The Yemen Arab Republic (YAR): The YAR was, until the 1970s, one of the most isolated countries in the world. It was also, perhaps as a result, one of the poorest and least developed. For example, until the 1960s the YAR had no paved roads, no factories or export industry, and no doctors of Yemeni nationality. This stemmed, in large part, from the limited education sector in the YAR before that time.
Prior to the 1960s, the educational system was limited primarily to religious education provided by Islamic scholars in one of many local kuttab (an Islamic school usually attached to a mosque). A kuttab could be found in all cities, major towns, and most small towns. The primary goal of religious education was to teach students, exclusively boys, the Holy book of Islam, the Qur'an (also transliterated as "Koran"). Most undertook the mammoth task of memorizing the Qur'an by heart, which requires about nine years of study. Religious study also included learning the sayings and examples of the Prophet Muhammad and reading debates by latter scholars on Islamic philosophy and jurisprudence. This form of education was very socially exclusive with only about 5 percent of young people (that is, about 10 percent of males) attending. Students usually came from elite or wealthy parentage. Most students' fathers held senior religious or bureaucratic positions or were wealthy merchants.
Only a handful of secular schools were formed during this time. Imam Yahya (1919-1948) formed a small number of schools with specific purposes: an Orphans' School, the students of which were typically trained in clerical skills; a Scientific School, which despite its title largely trained clerks for the judicial system; a teachers' college; and a military school. Despite this, secular schools remained scant. A few wealthy landowners formed modern schools at this time; the first was probably Ahmad Nu'man who, after a formal religious education, established a secular school in the 1930s at Dhubhan (near Ta'izz). Nu'man's school was the closest to date to true secular education and taught subjects such as mathematics, geography, and physical education. Nu'man found, however, that he was not popular with traditional Yemenis, who saw his school as un-Islamic and counterproductive to the moral development of young people; the Imam sent a traditional religious teacher to supervise him, and in 1937 he surrendered and moved to Egypt.
Nu'man's experiment highlighted the cultural factors that hindered secular education in the YAR during Imam Yahya's reign. Islamic knowledge, and as an extension linguistic and calligraphic skills, were valued at the expense of all others. Added to this was the use of isolation as a political strategy by Imam Yahya, who felt that isolation would protect his rule and draw disparate tribal groups closer together. It was to no avail. In 1948 members of an opposition group assassinated him, although his son Ahmad managed to claim the throne.
Little changed under Imam Ahmad (1948-1962), although he introduced some very minor steps towards opening Yemen to the outside world and to introducing a modern education system. Late in his reign, Ahmad introduced a secular school system, but not a large number of schools were established. The schools that were formed were based on 6 years of primary school and then 3 years of secondary school, typically covered the ages from about 6 to 15, and still existed for the benefit of males.
During this time, many Yemenis who sought a secular education headed to other countries, which they had been doing since before the 1930s. Under Ahmad, increasing numbers went to Egypt, Lebanon, or Europe, especially for their secondary or tertiary education.
After Ahmad's overthrow in 1962, a military government with a secular outlook took power and began to dramatically change and secularize the educational system. Egypt, which had troops and advisers in the country throughout much of the internal conflict between the republicans and royalists that occurred during the period of 1962-1970, provided considerable assistance. More than 50 schools were established, including vocational schools. New topics were taught for the first time formally, such as mathematics, English, and social and natural sciences. Also for the first time, schools for girls were established in the major cities of Sana'a, Ta'izz, and al-Baydha. The College for Radio Telecommunications and the College for Aviation were also established at this time with Egyptian instructors.
The post-revolutionary period of the 1960s also created greater educational and intellectual awareness and led to an increase in public discourse. Libraries were established and expanded along with the growth of public education. Informal associations were also established by writers, intellectuals, and the politically active, where debates and discussions were held and information and theory exchanged on topics as varied as political science, literature, religion, and even the role of women in society.
The 1970s and 1980s saw secular education expand dramatically and become more accessible. A Ministry of Education was established, after a 1963 decree by the military government, to monitor the public school system. Throughout the republic period (1962-1990), religious schools continued to operate, and a few private schools were also established. The school system included six years of primary, three years of preparatory, and three years of secondary education, followed by tertiary study at university or abroad. Primary education revolved around elementary skills, preparatory on practical and vocational skills, and secondary on one of five options: general (arts and sciences), vocational, commercial, agricultural, and teacher training.
The system was poor and heavily reliant on external aid. Only 6-8 percent of annual budgets were spent on education, but it was nonetheless a dramatic improvement and expansion from the past. While compulsory education was not enforced, the percentage of school-aged children attending school went from 12 percent in 1971 to almost 50 percent in 1981. Despite this, the number of girls at school did not increase significantly and remained around 10-15 percent. Further, the completion rate for primary school was poor at about 12 percent in the late 1970s. This meant that illiteracy rates, while slightly improved, remained remarkably high; in 1980, illiteracy was over 80 percent overall, including over 90 percent for females. By 1990, it was still high, but improved for both males and females. On the other hand, transitional rates were high for those who did complete primary school: 85 percent continued to preparatory level, 100 percent of preparatory level continued to secondary, and 78 percent then continued to tertiary study.
The first and most important step in developing the indigenous tertiary education system was the formation of the University of Sana'a in 1970, which remained the YAR's only university until it merged into the Republic of Yemen in 1990. The university was established with Kuwaiti aid and initially was small; at formation, it had only 61 students and 15 staff in three colleges (of law, science and arts). The university was headed by the Minister of Education as University President and included a Secretary-General in charge of day-to-day operations. In the late 1970s the school added colleges of economics and education. The university grew to number over 5,000 students in the late 1980s. Government scholarships were created along with the university to help students study abroad for degrees that were not available at the University of Sana'a.
During the YAR's republic era, there also remained a strong informal education sector, mostly teaching trades and basic literacy. At-work training, for example in clerical and administrative and managerial skills, was also common.
The Aden Protectorate (pre-1967) & the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY, 1967-1990): The British invested little into their protectorate of Aden and, at least prior to World War II, there was limited access to education. In fact, until 1937, the British ruled the area from India in an openly aloof way. The primary interests of the British were in controlling the port of Aden and having a territory from which they could watch and control maritime traffic in the Red Sea and Arabian Sea, especially so as to protect the far more important asset of India.
In the 1930s, there were about 1,000 students enrolled in public schools and another 2,000 or less in private education or tutoring. This figure emphasizes the educational opportunities available to local Yemenis, as it includes a sizeable proportion of expatriates from both Britain and India. The latter was a key criticism of nationalists at the time who did not fail to notice the lack of educational opportunities available, the fact that education went primarily to foreigners, nor indeed that most teachers were foreigners, usually from India. One famous nationalist quote at the time cried, "Where are the Arab teachers?"
Little changed during and after World War II, even though war had brought an economic boom to Aden and had dramatically increased its wealth, population, and influence. The population rise was attributable more to a rise in the number of foreigners than to internal migration. There was a structured public education system, but the chief beneficiaries were those at secondary and tertiary levels or those who could access the English language training that became essential for local Adeni elites. In 1943 the British Council introduced English lessons for both men and women. For young people from elite backgrounds and a secondary education, places were available at the United Kingdom's best universities. Most of these people came from, and went into, public administration, rather than business, reflecting not only what was seen as prestigious, but also the education that was received.
Informally, as in the YAR, there was a rise in the level of political awareness and activity of intellectuals during the 1950s and early 1960s. Clubs were formed among the interested cultural elite, many of which not only served as civil groupings, but also promoted the use of Arabic in everyday life and the education system.
The reliance on foreign teachers under the British left South Yemen in a difficult situation after they claimed their independence in 1967. Education was dramatically expanded and access to it greatly widened after that time. Immediately after the removal of the British, the PDRY education system was expanded, nationalized, and Arabized. The cycle was a six-three-three system, not dissimilar in basic structure to the YAR or most other Arab countries. In 1975, this structure was changed to two-eight-four: two years of kindergarten, eight years of basic schooling (effectively covering primary and preparatory or lower secondary), and four years of secondary. The secondary level was in fact quite flexible with alternative options such as a two-year vocational program or a five-year specialized secondary program.
Education was not compulsory, but attendance was substantial and widespread in marked contrast to earlier periods. Girls were under-represented in education with female primary school enrollment at about 20 to 25 percent in the 1970s and growing to about 35 to 40 percent in the 1980s.
The education system was completely free at all levels with children given free textbooks and transport. In rural areas without a school, students were also given free board. At university level, students were also given a monthly stipend equivalent to about half the average salary.
The higher education level consisted of only one university, the University of Aden, opened in 1975. Six faculties were established in agriculture, law, economics, education, technology, and medicine. Some students also studied abroad, mostly in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, but also in other Arab countries. Other higher education was provided through teachers' training institutes, which supplemented teacher training at the University of Aden. Teaching institute graduates could teach immediately at lower levels (that is, primary school) with the College of Education providing further training for teaching at secondary level. The Ministry of Education also provided training. In both cases, practical experience was included in the curriculum.
Adult illiteracy was a problem in the PDRY as in the YAR, mostly as a result of the lack of education prior to the late 1960s. This was tackled aggressively, however, through countrywide programs. In 1985, for example, the summer break was extended for three extra months to a total of almost six months duration, during which time all adults, men and women and throughout the country, were given the chance to have basic language and literacy training, as well as basic education in other areas such as mathematics.
Unification (1990) & the Republic of Yemen: The unification of the YAR and PDRY in 1990 stemmed from several sources, including both economic pressures and a shared sense of identity between the two peoples. In a sense, although the two states were completely ideologically and administratively different—one tribal and traditional, the other Marxist—the merging of their educational systems was not complex. Sadly, this was partly because both countries had poor levels of education, and suffered from the same problems in trying to develop their education systems. These problems included a lack of financial resources and limited teacher skills, as well as a poor infrastructure that disadvantaged rural areas. To some extent, though more in the YAR, there was a bias, both formal and social, towards the education of males over females, which was made all the worse by high population growth and thus overcrowding in most schools.
The main changes made after unification were the standardization of texts and curricula, as well as a slight restructuring of the education cycle. The new system was structured as nine years of basic education, followed by three years of secondary education. These changes were made difficult by the challenges at the time, including Yemen's international isolation after it was perceived as being pro-Iraqi during the Gulf crisis and Gulf War of 1990-91, not to mention the long-standing problems of poverty and poor economic infrastructure.
The education system that was adopted in Yemen after unification in 1990 was essentially a blend and merger of the systems of the YAR and PDRY with some small changes. The education cycle consists of nine years of primary education, followed by three years of study at secondary level. The usual age to commence education is six years, meaning that students generally enroll in primary school from ages 6 to 14 and then secondary school from 15 to 17. Primary education is, in theory, compulsory, although access for rural areas and females remains a problem and a large number of students still do not complete primary school.
Religious schools remain important and numerous, especially in the north (the former-YAR) where geographic isolation often means limited government and official reach and a mistrust, especially in tribal areas, of centralized, secular government. In urban areas, there has also been in increase in the number of private secular schools.
Higher education in Yemen has grown rapidly in recent years from a handful of universities at the time of unification to seven government universities and eight private ones at present.
Overall expenditure on education in Yemen has risen slightly in recent years. In 1996, total educational expenditure represented 3.6 percent of GDP, which was 23.5 percent of total public expenditure. As a percentage of GDP, the figure is expected to have risen after the economic growth of the late 1990s, although there are conflicting indications that, as the government seeks to reduce costs and its role in the economy, the total figure may actually have declined.
The academic year runs from September to June. Students have an extended summer break of almost three months, as well as shorter breaks for major Islamic and secular holidays.
The language of instruction at primary and secondary levels is Arabic, where students interact in colloquial Yemeni Arabic, but also study more formal Modern Standard Arabic, which is the medium of communication in formal settings such as newspapers, the law, formal political speeches, and international contexts with other Arabic speakers. English is used as the language of instruction in some technical areas at university level, where the most appropriate texts and journals are in English. This includes disciplines such as medicine and natural sciences. English has also become the most common second language studied by students.
Enrollment ratios demonstrate the fact that access to education remains a problem in Yemen, especially for females but also for students in remote areas. In 1996, the enrollment ratio for both sexes was 70 percent in primary level, 34 percent in secondary level, and 4 percent in tertiary level. By gender the figures were: primary, 100 percent for males and 40 percent for females; secondary, 53 percent for males and 14 percent for females; and tertiary, 7 percent for males and 1 percent for females. Female enrollment is, however, dramatically different across regions: at primary level, it is typically above 50 percent in urban areas and often less than half that number in rural areas.
The Ministry of Education oversees the education system. The Prime Minister selects the Minister for Education and must obtain the approval of the House of Representatives for the appointment. The Minister is the head of the Ministry of Education and has overall responsibility for implementing government policies and initiatives dealing with education.
In recent years, the role and relative influence of the Ministry has diminished in line with Yemen's economic liberalization program. Yemen's agreement with the International Monetary Fund for an Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility for the period 1999-2001 included a specific agreement to limit the role of the Ministry and place greater control into the hands of the private sector. Yemen agreed to establish annual per student current and capital expenditure figures, to remunerate teachers on the basis of qualifications and their willingness to relocate to rural and disadvantaged areas, to reduce the administrative costs of education, to increase education access for students from rural areas and for females, and to reduce the number of more expensive foreign teachers. These changes, which Yemen has begun to implement, will likely lead to a greater private sector role in secondary and higher education—indeed, this was already underway, with secular private schools growing in number and popularity during the 1990s—and, in a socio-economic sense based on the experience of other Arab countries with economic reform, possibly a greater metaphorical distance between the state, the professional classes, and the broader population. This said, it is also given that the Ministry will retain its broad oversight role regarding education quality, funding, and strategic and policy direction, while decentralizing the day-to-day management and administration to governorates and districts and, in some areas, to individual schools.
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