x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Kuwait University short of space, segregating sexes blamed

The Kuwaiti parliament was scheduled to meet Thursday to address the terrible shortage of space at Kuwait University, but the session was adjourned because not enough MPs showed up for the debate.

KUWAIT CITY // When Hamoud Al Enezi rifled through lists of students accepted to Kuwait University published in local newspapers this month, he said he was shocked when he could not find his name.

"I was disappointed. I'd done everything they asked for," said the 18-year-old, who had recently graduated from high school with grades of 79.3 per cent - a result above the minimum requirement to attend Kuwait's only state-run university. "I have the right to go."

Mr Hamoud was one of 2,095 students facing an unplanned educational hiatus because Kuwait University - overwhelmed by an unprecedented number of applications - did not have the space to accommodate all of them.

As the scale of the crisis became apparent, members of parliament criticised the government for failing to provide citizens with education, which is a constitutional right. It was to be discussed in special session in parliament yesterday, but the session was adjourned because of a lack of quorum.

"It's a mess," Mr Al Enezi said.

Liberal politicians and some academics lay the blame on an Islamist-backed law, which came into force in 2003, to segregate the genders. But conservatives say the government's failure to build a new university city has left the educational infrastructure lagging years behind.

Under pressure from the ministry of education, Kuwait University announced last week that it would admit the 2,095 students in the second semester to allow "enough time to prepare for the increase in capacity". The government's financial support would allow the university to admit up to 11,000 students during the academic year.

"The university can't do anything," said Mohammed Abduljader, a liberal and former member of parliament. "They have been forced by the minister to accept these students."

Mr Abduljader blames the crisis on segregation, poor university management and the lack of government vision. He said officials have known the problem was coming for years "but here we take a Panadol when we get sick rather than avoid the cold in the first place".

Mohammed Al Nasser, a lecturer at Kuwait University's English department, said: "They think it's just like that: You accept students and all problems are solved - it's not like that."

The university needs time to go through the "slow process" of hiring more professors, and many lecturers will have to teach extra classes, which could hinder their research, he said. "Personally speaking, I'm happy for the students, but I just hope that it won't be at the professors' expense."

Mr Al Nasser said the segregation law forces lecturers to run separate classes for men and women, even when one lecture could accommodate them all. The "domino effect" was that the university admits fewer applicants.

"I believe segregation is part of the problem and many professors agree with me," he said.

But Kuwait's conservatives - including many in the university's Islamist-controlled Students' Union - support segregation .

"Neither the university nor the ministry of education has mentioned segregation and coeducation as a reason for the dilemma we face today," said Meshal Al Melith, a spokesman for an Islamist party, in comments reported in the Kuwait Times.

The reason for the lack of capacity was the delayed construction of a new university, which was "nowhere near complete" even though it was "announced many years ago", Mr Al Melith said. Abdullah Alazmi, a teacher at the Public Authority for Applied Education and Training (PAAET) and editor-in-chief of the Student's Voice newspaper, said the government had planned to finish the new campus at Shadadiyah in 2014 "and now it looks like it's going to be finished in 2020". He said the new campus was "horrifically late" because of "general bureaucracy".

Officials at the ministry of education did not respond to questions about the delayed construction and the admissions crisis.

Mr Alazmi said Kuwaitis were "furious" because "the government has waited for a catastrophe to happen before they looked for solutions". He said the university's plan to enrol the students in the second semester was temporary because "every year the students are more and more".

Mr Alazmi believes the government could solve the problem by splitting up the PAAET, which now enrols about 13,000 students every year. By allowing the authority's degree-offering colleges to become independent, officials could pave the way for the establishment of a ready-made university, he said.

"There is excess capacity. There are huge buildings," he said, but he suspects the government will not allow a public university to be created because it would eat away at the enrolment of the country's private universities. He said the "sheikhs and businessmen" who own those institutions use their influence to ensure the places available in public education are limited.

Mr Al Nasser questioned the logic of changing the "whole nature" of the PAAET, which he described as a "community college".

As the debate about the future of education in Kuwait raged on, Mr Hamoud said he would be happy with any of the proposed solutions, whether it means beginning later in the year or receiving a scholarship to study at a private university at home or abroad.

"I still have no confirmation about anything from the university," Mr Hamoud said. "Whatever happens, I just don't want to end up at home watching TV."

 

foreigndesk@thenational.ae