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Yemeni Students Are Caught in a Currency Exchange Trap

Private universities in Yemen are charging tuition in dollars and creating their own currency exchange rates, squeezing many students out of education.

“We cannot pay such sums of money; we may drop out,” said Salah Al-Wasi’i, 20, a pharmacy student at the University of Science and Technology in Taiz, a city on the front lines of Yemen’s civil war. “The fees have burdened students and families. Taiz is under siege and the coronavirus crisis has affected job opportunities available to us and our families.”

The conflict that started in 2014 continues between the Iran-backed Houthi movement and a coalition led by Saudi Arabia.

Al-Wasi’i’s tuition fees amount to about $2,500, of which he has paid only $250 so far. “I used to rely on a monthly sum I received from abroad,” he said. “But things got worse and the amount was cut off.” He is trying to find a job so he can pay his tuition in installments. As in many other Arab countries, tuition varies according to the subject of study. The average tuition fees at private universities are $750 for humanities and administration faculties; $4,000 for dentistry; $2,550 for pharmacy; $1,800 for medical laboratories; and $1,550 for information technology. “according to students”.

Central Bank Rates

In 2014, the Central Bank of Sanaa set the price of the dollar at 250 Yemeni rials, and it stayed at that rate until 2017. After the central bank moved to Aden, the power of the rial against the dollar declined, however, and most private universities are charging 400 to 500 rials.

The dollar exchange rate varies from one city to another. Private universities in Taiz set the exchange rate at 400 rials for a dollar, but the universities of Aden and Hadramout set the rate at 500 rials.

Some private universities require students in Aden to pay in dollars, and don’t accept rials at all. That forces students to resort to the black market, which has an exchange rate of 820 rials per dollar.

Salah Al-Wasi’i and other student protesters are calling for a return to the previously fixed exchange rate (Photo: Courtesy of Salah Al-Wasi’i).
Salah Al-Wasi’i and other student protesters are calling for a return to the previously fixed exchange rate (Photo: Courtesy of Salah Al-Wasi’i).

As the Yemeni rial has lost 180 percent of its value over the last five years, the national economy has lost $88 billion, according to official statements.

The Ministry of Higher Education of the Ansar Allah government (Houthis) required the branches of private universities in the areas under its control not to raise their prices, and to fix their exchange rates at 250 rials for each dollar. But the U.N.-recognized government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi was unable to achieve this, and the exchange rate has fluctuated according to institution.

Calls to Reduce Exchange Rates

Al-Wasi’i and his colleagues at 26 Yemeni private universities, including six campuses in Taiz alone, organized demonstrations calling for a return to the old rates against the dollar. However, universities have not responded to their demands.

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Private university administrators in the U.N.-recognized government’s control says they have high operating costs and have to cope with the exchange rate of the dollar in the Central Bank of Yemen, which is more than 520 rials.

Al-Wasi’i met with a director at the University of Science and Technology in Taiz. “He told us that education is a commodity like other commercial goods, subject to the free market system.”

Abdo Al-Kleibi, director of the Al-Hikmah University in Taiz, declined to comment on the matter, calling it an internal issue. “The decision belongs to the University Council,” he said.

“There is no regulation regarding the sum of tuition fees in general at private universities,” said Khaled Al-Asabi, deputy minister of higher education in the government at Aden. “The fees depend on the level of study at the university, the type of specialization and the services provided.”

“There is no regulation regarding the sum of tuition fees in general at private universities.”

Khaled Al-Asabi  
deputy minister of higher education in the government of Aden

The situation in Sanaa is different, says Hussein Hazeb, Minister of Higher Education in the Houthi government, in a press release warning private universities in Taiz against raising the exchange rate above 250 Yemeni rials for each dollar. “Any manipulation of the future of our students will endanger all the branches of private universities under the control of the Ansar Allah government,” he said.

Al-Asabi believes that, given the exceptional circumstances and the state of war that the country is going through, private universities should consider the situation of students and their families.

‘Discount Offers’

Some universities offered discounts to students by deducting up to 30 or 40 percent of student fees if they paid their fees up front. But most students do not have that ability. Many students have not even bothered to enroll.

“More than half of our students have left the university,” said Muhammad al-Salami, a professor at a private university in Taiz. “We have already reduced tuition by more than 30 percent and allowed students to pay in 10 installments instead of four. However, many students are still unable to pay the fees.”

Al-Salami is concerned about the impact of fee reductions on universities’ work. “It is not possible to make further cuts,” he said. “Otherwise, universities will not be able to pay the teachers’ wages.”

Ahmed Al-Omari, a 21-year-old medical student at the University of Aden, believes that education in Yemen has become a commercial endeavor whose only aim is to achieve profit.

Al-Wasi’i, the leader of the demonstrations, agrees with Al-Omari. But he is enthusiastic about continuing to demand change.

“We started carrying out protests in August,” he said. “We will continue to escalate until we are responded to. We rely on the legitimate government to respond to our demands.”


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