The Ministry Needs To Revisit Itself

The Ministry Needs To Revisit Itself Continuing TheDiscourse About Higher Education Institutions In Ethiopia

 

By Tesfa H

 

WIC Sep 23, 2000

 

The ongoing debate and the response of the ministryencouraged me to write this piece. I really appreciate the first writers (WICSep 10, 2000 and WIC Sep 16, 2000 and earlier) for their initiative in takingup a long over due discussion about the ills and hopes of higher educationinstitutions in Ethiopia. Itunderscores not only that the spirit of critical thinking and discourse isstill alive but also people still are genuinely concerned, contrary to what isoften presumed, about the future of higher education institutions. If I am totake the ministry by its words, it seems to be interested to address theproblems plaguing higher education institutions. I do also share the hope thathigher education institutions will 'bloom', at least in the future, and will beable to play the roles expected of them given that appropriate measures aretaken both by the individual staff and those responsible in running these institution,notably the ministry.

 

The issues and concerns raised by the writers so far are notconfined to staff material benefits only. It will be wrong if the whole problemis reduced to the question of salary and staff benefits. The staff of highereducation institutions is demanding both for right incentive mechanisms andfavorable working conditions. Although a lot has already been written about thefirst, I would like to add a few points before stepping to raising issues ofconcern related to the latter.

 

Higher education institutions are entrusted not only withthe task of producing capable and responsible citizen who are to take upvarious responsibilities in the society but to be part of the problem solvingexercise itself, namely the development challenge. No one can underestimate thesignificance of human capital in the development of any country. Highereducation staff like most of their fellow countrymen live by/for these idealsand want to contribute what they can in this respect. But people do not live byideals only. Hence, it is important that right incentive mechanisms are inplace in higher education institutions. These include, among others, fairsalary scale and other benefits, efficient promotion mechanisms that encouragecompetition and innovative research among staff and fertile ground for teachingand research. Staff members have been (are) willing to do their part to makethis a reality given that the management of the institution and the responsibleministry does so too. However, the reality prevailing in higher educationinstitutions is far from encouraging. Both the 'old' universities and colleges,those with long experience, better infrastructure and manpower and in the 'new'ones, are at pains to maintain their manpower, sometimes with pleas andsometimes by administrative means, instead of focus on their main task. Whatthe staff has been demanding for long is simply for a fair pay commensurate toits responsibility and qualification. But to no avail. I found the latest response of the ministry,that the current situation in the country making it difficult to give anappropriate response even if the ministry believes that such a response was longover due, rather surprising. This response is not short of turning a blind eyeto the concerns and demands of the staff. The ministry had three/four years torespond if it wished to.

 

Actually, it is in the pattern of the ministry. The ministry(including the management in higher education institutions) seems to focus moreon stick than on the carrot or on addressing symptoms than on curing the rootcauses of the problem. Instead of encouraging staff members to stay in thesystem through a workable incentive mechanism, the system has reverted toquasi-illegal ways. Similar to the practice during the Derg era, the ministryhas started requiring staff members leaving for further studies to sign anobligation to work for 12 or 15 years (those going for PhD) or pay compensationworth of Birr 140 000 or more. What I wonder is, leaving aside the question ofits legality, whether the ministry realizes how this provides the final blow tothe hope and confidence of the staff in the system. Instead what the ministrycould have done is to make the system more attractive and responsive. Incentivespay more, blackmailing or coercion doesn't. We should have learnt that from ourexperience in the last two to three decades. No body expects the ministry to domiracle, but everyone at least expects it to be responsive and fair. Therecurrent flight of staff to better paying jobs domestically and the sad storyof mass brain drain seems to continue unabated because those responsible areunwilling to raise a finger to address it.

 

Coming to the question of working conditions, highereducation institutions are expected to be seed beds of new ideas, a room forinnovative research and free flow of ideas and the birthplace of futureresponsible citizens, teachers, managers, scientists and leaders. The currentleaders of this country should have seen this more than anybody else. Rightworking condition involves creating the necessary infrastructure for teachingand research (the hard ware), and a willing, accommodating and efficient managementsystem, both administrative and academic, that facilitates but not stifles thespirit and process of higher learning and research.

 

A look into the current management body of higher educationinstitutions shows that most of the handpicked leaders are either despots whorun these institutions not as academic institutions but as their own fiefdomsor are 'invalids' who are helpless in the execution of the tasks entrusted tothem and are always at pains to point their finger to the ministry for everythingill happening in their institution. Despots operate not by consent and they,together with their loyalists, are turning these institutions into structuresthat are rigid and unresponsive to the problems and concerns of its staff.These people see the ordinary staff as something disposable; it is only themwho are indispensable.

 

The ministry lets us believe that the selection ofmanagement bodies in higher education institutions is transparent and all majordecision are made by successive consultations of those responsible. Most of uswho stayed in higher education institutions long enough to see the dangers ofsuch malpractice, had hoped that possession of 'red cards' andpolitical/personal loyalty should be things of the past. If staff members inhigher education institutions are not entrusted to (s)elect their ownmanagement bodies, I don't see how we can expect transparency in decision makingand accountability for actions taken by those impositions, let alone to talk ofthe blooming of a democratic culture in the country. This is quite evident nowdays in the heavy handedness of decision-making, prevalence bureaucraticbottlenecks and inefficiencies in higher education institutions. It is a commonknowledge that several months, if not years, pass by before staff members aregranted the meager but deserved salary increments mainly due to inefficiencyand irresponsibility of the system, both in the institutions and the ministry.There seem to exist no system at all which governs the different institutions.Different rules seem to govern these institutions; and if there are anypersonal whims seem to matter most.

 

One of the writers has indicated the state of infrastructureof higher education institutions. Thelibraries, laboratories green houses, etc. are in a pretty bad shape. Even inthe 'new' universities, contarary to the claim of quality and modernity, they leavea lot to be wished. Given the current procurement and project implementation practiceof the ministry, where the ministry wants to run each and everything by itselfin spite of its own problems of lack of skilled manpower and inefficiency, it won'tbe surprising to see the mess we are in: the supplies that remain stocked inthe warehouses of the ministry until the expiry of the guarantee (grace) periodinstead of being installed or used, the missing and misplaced items (some itemssent to the south while another component goes to the north), the crackingwalls and floors of 'new' buildings, delays and lack of follow-up and so on andso forth. Desire is something but proper implementation is another matter.First the ministry has to have staff members who are competent, willing andresponsible. The ministry should see the need to delegate power to theuniversities and colleges under it.

 

If the ministry wants, as it claims, to help highereducation institutions to 'bloom' it is important that it cleans its house andit has to seriously see what is going on in the several institutions under its'tutelage' and enter into direct dialogue (create mechanisms for dialogue) withthe staff of these institutions. It is only then it can be responsive,supportive and instrument for change.