YEMEN: Fee waiver fails to impress students

In a bid to quell student protests, Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh announced a month ago that public universities would waive fees for 'parallel' students who enter higher education despite failing to meet normal entry standards. But the concession had little impact as students are opposed to fees being charged at all - and their demand, now joined by hundreds of thousands of Yemeni, is for Saleh's departure and transparent democracy.

In a statement following the fee announcement, the General Union of Yemeni students said: "We are happy with this compromise but we urge the government to abolish the fees not this year only but forever."

Inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, students at Sana'a University and activists kicked off protests in the capital in January. They demanded the ousting of Saleh, who has ruled since 1978.

Refusing to stop, the student demonstrators were joined by growing numbers of civilians until at times they numbered more than 100,000 around the country. From mid-February protestors were met with force, resulting in around three deaths a day, according to Amnesty International. Some of those killed have been students.

After weeks of ambivalence the political opposition, a loose coalition of groups of various ideologies, joined the protests last week. An attempt by Saleh to form a unity government was rejected by students and the opposition.

"We don't trust Saleh to keep his word and will continue to protest until he is gone," Sana'a University law student Tareq Abdul Aziz told the Christian Science Monitor.

Higher education in Yemen, which comprises seven public universities and a number of private, religious and community colleges that together enroll some 200,000 students, has largely ground to a halt.

On Tuesday, Saleh met with academics, staff and students from Sana'a University, according to the Yemen News Agency. He urged professors and students to conduct dialogue with the protestors: "We are ready to meet all demands according to the state's potential."

On 9 February the news agency announced the signing of six agreements with the World Bank totalling around US$5.8 million to upgrade universities and launch various science-based programmes at the public universities of Taiz, Aden, Ibb, Dhamar and Amran.

This followed a $13 million loan last year for university reforms, curriculum development and new academic programmes, and the development of a higher education committee to oversee curricula and standards.

Students in Yemen follow one of four systems: the regular system which is free in public universities; a 'parallel' system usually conducted in the afternoons; a distance learning system; and self-financed study where students are charged fees higher than those in the 'parallel' system.

Yemen has been working to improve access to higher education. It adopted the parallel system, Mawazi in Arabic, in 2004 in an attempt to give low-graded secondary school-leavers the chance to enrol in universities.

Students graded below 85% can join the faculty of dentistry and those with grades below 50% can enrol in humanities courses that carry an annual payment of university fees. Today the parallel system enrols 20% to 25% of all university students, according to the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research.

Parallel students pay about US$200 a year in the faculty of English whereas in medicine the cost is about US$2,000. Students say this is expensive and contributes to the widening gap between the rich and poor.

Ridwan Masoud, chairman of the General Union of Yemeni Students at Sana'a and Amran universities, claimed the scheme was illegal as it contradicted Article 45 of the constitution, which states that education is a right for all citizens guaranteed by the government.

He also said there were cases of corruption and irregularities in the management of the scheme and its revenue.

Ali Al Mo'dari, a parallel education student at Sana'a University studying public relations in the afternoons, said: "The abolition of fees is a measure to calm us down at this stage of escalating protests against the regime." But, he added, one year is not enough and students are urging the president to concede total cancellation of fees charged under the scheme.

The number of students admitted annually is set by the Higher Council of Universities. But there have been accusations from student unions that the number has been exceeding the limit, putting pressure on teachers and students due to limited lecture halls and resources.

The Ministry of Education believes the parallel scheme is essential and progressive, because it gives access to university to school-leavers who would not otherwise achieve a place, and because the fees charged are far lower than those of private universities or education abroad.

Sana'a University has said that besides helping students the parallel system has generated considerable income, among other things enabling the university to establish 16 research centres. Parliament had suggested that 25% of revenue from fees charged to parallel students should be allocated to research.

But it is difficult for students in a country where more than 40% of people live on less than $2 a day, with high unemployment and lack of loans and grants, to pay university fees without government support. This hardship has been fuelling the protests of a student population also angry about youth unemployment, government corruption and lack of political freedom.