Crisis on campus as staff go on strike in Yemen

Working conditions and a lack of funding threaten future of a generation, academics say, as government tries to deal with demands.

SANA'A // Ali Mahyoub al Buraihi is one of hundreds of university professors in Sana'a and Amran who is on strike these days, demanding improvement to education standards and self-governance for his institution. Mr al Burahi, who teaches broadcast media courses at the mass communication college at Sana'a University said "traditional mentalities" running higher education in Yemen have managed to sideline the institution's fundamental role in leading change.
Mr al Buraihi, 36, obtained his PhD in broadcast media from Baghdad University in 2003. "I feel deeply sad because Yemeni universities are not doing a good service to the community and its need for development and change." He was sitting behind his desk, in a room that accommodates more than nine desks for his colleagues. The college is located on an arid piece of land where dust surrounds the decaying buildings.
"When I joined the university in 2005, I had expected the situation would be different; I envisaged the university would be an institution for scientific research like other universities, but I found it not different from other institutions run by people whose primary concern is politics rather than working for a better academic output," Mr al Buraihi said. Mr al Buraihi said university professors have got no time for research and innovations because their $900 (Dh3,305) monthly salaries are not enough to live a decent life and forces them to hunt for other work opportunities outside the university system.
"They finish their classes and go to look for another job either in private universities or somewhere else," he said. As a result of low pay, dozens of Yemeni professors have left Yemen for better chances and many of them are now teaching at universities in other Gulf states. "In addition, the overall environment is frustrating; there are no funds for research and no facilities like laboratories.
"We are therefore teaching according to traditional methods. I am afraid that we will not even be able to keep pace with schools in other countries if this situation does not change." Mr al Buraihi also attributes the neglect of universities to the fears of state authorities about university campuses becoming politicised. Mr al Buraihi said he had wanted to leave Yemen just a few months after he joined Sana'a University. "I dropped the idea of leaving the country because I had found other work in addition to teaching at the university. It is difficult to make a decent life without having to do more than one job."
Like hundreds of other teachers, Mr al Buraihi goes to his college these days but without teaching. Most classes are empty, except in some lectures given by expatriate teachers following the strike of the teaching staff that began April 10. "We have decided to go on open strike because we did not find any positive response from the people in charge," said Jameel Awan, a leading officer at the teaching staff union.
"We are asking for a response to calls of reform of the university education as well as financial and administrative independence of the university. We are calling for a respect of the spirit of the higher education law that says three teachers should be elected to the university council as well as election of the rector and deans of colleges." The union is also calling for a piece of land to build housing complexes to accommodate the teachers, a demand the university council had approved in 2007 but had never acted upon.
The demand also includes health insurance and the payment of annual bonuses, which were stopped in 2005. The union is also asking for the respect of a parliamentary recommendation in February to allow university professors to continue teaching after retirement, based on university needs. "University professors should not be forced to stay at home as we can have contact with them and make use of their rich experience, particularly in post-graduate studies," Mr Awan said.
He added that the university should make use of experienced older professors instead of hiring expatriate instructors. According to Sana'a University figures, 65 of the teaching staff would be pensioned off this year and 45 were retired last year. The union also wants universities to stop the "militarising" the campuses. The main gates of the university and colleges are guarded by police and intelligence agencies have representatives in each college. Occasional incidents of harassment and beating of students have been reported. A policeman at Sana'a University fatally shot a student last year.
Two weeks of negotiations between the union and the government have reached a deadlock. Ahmed Basardah, the vice rector of Sana'a University, said the government had responded positively to teachers' demands. "These demands are legitimate and should have been addressed a long time ago. The prime minister has agreed to the demands and I think a meeting with the union will be held soon." But the strike had been politicised and used as an instrument in the political fight between the ruling party and the opposition, he claimed.
"I think the students are to suffer because of the strike and I advise my colleagues to leave politics behind ? the union argues that the government pledged to address their demands but later dodged. Let us give it a chance now and if nothing happens, they can resume the strike," Mr Basardah said. The overall effect on the quality of a university education will not be attained in the absence of financial and administrative autonomy, which is the main problem for the eight government universities, according to Mohammed Mutahar, vice minister of higher education and scientific research.
"Problems associated with shortage of funding, infrastructure, absence of restructuring and self-resourcing, budgets of scientific research and post-graduate studies, retirement system are all symptoms for one single disease which is the absence of the universities financial and administrative independence," Mr Mutahar told MPs in February.