SANA’A—Private universities in Yemen have grown so fast that in 20 years they have come to triple the number of public institutions.
But fast growth has led to controversy: Their supporters say they fill important gaps in education, while critics say they have created as many problems as they solve, mirroring the debate about such institutions elsewhere in the Arab world.
The first private university was established in Yemen in 1994. Since then, the organizations have been the subject of endless debates and often been accused of being more interested in financial gain than in improving the country’s education. Private-university officials reject those accusations.
“Today, private universities are indispensable,” said Hamid Aklan, the president of the University of Science and Technology, a private university in Sana’a. “They ease the burdens on the state, which face many more applicants than they can absorb.”
According to Aklan, private universities have better budgets for science and research. “The first dental college in Yemen was in our private university,” he said. “We had the biggest hospital in the country and our pharmacology lab is very sophisticated.” In contrast, he said, public universities are suffering from weak financial and technical resources.
Ahmed Beshr, the president of Future University, another private university in Sana’a, agrees with Aklan on the important role of such institutions. “We accommodate a large number of students in modern buildings and equipped halls.” He said private universities offer specialties required by the labor market, such as computer science, languages and banking.
The government’s policy has been to encourage the creation of private universities in order to attract private investment into higher education, promote quality and meet the growing demand for higher education. Now, there are 42 private universities all over the country.
But according to Yemen’s General Statistics Organization, in 2012 some 320,000 students were enrolled in public universities while only about 45,000 students were enrolled in private ones.
“These indicators speak,” said Zikra Motahar, general director of research at the ministry of higher education. “Students still prefer public universities because they are more reliable.”
Ibtisam Abdel-Aziz, an English-literature student at the University of Sanaa, took the necessary exam twice just to be enrolled at a public institution. “I was able to enroll in private university; still I preferred to join the prestigious University of Sana’a.
But in a country where political unrest has been going on for three years, if not longer, private universities enjoy much more stability than public universities.
“We are far away from any disturbances, which keep the educational process going on without interruptions during the school year,” Aklan said, pointing to the turmoil in public universities due to student demonstrations.
Continued economic decline and a deterioration in the country’s security continued in 2013, leading to a disruption of education in the country where unemployment rates have risen to 40 percent, with 60 percent unemployment among young people.
Critics say private universities don’t contribute to the development of Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country. Private universities, despite their sometimes strong revenue from students, have failed to hire high-quality full-time faculty members or support research, critics say. “Most of them focus on humanitarian disciplines, which are less costly,” said Motahar, of the education ministry. “Only one private university offers scientific disciplines and with too high a cost to students,” she said.
The education of the country’s youth would not be improved by setting up more private universities, critics say. “The private universities often admit students whose marks are not high enough for admittance to the equivalent faculties at the state universities,” said Adnan Al-Saqqaf, a former professor at a public university. He blamed the admission policies set by the education ministry, which let students with the lowest marks join private universities.
Moreover, tenured faculty should make up at least 10 percent of the staff at such institutions, said the education ministry’s Motahar. “Up to now most of the private universities depend on outside professors from the state universities,” she said, adding that there are no radical differences in curriculum between universities. “They have not achieved their founding goal, they work for profit only.”
Nevertheless, some support the value of private universities. “Private universities can play an important role in bridging the gap between demand and supply of quality education,” said Abdullateef Haidar Al-Hakimi, the chairman of the council for accreditation and quality assurance. He added that private universities have more flexibility and resources in designing innovative programs to reduce unemployment.
According to him, the main problem lies in the ministry’s lack of supervision. “The ministry does not have the sufficient capacity to monitor private universities and their commitment to quality and licensing requirements.”
Al-Hakimi hopes to hold real reforms in education this year by investing more in education. “It should be turned into a source of national income for full and complete development of a country,” he said. In his view, better universities would keep better-performing Yemeni students at home and attract students from elsewhere in the Arab world.