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Students Desert the Social Sciences at Yemen’s War-Torn Universities

Since civil war broke out in 2014, Yemen’s universities have suffered dramatically from physical damages and a dwindling number of students. Programmes in the social sciences at many colleges have been particularly deserted.

The president of Sana’a University recently stopped new admissions to the history department at the university’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities. While that decision was later reversed, such closures have sparked a furore about the future of the social sciences in Yemeni universities. The authorities have already shut down a number of these programmes, citing “limited job opportunities for their graduates and low enrolment rates.”

Professors of education, arts and humanities, and the social sciences in the universities of Dhamar, Amran, Saada, Hodeidah, Ibb, and Aden have also had to halt admissions in some departments, after sharp drops in student enrolments.

Yemen’s modern higher-education institutions date back to the 1970s when Sana’a University and Aden University were established. By 2014, the number of public universities had increased to ten. Apart from community colleges, Yemen’s public higher-education institutions operate under the supervision of the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research.

Since 1994, Yemen’s private higher-education sector has rapidly grown. By 2014, there were 42 private universities in the country.

In that year, there were more than 310,000 students enrolled in Yemen’s public and private universities, according to the 2020 “Free to Think” report from the Scholars at Risk Network. (See a related article, “Attacks on Yemeni Higher Education Highlighted in ‘Free to Think’ Report”.)

Only 9 New Students

Abdul-Hakim Abdul-Majeed Al-Hajri, head of the department of history and international relations at Sana’a University, told Al-Fanar Media: “The decision to temporarily suspend studies in the department was approved by the deans of the faculties of social sciences and humanities …  because only nine students applied to join the department this academic year. However, the anger of professors inside and outside the university forced the administration to retract the decision.”

“The decision to temporarily suspend studies in the department was approved by the deans of the faculties of social sciences and humanities … because only nine students applied to join the department this academic year.”

Abdul-Hakim Abdul-Majeed Al-Hajri
Head of the department of history and international relations at Sana’a University

Eighty-four academics, mostly from Sana’a University, issued a statement rejecting the decision to close the department to new admissions. They called on the university’s administration to change its mind. The signatories to the statement said the decision amounted to “closing the oldest history department in Yemen’s universities.”

Al-Hajri, a 1985 department graduate, said the decline in applications was because of the “media’s avoidance of talking about department graduates’ achievements, in addition to the great neglect the studies of humanities in general, and of history and Arabic in particular, face at Yemeni universities.”

Another factor behind Sana’a University’s decision, he said, was that there is a history department at a Secondary Education College at another university, far from the Yemeni capital, with higher enrolment rates.

Still, the reversal of the decision was “a message of support for teachers who are calling for the development of new curricula,” Al-Hajri said.

Loss of Income

Most departments at Yemeni universities’ faculties of arts and humanities have witnessed significant declines in student admission rates in recent years. Professors at the University of Aden’s College of Education say applications met only 26 percent of their capacity.

Loss of income “prompted hundreds of families to stop their children’s university studies.”

Ali Hefdallah Mohammed
A professor at Thamar University’s College of Education

However, Ali Hefdallah Mohammed, a professor at Thamar University’s College of Education, told Al-Fanar Media that the low enrolment rates were linked to the war and families’ loss of income. “This prompted hundreds of families to stop their children’s university studies,” he said, “but it does not indicate an aversion to these colleges, as official authorities assume.”

Faculties of social sciences and humanities were established to develop the skills of government employees, Hefdallah said. “They have nothing to do with the labour market.”

Radhiyyah Shamsan, a professor at Sana’a University’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities, also blamed the war for lower student numbers. “The decline in enrolment in education colleges is due to the country’s difficult conditions, which affect job opportunities for graduates,” she said. “Our graduates would normally always have job opportunities. They can work in research or teach at schools, universities, and educational and social centres.”

A Generation at Risk

The Scholars at Risk report said that since the war began, many of Yemen’s educational institutions had suffered airstrikes and other direct military attacks. “Available data on armed activity in Yemen suggests that the higher-education communities in Yemen are routinely endangered by such attacks,” it said.

Scholars at Risk called on all parties to the conflict, including state and non-state armed groups, to “refrain immediately from targeted or indiscriminate attacks on higher-education personnel, students, or facilities, and to secure the release of wrongfully imprisoned scholars, students, and university administrators.”

Otherwise, the report warned, “Yemen risks losing a generation of scholars, research, and the societal progress that accompanies quality higher education.”

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