Since he assumed his duties as minister of higher education in Yemen’s internationally recognised government, in December 2020, Khaled Al-Wasabi has faced many challenges posed by his country’s continuing civil war.
Since 2015, the war has hit hard on university facilities. “It also produced a terrific devaluation of the national currency, slashing the value of faculty salaries” and prompting many professors to emigrate, Al-Wasabi told Al-Fanar Media in an interview.
The war began in 2014 when the Iran-backed Houthi rebel movement took the capital, Sana’a. The fighting escalated the following year when a Saudi-led coalition intervened on the side of the internationally recognised government.
As the war intensified, the Ministry of Higher Education, along with the rest of the internationally recognized government, moved to Aden, the country’s temporary capital. Amid the lack of financial allocations to equip new institutions, the ministry lacks qualified technical and administrative staffs, and has become dependent on new graduates from the University of Aden, Al-Wasabi said.
Al-Wasabi is the former dean of the College of Applied Sciences at Taiz University. He also served as deputy minister of higher education between 2017 and late 2020.
Speaking via Zoom, he said his ministry “has a zero budget,” referring to the lack of financial allocations since 2015 and its reliance on 20 percent of the 2014 budget.
“With all these challenges, we consider what is happening an achievement, given that we are able to work in such difficult conditions,” he added. “The budget of the Ministry of Higher Education and Technical Education does not exceed one million dollars annually, a ministry that basically represents two ministries.”
Reconstruction of Universities
The seven-year conflict has caused a humanitarian crisis in Yemen, impoverishing millions of people. A U.N.-brokered truce in place since April had offered hopes of relief, but the cease-fire now shows signs of falling apart.
“So far, no real local or international programmes are dedicated to the reconstruction of universities damaged by the war. Some organisations offer limited support to restore some buildings at the minimum level to resume studies.”Khaled Al-Wasabi
All Yemeni universities were directly or indirectly affected by the war. Even in areas that have escaped military clashes, such as Hadhramaut and Seiyun, universities have been affected by years of budget cuts and the suspension of infrastructure work, Al-Wasabi said. They lack funds to hire faculty members, to operate laboratories, or to repair collapsing water and power systems.
“In other areas, where bombing takes place, we have demolished facilities, like in the Universities of Aden and Taiz,” Al-Wasabi added.
On reports of efforts to rebuild those universities, Al-Wasabi said: “So far, no real local or international programmes are dedicated to the reconstruction of universities damaged by the war. Some organisations offer limited support to restore some buildings at the minimum level to resume studies.”
The war’s impact did not stop at physical damage, the minister said. It also suspended the great strides the ministry had achieved in education quality and academic accreditation programmes up to 2014.
Al-Wasabi said that the Academic Accreditation Council has not yet been formed in Aden, while Yemeni university programs are in a chaotic state due to weak state authorities.
Al-Wasabi attributes last year’s protests against the rise in tuition fees in private universities to Yemenis’ poor annual incomes, due to the devaluation of the national currency.
“Tuition fees in the country are the world’s lowest. The tuition fee at a private medical school is about $2,000,” he said. “It has been agreed with private and public universities to collect tuition fees in the national currency.”
The minister also spoke about the situation of some 4,800 Yemeni students on government scholarships abroad.
“The delay in disbursing their stipends is related to the war conditions, as Yemen’s oil exports declined from 600,000 barrels per day before the war, to only 50,000 barrels per day at the present time,” he said. “Nevertheless, the state is trying to meet the scholarships’ entitlements as much as possible.”
He also pointed to a reduction in scholarship spending, with payments to students currently amounting to about $7 million every three months, compared to $12 million in 2019. He added that he hopes to complete the disbursement of overdue payments to scholarship students in the coming months.
Regarding the regulation of private universities, Al-Wasabi said that the ministry decided a year ago to stop licensing new universities and to form committees to conduct field visits to review licensed universities and submit academic reports on them.
Problems at public and private universities include the lack of enough teaching staff members, postponing courses, non-adherence to the prescribed curriculum, and the launching of programmes unlicensed by the ministry, he said.
Professors Leave Yemen
“We experience circumstances that cause many faculty members to leave the country,” Al-Wasabi said. “We hope the situation will stabilise so that they can return to their homeland.”
While he rejects Yemeni universities’ decisions to dismiss faculty members who left to work abroad, Al-Wasabi said he believes that “the law is above all”.
“Faculty members … are required to pay back their obligations towards the state that spent on them. Preparing a faculty member costs between $100,000 and $200,000 dollars. The state cannot spend that without people serving and repaying it.”Khaled Al-Wasabi
“If faculty members have the right to improve their living standard abroad, then they are required to pay back their obligations towards the state that spent on them,” he said. “Preparing a faculty member costs between $100,000 and $200,000 dollars. The state cannot spend that without having people serving and repaying it.”
Faced with the dilemma of the search for better opportunities abroad to escape war consequences and the loss of a university job in the homeland, the minister suggested a compromise that would allow faculty members to travel abroad on paid, full-time leave for a year, in addition to two years of unpaid leave, provided that they then return to their university in Yemen, so that others can benefit.
“Faculty members staying abroad while national universities need professors is rejected by the ministry,” he said. “Universities are currently almost empty of faculty members, especially in the faculties of medicine, engineering, and information technology.”
The minister also said the government was trying to address the crisis of low salaries for professors through bonuses. “A faculty member used to earn about $1,500 before the war,” he said. The value of their salary “has now declined to about $200. That’s why many of them are forced to travel abroad.”
Research and Rankings
On scientific research in academic institutions, Al-Wasabi said that there was no budget dedicated specifically to research, but no academic activity was without support for research, including scholarships and student and faculty members’ research work.
Regarding Yemeni universities’ positions in international university rankings, he said his country’s universities were ranked late in the rankings but were not out of the lists. “We are in the process of forming a national ranking system for Yemeni universities, and participating in the unified ranking of Arab universities,” he added.
Al-Wasabi explained that international rankings’ criteria do not apply to Yemeni universities at the present time, due to the consequences of the war, such as shrinking research, collapsed infrastructure, and the lack of international students and faculty members.
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