vice president for graduate studies. Aaklan, who agreed with the decision to keep the university closed, says partisan action within the university hinders the educational process.
But the cancellation of classes does not appeal to all professors. “I’m against suspending study,” said Hammoud Al-Zafiri the vice president for academic affairs. “This is against the interests of 80,000 students who are studying at the university of Sana’a.”
The delays create a logistical and financial burden, administrators said. “We cancelled most of the last semester and had to compensate during the summer,” said Al-Zafiri.
Likewise, the decision to keep the university closed also makes students indignant. “The council’s decision is contrary to the law of universities,” said Radwan Massoud, head of the student union who considered the decision “pushy and extortionate.”
Many students feel that the number of “free” places at the university is unrealistically low, forcing them to pay fees. This year, 17,834 students applied to the traditional enrollment system in the university’s colleges of science, but only 934 students were admitted, according to a student union report. “Half of students are from outside the city,” said Massoud. “We strive to reach the university and to get our living expense. This decision aims to force us to pay the full fees.”
As the academic year gears up in many countries, the one at Sana’a remains on hold.