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New wine in old bottle: Ethiopian Education Development Roadmap

New wine in old bottle: Ethiopian Education Development Roadmap


Dr. Yohannes Aberra Ayele(Associate professor)



And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. Jesus Christ’s parable in Luke 5:37


Ethiopians, policy makers and lay people in the streets alike, are fretting painfully about the deteriorating quality of education in the Country. In “the Era of the Brain” nations rise or fall not by the sharpness of the sword but by the mediocrity of their workforce. Ethiopia is on the brink of disaster; as the number of graduates increases the capacity to deliver in the economy and society declines. This may look like a paradox; but it isn’t. Although there is plenty of saline water in the seas surrounding the Arab nations they don’t consider themselves as water rich. For water to be potable, there are WHO quality standards for a healthy drinking water. Education is nothing different. If the economy is receiving more and more of graduates who have spent 4-6 years in higher institutions of learning, many of them just grazing on grades rather than on competencies, no doubt the economy and the society will be is a deep seated crisis.

The crisis in the quality of education is of course not a new phenomenon. Changing political ideologies have been putting a lot of pressure on education. Rulers during the Imperial period made sure that the curriculum was typically American. It was just “a piece of cake” for a student to name the fifty statesof the USA, including their capital cities, rather than the easier to know and remember 14 provinces of Ethiopia. American educated Ethiopians and American volunteers were all over the Ethiopian educational landscape. The curricula were loaded with contents whichcould not help the backward smallholder subsistence agricultural livelihoods. The latter constituted over 90 percent of the Country’s population. There were even nuclear-physicists in the Arat Kilo natural science campus. Besides, the education system was designed to idolize the Emperor and glorify the degrading feudal economic and social system. Evaluation in the only University (HSIU) was so stringent that a third of the freshmen were dismissed in the end of the first semester in what was jokingly known as “Christmas-graduation”. This is in stark contrast to what is happening in Ethiopia in the last decade or two.

The Military government abolished feudalism in its own dreadful way by murdering 60 members of the nobility and proclaiming the land tenure act five months later. The Monarchy in its death-bed desired to implement what was then known as the “Education Sector Review” which simply added fuel to the fire of the 1974 mass uprising. The new government had a “novel and scientific” way of bringing change to the “Feudo-bourgeoisie” education of the previous regime. It was no other than the Ethiopian educated elite, from the diaspora and Haile Selassie I University, who guided the officers heading the government to adopt a socialist education policy, a polar opposite of the previous education policy. The new policy which emphasized the building of an “all rounded socialist personality” in the young generation was superimposed on the existing system of education, where the books, the teachers, the school and university management system inherited from the previous regime.In many cases replacing capitalist/ bourgeoisie oriented textbooks by socialist oriented text books took the form of bon-firing the former in school compounds. Due to the lack of maneuvering, manipulation, and persuasion skills among the Military leaders who were well versed only with how to win battles, they had no choice but to apply methodologies of war on the educational system. Terrorizing teachers who found instilling socialist values in the minds of their students difficult. Details of what happened could be read from other sources.

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The inaugural action in the process of killing the quality of education during the military regime was the two-year “development campaign” involving senior secondary and university students and teachers. For two odd years education was halted at grade nine, and the Nation’s future was locked all over the rural areas of Ethiopia doing little more than establishing “peasant associations”, helping in harvest, preaching about the change in the political system, and hatching rebellion against the Military regime itself. The leaders were not worried about the potential harm they were inflicting on the generation of human resources for the future of the Country. By sending students and teachers away they felt relieved from the possible revolts in schools, university, and colleges, and can continue with their restructuring of the socioeconomic system along socialist lines uninterrupted.

By the end of the “development campaign”, when high schools, university and colleges reopened, there was already a backlog of high school students who flooded the senior high schools and the university whose previous capacities was not expanded to accommodate the sudden rise in student population. There started the increase in class-size, a degenerative disease for education. Students were spending their days in school rather than getting proper education. The frequent and seemingly unending gun-battles between the EPRP urban-based fighters and the cadres of the socialist military regime became a curse for the educational system. It was not possible to think clearly let alone learn attentively. Teaching and learning was disrupted and in many places completely stopped. Students and teachers were dragged out of classrooms and jailed or killed. Schools and higher institutions of learning were depopulated and those remaining behind frustrated. It was very clear that a generation was being lost with dangerous ramifications for the future.

The final significant blow the Military regime inflicted on Ethiopian education was the decision to acquire sufficient skilled manpower for the economy by reducing the number of years of university education from four to three. The worst part of this decision was that some teachers endorsed it others did not. One can imagine what was happening to the teaching and learning process. A curriculum content designed for four years had to be completed in three years. The way teachers were rushing to finish courses on time was appalling. Later on, graduates were categorized as “four years good, three years bad”.  The introduction of Marxian courses into the university curriculum, as compulsory, was like introducing killer pests into the crop field. Political economy and Marxist Philosophy were offered during the entire freshman year. Lecturers found their decisive position as teachers of these compulsory courses enjoyable. They ill-treated and gave low grades to students who were intelligent in their major subjects but were poor in these imposed Marxist courses.  Myopic policy makers destroyed not only the Nation but also the life of the individual graduates, who become unable to compete for jobs inside Ethiopia let alone overseas. During the Military regime hundreds of students were sent to the then socialist countries for higher education as part of the socialist cooperation schemes. With a master’s degree as a first degree they returned half-baked and were assigned even to Hospitals and Medical colleges. No need to tell the consequences.

The war between rebels and government troops all over the Ethiopian countryside, particularly in the north, was causing widespread closure of schools and the subsequent mass recruitment of young people into the military and into the rebellion. It was only the lucky, the uninvolved, and may be the better offs who found themselves attending university education and joining the universities as teachers or getting jobs in other economic sectors or going overseas forming the robust Ethiopian diaspora. Towards the end of the Military regime, a few weeks before his flight to Zimbabwe, the president of the “Republic” unashamedly exhibited how much disdain he had for higher education. He had no idea that education is the last thing to stop when a nation falls into turmoil. The Palestinians have a strong system of education from which international levels scholars emanate. It is also well known that Palestinians are locked in an open prison unable to secure even their daily food and water. The Colonel ridiculed Addis Ababa University students for quietly attending classes while the Nation was in “turmoil”.

It was on this tragic backdrop of education in Ethiopia that the EPRDF came to superimpose its new education policy. Like its predecessor it used the staff that was trained and the management system that was erected by the previous socialist regime to implement its new policy. It succeeded to remove much of the relics of socialism from the curricula, but not those who were trained to teach them. I don’t mean they had to be removed as well; but instead of re-orienting them skillfully the same old methods were used of branding the confusedteachers as “Derg remnants”. The backlash was obvious.Teachers, and school and university administrators took things lightly, pleasing the EPRDF cadres, but not taking decisions seriously. False reports became the order of the day as an alternative to facing the EPRDF cadres head on for the sake of the bitter truth in the educational system. Others were paying lip service to the educational authorities while using the opportunity for corruption and rent seeking. It is also alleged that even authorities in the education sector were collaborating with the rent seekers and the corrupt school and university leaders leaving the deteriorating education system unattended. Higher officials have always known that the quality of education in Ethiopia is very poor. Instead of trying to solve the problem, they were running away from it by sending their children abroad for high quality education and also employing expatriates as advisors and consultants. It is rumored widely in Ethiopia that Chinese building engineers said “The country of the Ethiopians is not Ethiopia; they have some other country”.

While education sector Federal officials were happily reporting to the World Bank about the rising student enrollment and the proliferation of universities in Ethiopia, leaving the schools and universities to the local and regional officials and the affiliated university leaders, the stench of the deteriorating quality of education at all levels started to fill the air. A sudden alarm bell, a sudden noise of the trumpet, a sudden invasion of mediocrity, a sudden rise in unemployment, and a sudden workshop and conference craze.Was it really sudden? No, not at all!It was a creeping but unnoticed disaster. It was only because a ‘blind eye’ was turned to education quality as if, with time, the decomposition would not be felt by everyone, including higher EPRDF officials.

The deterioration of the quality of education and the inability of the economy to absorb the rising number of graduates partly sparked the revolt that has been raging for the last two years. Although it is claimed to have started as early as 2016 a new roadmap for education was announced a few months ago. In full, it is named Ethiopian Education Development Roadmap (EEDR)for 2018-30. I have got access to the 100-page summary of the document authored by authorities in the field like Prof. AmareAsgedom and Prof. TirusewTeferra, who ‘cut-their-teeth’ in the pedagogical sciences. Although I have been teaching in higher education for the last thirty years, I could not be in good position to critique the result of research on the quality of education by such renowned personalities in the field. In fact, that was not my aim when I set out to write this commentary article. That is why I preferred to dub EEDR as a “new wine”.

I agree with everyone else that the deterioration in the quality of education has to be reversed. There is no saner alternative to doing so. What I am worried about is that the implementation, which according to the document has already started (2018), is being rushed as has become customary in the implementation of previous new polices in Ethiopia. A painter, as matter of talent, is keen about how suitable the material to be painted on is. Some kinds of paintings need leather canvass, other need white paper; still others may require a street-side wall. The quality of the material on which an image is painted is also a critical requirement. Some materials may destroy the image by spreading the color out or absorbing it; others may change the color and disappoint the painter.

When you put new wine in an old and untidy bottle the possibility is that the wine may at first sight appear unattractive, and next,its taste may become disgusting. The contributor of the two photos in the title-page of the document has actually aggravated my fear of failure of the new roadmap: the start is in a warm tropical environment signifying enthusiastic beginning; but the finish is in icy polar environment signifying discouraging failure. The pictures can easily be changed; what cannot be so easily changed is the stage which is already set through regressive evolution of the system of education in the Country. In this commentary article I am focused on higher education. I am aware that the deterioration in the quality of high education ispartly determined by the carryover from secondary education, even from as far down in the schooling levels as nurseries, I am not well-versed with pre-university levels of education to boldly engage in the analysis of the same.

Spotlighting higher education for the implementation of the Ethiopian Education Development Roadmap should seriously consider the setting on which it is to be applied. I strongly feel that the setting, which already exists unaltered, but is expected to accommodate the new Roadmap; is far from being an excellent host. The deterioration of the quality of education is not a car accident to require emergency operation of the victims. It has been a process that cumulatively institutionalized itself and has become so entrenched that discussion with teachers followed by implementation is a recipe for disaster. In this piece of mine I will discuss some of the intractable problems in higher education that may hinder the “Roadmap-Angel” from treading onto the Ethiopia’s educational system.

1.  Summative vs. Diagnostic Assessment

For many years before the advent of the preparatory schools the Ethiopian School Leaving Certificate Exam (ESLCE) was used both for the certification of secondary school completion as well as a university entrance exam (UEE). The ESLCE was meant to verify how well students have grasped what they learned in grades 9 to 12. Using the ESLCE as a university entrance exam was inappropriate to say the least. University entrance exams should be separate from school leaving exams. The ESLCE is a form of summative assessment to evaluate students at the end of a certain level of learning (secondary school in this case). It is past oriented rather than future oriented. UEE are diagnostic assessments that allow determination of the students’ prior knowledge (general and specific) that could enable them to start university level education, in particular fields without facing serious difficulties.

2.  In-situ and Ex-situ preparation of students for university education

In the past there was the freshman programme in university which prepared students in-situ. The ESLCE was used as a UEE and students were admitted to universities and colleges. The first year programme helped to prepare students for majoring specific areas of study in their second year. It was fun to be a freshman; ridiculed by senior students who themselves were ridiculed by their seniors when they were freshmen. Freshman year was helping the novice to familiarize themselves with the academic and administrative environment in the universities and colleges before they plunge into the rigorous studies of their major areas in the following year. They were informally coached by the senior students in how to use the library and other university facilities and resources, acquire the discipline required for timing and running around to meet the complex course schedules, getting used to unfamiliar teaching methods which is far from being spoon feeding,  harmonizing with a new environment away from home, full of unfamiliar languages, cultures and behaviors.

The preparation for university education, the freshman programme, was moved away from university and college campuses to ex-situ locations all over Ethiopia, wherever there were senior secondary schools and creating them if there were none. It is only for war that soldiers have to be trained away from war. Preparing students for university education away from universities is a futile capacity building attempt. To be eligible for attending preparatory schools students are required to take a general exam at the end of grade 10. This exam is a general exam to mark the end of compulsory education in Ethiopia. The exam assesses how much general knowledge one has acquired to be a good citizen, not to be a good beginner for university education in preparatory schools.

Unlike the freshman programme the students in the preparatory schools are not yet university students. They are senior secondary students who may or may not pass the National exam to join universities. The budget allotted, and all the effort made is not strictly for students who are sure to be in the university, but includes a large proportion of the preparatory school students who may never set foot on university campuses. So, the preparatory schools are not substitutes for the freshman programme but just schemes to prepare students for the final National exam. Like the ESLCE the exam at the end of the preparatory years is not valid enough to serve as a diagnostic assessment of the students for university education. 

3.  Ineffective National exams

Be what it may the National exam administered at the end of preparatory schooling is ineffective. Even if we accept, the unacceptable, that this exam can serve as university entrance exam it does not adequately measure the level of intelligence of the students. In the world of assessment you cannot sufficiently measure knowledge and ability without a diversity of assessment types. Multiple-choice (recognition) questions and their blackened-circle answers are easy to correct by machine but not as easy to determine knowledge. It is impossible to know that circle A is correctly blackened on the answer-sheet by a student who knew on his own that it was the right answer, or the student has guessed it as an answer by ‘snatching hair from eyebrows’, or a friend sitting next to him/her has whispered the answer to him/her. Higher education officials have been busy appealing, warning, condemning, cursing copying answers in exams-“kureja”. They have become too busy with the symptom rather than with the cause. Effective assessment system does not allow these kinds misdeeds by its very nature.


4.  Inadequate English language skills of students at university admission

We are living in an English-speaking Planet. The world cannot move an inch without the former British colonial language, which has now become everybody’s own language without involving any coercion. No other language can compete with the English language in the wealth of natural science, social science, and technological vocabulary it has amassed throughout the entire Century. The medium ofinstruction in the institutions of higher education in Ethiopia is English. We have to make up our minds to live with this fact forever! A working ability of speaking, listening, writing in English is mandatory at university level. It is not a matter of choice. It is possible to learn Basic English in three months in intensive language training sessions. However, the level of fluency needed for attending higher education requires not a few weeks of lecturing but lifetime nurturing in the English language. I argue that English has to literally be breast-fed if the required level of rigor in higher education is to be endured by students effectively at international standards.

We have two poles to choose from. One is the right to learn in one own local language for eight years and risk under-performance in secondary and university education. The other is a more pragmatic move to use English as a medium of instruction beginning from early primary school and perform best in secondary and tertiary levels. The latter could enable Ethiopian graduates to be competitive at international levels. This is the mystery behind why Kenyans, Nigerians, Ghanaians have dominated international organizations.

5.  University academic programmes opened like garment shops

One of the easiest things to do in the higher institutions of learning in Ethiopia today is to open an academic programme in all three levels. Just name it, it will be an academic programme! The degree of liberty to open academic programmes by individuals, groups, donors, etc. is astounding. No one seems to raise serious questions about standards, teaching staff adequacy, the quality of knowledge imparted at each level, facilities, above all, the Country’s development needs. It does not matter how much experience the university has to be capable of handling masters and PhD programmes. Some universities, still under construction and not yet graduated their first batch of students, are heard to be planning or implementing graduate programmes.

It was reported five years ago in Addis Ababa University that the proliferation of graduate programmes hit 208. A programme review committee was setup to instill order in to the chaos. While the Committee was squabbling among itself about how to approach the problem, new academic programmes were opening disregarding the “please wait” instruction from University authorities. Of course, it was the university senate that was approving the opening the new programmes while a review to restructure the programmes was at full swing. The reason why this kind of transgression was taking place is those opening the new programmes during the programme review and before are those considered to be “more equal than others”. Such people have little regard for authority, legislation, and normal working traditions in other academic and administrative matters as well: “Their wish is the university’s command”.  

6.  The deleterious speed of opening new universities

Expanding access for citizens of higher education is a commendable action. Ethiopia has had a visible deficiency in this regard. There is no limit to the number of universities a nation should have. It all depends on how many young people there are that must get a deserved access to higher education. In less than two decades the government of Ethiopia opened over forty universities in almost all parts of Ethiopia. What was at the disposal of the government was the finance for construction of buildings, the purchase of furniture and equipment, and for hiring qualified teaching staff. Unfortunately, the latter was not easy to come by. Most of the universities were located far away from Addis Ababa and considered inconvenient and unsafe to live and work in. Inconvenience, safety and security concerns arose due to weather, language and culture, conflicts and alleged xenophobia in the localities where the universities are established. In the absence of alternative for the lack of sufficiently qualified applicants for academic staff positions the new universities had to downgrade the stringency of their criteria for recruitment.

It was customary, though in several cases violated by ethnic and political affiliations, for the highest achievers to be hired as graduate assistants in universities departments. Addis Ababa University had for long maintained the minimum GPA of 3.00 for recruitment. In other colleges minimum cumulative GPA of 2.5 and a major GPA of 2.75 was the minimum requirement. This was also the minimum requirement for graduate admission. The budding universities could not afford such a luxury. Whoever was willing to be hired with a minimum graduating GPA of 2.00 was welcome. Graduates with the history of poor performance found themselves in university teaching positions (normally and beneficially reserved for the brightest). Those who were willing to be hired in the “remote” universities were mostly natives of the respective localities or regions. This was not limited to the teaching staff, the management of the universities also turned out to be predominantly native to the localities. There was a scant opportunity for check and balance. The universities became de-jure federal, but de-facto regional or zonal. There prevailed ‘frontier-mentality’ in handling university resources and the teaching and learning process.

The next step, triggered by the recruitment of academic staff with poor academic record, was the start of the vicious cycle, which could run for generations to come. The new recruits decide to go to the “peripheral” universities with the chance to join graduate school in mind. University teaching requires higher degrees. Thus the universities would as a matter of rule require their graduate assistants to join graduate school. In the meantime Addis Ababa University promised to open masters and PhD programmes in almost all fields and train 10,000 and 5000 prospective graduates respectively as capacity building effort for the new universities. The poor performers join masters’ programmes and graduate as a “matter of right” and come back again for their PhD to finish this too anyway. There seems to be an unwritten law that everyone that got admission (BA, MA, PhD) in an institution of higher learning graduates. University teachers who award D, or F or even C to poorly performing students are eyed badly as obstacles to the objectives of higher education. One professor put my observation in beautiful language: “Thesis submission is graduation; students who submit their thesis but not yet sat for defense, invite their families for the graduation ceremony out of perfect certainty to graduate!”  These graduates produce students which would be lower than expected and a precipitous decent begins in the quality of higher education.

7.  Informal interest group networks in universities 

The only interest grouping expected and encouraged in higher institutions of learning, because it helps to enhance the quality of education, is grouping around research ideas, around common national issues, and to help student learning through group coaching. What is tragically being experienced in Ethiopian universities, particularly in Addis Ababa University, revered as the mother of all other Ethiopian universities, is the proliferation of interest groups based on ethnic and political affiliations. It is not the grouping based on such criteria per-se that is troubling, it is the adverse impact such kind of grouping is having on the teaching and learning process. The informal grouping has become a more potent basis for decision making in all spheres of university life than senate legislations. It is easy for an academic or administrative staff to fall out of favor regardless of merit or suffer from mal-administration with impunity. The doors are tightly closed for complaints and the offenders easily get away unscathed. All other universities seem to be emulating Addis Ababa University in this regard as if this is a virtue to live happily for.


The content of the above article is my personal observations not based on hearsay. The honest intention of this commentary article is to give a helping hand to the efforts being made to improve the quality of education in Ethiopia. I am glad to be challenged by logical and evidence-based analysis rather than by unhelpful remarks just to maintain the status quo.


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