One can accuse Ethiopian Education and the educational research of the last two decades for retreating into a descriptive scholarship that had minimal impact on society. But, recently we were fortunate to glimpse some hopeful contributions that challenge this imposed lassitude. In the following excerpt from "Rethinking Education in Ethiopia" [Nordiska Afrikainstitutes, Uppsala 1996], the historian Tekeste Negash argues that the strategy of non-formal education in Ethiopia is a far better alternative to formal education both in regards to the expansion of literacy and the fulfillment of educational needs. Some of our readers may disagree with the researcher, but we maintain that Dr. Tekeste brings a refreshing and a timely perspective given that the majority of Ethiopian school leavers have fewer employment opportunities and, according to the recent news, a new round of famine and difficult times are ahead. Can Ethiopia afford to spend from its meager financial capacity on formal education and higher education? Join the debate.

Disclaimer: We are in no way endorsing Dr. Tekeste’s suggestions by excerpting his work in our Website. Rather, our purpose is to promote upon discussion around themes that go beyond the multiple political disputes and rhetoric. Ethiopians should openly discuss, learn to educate and to invest in their future citizens to gain greater control of their lives and to realize the dream of self-reliance.


Let the Formal Education Sector Defend Itself. Invest in the Non-Formal Education Sector

Ethiopia has (1995) nearly one million students in grades 7-12. By the end of this decade the education sector will pour into the labour market nearly 400,000 secondary school graduates. The manufacturing sector with a total labour force of slightly more than 100,000 in a country of over fifty million, is far too small to be the basis for the expansion of the public and service sector which in turn can de job opportunities for secondary school graduates. The market oriented economic policy, the new investment climate, and the structural adjustment programme have so far attracted few foreign investors.

The education sector has profound structural constraints. On the one hand there is the reality that enrolment is only 12 per cent of the secondary school age population of the country. On the other hand, the sector is producing hundreds of thousands of graduates with very little opportunity for salaried employment. Some of this constraint has come as a result of poorly thought out and ill-integrated bilateral and multilateral aid. The expansion of the sector was supported by successive governments and condoned by the international donor community because of the plausible but mistaken assumption concerning the role of education in development. Education was seen as the magic formula for swift and painless development. We know now that education, and especially the Ethiopian variant has very little role to play. In fact it is one of the least important and weak variables in the development equation.

In view of the structural constraints, it is highly unjustifiable to use taxpayers and donor sources to expand further the formal education sector. It has already expanded beyond any rationality. The formal education sector, especially in the urban areas has expanded so much that one can argue that it can continue to survive on its own. The greatest majority of junior and senior secondary schools are in the urban areas. Addis Ababa alone with its three million inhabitants has nearly 170 junior secondary schools while the entire Amhara region with an estimated population of 18 million has 220 schools. More or less the same ratio applies to the distribution of senior secondary schools as well. To borrow Rostow's analogy, formal education in the urban areas has reached a take-off stage. With or without government support, there will be schools and secondary schools in the urban areas.

It is understandable that the government may find it hard to reduce secondary school enrolment so as to increase employment possibilities of secondary school graduates. What is beyond any rational explanation is the determined policy of the government to expand the formal education sector including secondary education. Formal education is so well entrenched that it ought to be left to defend for itself. In policy terms and in practical language this would mean that the government would have to divert scarce financial resources away from formal education and invest them in the non-formal education sector.

There are some encouraging indicators along this line in the educational policy. If and when the new educational policy is implemented, secondary school students in grades 11 and 12 would bear up to fifty per cent of the costs of their education. However, this policy input is greatly qualified and practically nullified by the overall attitude of the government as regards formal education. On the one hand we notice a trend in the policy towards cost sharing and privatisation of senior secondary education. At the same time the government stresses its commitment to a rapid and massive expansion of formal education so as to increase enrolment to 50 per cent of the school age population by 2025.

Before proceeding further with the discussion it is worthwhile to raise some of the implications of what might be interpreted as an anti formal education stand. During the 1970's and 1980's continued expansion of the formal education sector was justified on the grounds of equity. It was believed that the more the formal education sector expanded the more it would reach rural children. In this way some steps would be seen to be taken to reduce the wide disparities between the rural and urban areas. This view was challenged in early 1990 but with insignificant impact on policy reorientation. 101 On the contrary when the USAID made its entry in early 1992, it continued with the old assumption. This is basically the stand of USAID education assistance to Ethiopia. Moreover, neither the Ethiopian government nor the donor community would be accused of treating urban and rural children differently. As a short term policy, which characterises most of donor assistance, such orientation and philosophy is the least controversial and most safe. As a long term policy, however, it is untenable. Such a policy, to say the least, amounts to putting the wagon before the horse.

At the risk of overstating my case, I wish to stress the point made by Coombs and Ahmed that what peasants need most and what the government ought to provide are inputs (better technology, demonstration centres, infrastructure, tenure laws, and better prices for agricultural products and tradable goods).

At this juncture it is worthwhile to look closely into the objectives of formal education. The policy document clearly states that one of the objectives of formal education is to provide vocational and practical education in addition to ordinary subjects. The document further states that vocational and practical education would be provided to school leavers and at all levels. I argue that such a policy is unrealistic and most certainly self defeating. Let us begin with the vocalisation of formal education Formal education takes place in shifts which in effect means that a school day is made up of about three hours. Moreover, the usual class-size in the secondary schools remains between 75 and 90 students. There has been no significant reduction in the number of subjects taught and no betterment in the supply of textbooks. However, even if most of these constraints are overcome, it is virtually impossible to vocationalise formal education.

Formal education, as the study of Joel Samoff and many others show clearly, is designed and carried out to push students through the academic ladder leading up to the university. The criteria for judging the performance of schools and teachers is dependent on how many students they were able to pass to the next level of education and not on how well they taught practical and vocational subjects. Those countries, like Tanzania, which have tried to vocationalise formal education soon found out that the school is not suitable for the purpose. The incisive comment of Samoff, I believe, summarises the issue when he interrogated the wisdom of why it is better to teach vocational subjects three hours a week than to have a full-time apprenticeship on the farm or in the factory.

Given the serious constraints, one can argue that it is really a waste of scarce resources to try to combine formal education with vocational or practical subjects. Here we may also mention that according to a FAO study, the performance and productivity of the fully vocational schools fall far short in relation to the combined cost of running such institutions. A world wide survey on the role of agricultural colleges and universities in developing countries, pointed out clearly that these are most costly and least efficient units. Some of the major shortcomings of these institutions are: 1) the low quality and excessively academic character of their instruction and lack of field practice; 2) their lack of contact with rural life; 3) the virtual absence of faculty and student research; 4) the neglect or total absence of agricultural economics and rural sociology in the curriculum; 5) the heavy dependence on textbooks based on research experience of foreign countries; and 7) the lack of motivation in most of their students. These criticisms were restated with more force in a recent study on the performance of the agricultural colleges in Ethiopia.

We have argued on technical grounds that the school cannot combine formal and vocational education. The school lacks and will always lack the resources and facilities to teach vocational and practical subjects in such depth which would facilitate the entry of students to the world of labour. However, there is another reason which militates strongly against vocationalization. The historical purpose and function of formal education is the inculcation of socio-political values, the development of the cognitive potential of students, and the creation of a ruling elite. This is a very important function of the school.

The current educational system is heavily biased in favour of the formal education sector where,the latter appropriates all the budget leaving virtually nothing for the non-fonnal education sector. Although the government appears to be fully aware of the importance of non-fon-nal education, as we can deduce from its educational policy, it has no clear idea as to the target group and objectives of non-formal education. We mentioned earlier that as far as the educational policy was concerned, non-formal education is used and understood as a short cut for students to enter the formal education sector. It was also noted that the non-formal education programme was the same as that provided by the formal education sector.





Budgetary commitment to the non-fornaal education programme

Up to 1991, the Adult Education Department, responsible for literacy campaigns within the MOE as well as for the Community Skills Training Centres, (CSTCs), had a staff of about 144. The commitment of the MOE was exclusively limited to the provision of office facilities and salaries, while capital investment and training of experts was provided by donors, the most important of which was SIDA. Since 1992, the Department of Adult Education has been fully regionalised. This has meant that the Department of Adult Education is no longer a department but only a panel. It is now called the non-formal education panel and is one of the several panels under the Education Programmes and Supervision Department. The non-formal education panel has a staff of four experts who are entrusted with the responsibility of supervising the activities of regional non-formal education panels all over the country. In the regions, the non-formal education panels are run by a one person staff. Without having to enter into the merits of regionalization, we can clearly see that the government has to put far more resources into non-formal education.

The commitment of the government to formal education was shown in practice in the 1993/4 budget for education. The budget for education went up from ca. 700 million birr to 1,114 million birr. This was a staggering increase by 37 per cent. As far as the budget for 1993/4 is concerned, the share of the education sector in relation to total government expenditure went up from ca.9.7 per cent to 13.6.110 Some questions have been raised as to the nature of the increase since it is not clear whether the World Bank managed Ethiopian Recovery and Development Fund for the education sector was included in the education budget. Nevertheless, there is very little reason to doubt the government's commitment to the formal education sector. Yet this remarkable commitment is barely enough to keep the rate of enrolment in the range of 20 to 25 per cent of the 7-12 year age group due to the increasing population growth. It is worthwhile to note that most of the budget will be eaten up by the expansion of the sector in urban areas. Moreover, further expansion of the formal education sector would only lead to the growth of unemployed and unemployable school leavers.

Rural areas and the urban poor (including dropouts) would scarcely be reached by the expanding formal education sector. Several studies have repeatedly shown that the services on which the rural inhabitants put high priority are practical inputs such as infrastructure, better prices, better seeds, and better agronomic innovations. The school is not one of their priorities. However, the Ministry of Education has assumed the task of preparing its students for the world of labour by exposing them to vocational programmes. Such a task, we argued earlier is far beyond the capacity of the MOE.

If the MOE is convinced about the role of non-formal education programme as we have defined and discussed it above, such a conviction needs to be reflected in budgetary terms. One of the consequences of siphoning resources from the formal education sector (thus reducing drastically its possibility for expansion) is the perpetuation of the gap between rural and urban communities. This is true. The urban/rural divide is here to stay at least for the foresee able future. All the good intentions behind the expansion of formal education will not bridge the gap. The financial resources will not be there.

I strongly believe that the best way to bridge the gap is to address in an adequate manner the development needs of the rural communities. The alleviation of poverty is not primarily an educational problem. Ethiopian peasants most of the time find themselves in dire circumstances, not because they do not take pride in the value of labour, but mainly because they lack allocative (e.g. capital) and technical (e.g. better seeds) inputs.

A great deal has been said and written on the role of agriculture and the rural poor. This small study will have amply fulfilled its purposes if it succeeds in opening up the debate on the development goals of the Ethiopian government and on the instruments best suited to empower (physically and mentally) the great majority of the country's inhabitants.