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Yemen: the globe’s forgotten higher education crisis?

The statistics are harrowing. An estimated 377,000 deaths in the seven years to 2021. Two-thirds of a 34.2 million population in need of humanitarian assistance at the end of 2022. Some 4.5 million people – including 2 million children – internally displaced. And yet the crisis in Yemen rarely makes international news headlines.

Photo: pexels

Along with Ethiopia and Myanmar, the crisis in Yemen has been "less well-reported", according to Scholars at Risk

While diplomatic efforts continue to bring an end to fighting between Saudi Arabia and Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the country, The PIE wanted to identify ways in which the international education sector can assist and change the lives of those in the country for the better.

Since the outbreak of war in 2014, IIE – an organisation which also set up financial aid support for citizens from the country studying in the US in 2016 – has seen applications to its Scholar Rescue Fund from Yemen soar.

Immediate support and assistance

The total 158 fellowships to 91 Yemeni scholars during the conflict has been aided by partnerships with 43 host institutions in 13 countries. A quarter of scholars in 2022 were from Yemen.

Academic safe havens were identified in Europe, North America and Malaysia, and IIE also placed Yemeni scholars at higher education institutions in Egypt, Jordan and Iraq’s Kurdistan region.

The importance of offering opportunities in their home region, where they can continue in their native language and maintain ties with students and colleagues in Yemen, is key in a multi-pronged approach, IIE director of SRF, James King, told The PIE.

“The UN has consistently described Yemen as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, but it’s also a higher education emergency,” he said.

There are misconception about Yemen, whereby the “sophisticated scholarly, artistic and literary traditions” are often forgotten, he continued. Prior to the war in 2011, more than 10% of university age Yemenis were enrolled in higher education, a number that, like throughout the Arab world, “was growing each year”.

IIE is supporting scholars living amidst “unimaginable conditions, violence, disease, water shortages, food shortages, academic freedom violations and direct threats”.

Even among huge crises in Afghanistan, Ukraine and other regions, Yemen has consistently been the source of the most SRF applications in the past five years. Through the initiative more than two thirds of the Yemeni scholars are supported within the Arab region and in neighbouring countries, with grants of $25,000 facilitating temporary positions.

While mobility challenges around visas, cost of living, academic and cultural linguistic differences limit opportunities in North American or Europe, opportunities in Egypt, Jordan and northern Iraq, for example, allow “scholars to stay close to home, which is oftentimes their preference”, he noted.

Malaysia has been one country very welcoming to Yemeni fellows, thanks to long standing ties with eastern Yemen. Quite a few Yemenis have completed PhDs in the East Asian country and it has also hosted SRF participants from Iraq and Turkey, King noted.

In contrast, placements at partner universities in North America and Europe requires the institutions to match the $25,000 grant to support the scholars.

Scholars at Risk, the organising championing the principles of academic freedom globally, monitors the threats to students and academics in Yemen, as well as the rest of the world.

Along with Ethiopia and Myanmar, the crisis in Yemen has been “less well-reported”, it has warned.

Houthi-appointed officials have ordered forces to take control of university buildings in Dhamar and quelled on-campus student demonstrations at Sana’a University, beating student protesters and arresting an unspecified number, its reports say.

Speaking with The PIE, Mustafa Bahran, who is the chair of the Scholars At Risk initiative at Carleton University, emphasised that the “catastrophe in Yemen is being forgotten”.

“Please don’t put Yemen as a footnote [after the crises in Ukraine and Afghanistan],” he implored.

Houtis have begun separating boys and girls in education, he noted, likening the rebels to the Taliban who consider women’s position in society to be at home.

Despite universities, especially among UK institutions, having dedicated pages for Yemeni students, figures from popular English-speaking study destinations point to very limited numbers of student enrolments from Yemen.

IRCC statistics in Canada indicated the country’s institutions hosted a total of 155 in 2022 (55 so far this year), Open Doors in the US show 305 enrolments from Yemen in 2021/22 and HESA in the UK indicates 75 countrywide, with six institutions close to hosting five Yemeni students each (the figures are rounded to the nearest five).

As of 2020, about 1,200 Yemeni students were registered at German universities, according to reports.

The British Council, with one of its 100+ offices worldwide in Yemen, focuses on education, training and employability and empowering young people to take charge in fulfilling their destiny and give them a voice in Yemeni society.

“More work needs to be done especially in education to deliver at scale to meet the needs of all young Yemenis”

British Council seeks to “catalyse positive, peaceful dialogue and change” in the communities of young Yemeni men and women through its work in arts & culture, education and English, the organisation’s country director for Yemen, Rowaida Khulaidi, told The PIE.

An “unpredictable” security situation means the British Council spends a lot of time scenario-planning to ensure smooth and safe delivery of projects.

“The work we do in Yemen supports the resilience of the country’s social capital and its young people that make up most of the population,” Khulaidi said.

“However more work needs to be done especially in education to deliver at scale to meet the needs of all young Yemenis, and it requires coordination and finding synergies with the wider international sector that will enable this. Education in Yemen is rather traditional, and the need to modernise education is crucial so that students can live, work and thrive.”

It is “very difficult to work inside the country” currently due to political barriers or a lack of internet access, King emphasised.

“One of the things we hear over and over again is that the students and scholars inside Yemen are incredibly isolated from the international community.”

Isolation from the outside world was also an issue raised by Khulaidi at The British Council.

“Through our work in the arts, we help empower and amplify Yemeni voices to address this isolation and reconnect them to the outside world,” she told The PIE.

In 2020, British Council supported a local theatre company to produce a Yemeni version of Hamlet, with mentoring from two UK theatre companies, she noted.

The Khaleej Aden Troupe performing Hamlet in Yemen. Photo: Images courtesy of Khaleej Aden Troupe

The US government sponsored, USAID-funded Yemen Gateway to Education project has sought to get out-of-school children back to the classroom and “learn and heal through art”. The country has also recently launched the ‘Welcome Corps’ for people fleeing war, violence, and persecution.

Khulaidi pointed to the “crucial” need for ongoing teacher development to ensure teachers have the necessary skills to support students.

As a “key language for Yemenis to access better employment and income opportunities”, the British Council English teacher training program is helping.

Further scholarships to study English would be key to unlock many future doors for Yemenis, she added.


Unicef has calculated that in seven years, at least one in four schools were destroyed, partially damaged or utilised for non-educational purposes.

SRF scholars – most of whom hold PhDs – are continuing teaching, researching and engaging in on-campus activities during their placements. As well as gaining skills and connections that will in the long term help Yemen, many are continuing to supervise students and teach courses virtually back home, King continued.

“We have Yemeni scholars who are some of the most senior specialists in Yemeni agriculture, for example, or in the archaeology of Yemen. They are renowned experts in those areas.

“We’re partnering with universities all with the idea that they will eventually be able to bring those [skills and connections] back to Yemen. Or if they can’t return, they’ll continue contributing to Yemen from afar.”

When the war comes to an end, the country’s higher education sector will need “a massive infusion of resources and partnerships to rebuild”, including virtual learning opportunities.

“It will be important for the international community to to really devote resources to that,” he said, adding that the “incredible network” of Yemeni scholars and experts in the diaspora could serve as a “technocratic base” when the country rebuilds.

Many involved in the Association of Yemeni Academics and Professionals have proven themselves as talented, resilient, amazing scholar who have also been able to gain skills during their scholarships.

“Some of those Yemenis abroad will go back immediately, some won’t,” he said.

“I call for the international community to increase as much as possible the ability to host and provide space for Yemeni scientists and intellectuals”

For Bahran, the priority now is to “preserve the Yemeni brain and enlarge it in order to be available to help” for when the rebuild begins – be that preservation either in the local region or in education systems in the west.

“I call for the international community to increase as much as possible the ability to host and provide space for Yemeni scientists and intellectuals to exercise their academic freedom and their intellectual abilities,” he told The PIE.

It’s not logistically difficult for scholars and students to escape Yemen, but limited financial means is a barrier for many, he continued.

Learning from other crises

Every crisis is different, but there are takeaways from other experiences. During the war in Iraq for example, IIE supported more than 300 professors, many of whom went back to lead universities after that war.

“But even those who didn’t go home, they still wanted to participate in the rebuilding of their country,” King explained.

The Iraq Distance Learning Initiative saw IIE partner with the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education to identify gaps in expertise to ensure that Iraqis overseas could fill curricular gaps and teach courses or deliver lecture series virtually.

“It was an incredibly successful initiative, and I can imagine something like that for Yemen,” he said.

Photo: pexels

Following the Syrian war, innovation in transcript and document verification leapt forward, such as with refugee qualification passports, but there’s “still a lot of work to be done for universities to be able to make adjustments to these kinds of realities”, King said.

When the Syrian war started, there was not the same recognition from the international community that higher education has to be part of the response.

“Many of the Syrians who were displaced as refugees either in Europe or in the region said they wanted to continue their education. It was like, ‘we need shelter, we need food and water and we need to continue our education’.

“We do see donor agencies, governments, foundations, even individuals, are stepping up, very much so,” he said, adding that there haven’t been so many higher education emergencies happening simultaneously for some time.

“We haven’t even mentioned Sudan in this whole conversation”

“Cameroon, Ethiopia, Venezuela, we haven’t even mentioned Sudan in this whole conversation,” he noted.

IIE is anticipating a third the cases at the next quarterly selection committee to come from Sudan. “The needs are so great,” King added.

Within the Sudanese context, many scholars will likely be supported to undertake fellowships in Egypt.

“Finding ways for the international community and the international higher education community to support those frontline refugee hosting states… is really critical,” he added, such as IIE’s work in South America, where it works with universities in Chile, Colombia, Mexico, to host Venezuelan scholars.

But he acknowledged that higher education institutions have now recognised crises like these as part of their mandates, in addition to the benefit of hosting academics with expertise and unique experiences. Many institutions have built hosting scholars into their budgets and programming.

“Institutions have stepped up,” he said. “I think we now have a healthier and more realistic recognition that any time there’s a war, any time there’s large scale displacement, universities and the global higher education sector have an immediate role to play. Even though that response is still under resourced, there’s been a lot of progress.”

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