More Voice on the Discourse of the Status and Fate of Higher Education in Ethiopia
By Addis M
WIC Sep 10, 2000
It is encouraging to hear voices of concern over the recent weeks about the state and fate of higher education in the country and let's hope that we are not pouring water on the brick. Even if one wants to stay optimistic about the future of higher education and for that matter that of the country by and large, facts on the ground seem to force us do otherwise. So I sincerely salute my colleagues who determined to stay and are doing the best of what they can to keep the system from crumbling totally. In this respect, I would like to join the rest to appreciate the heroic service and personal sacrifice that the Academic staffs of the Addis Ababa University and other Universities and Colleges are rendering to our country. Simply-God Bless You! You are the best!
I am not going to make a fresh case by stating the importance and quality of higher education to the development of a country. Without much exaggeration, I can say that it is the sine-quo-none of development.
Experiences from elsewhere inform our council that development is unthinkable without human capital. The question is do our officials who were once, one way or the other, part of the same system recognize this elementary fact? And more importantly are they doing enough let alone improve the system but maintain its status quo? I don't think we have much on the way of answering these questions on the positive. I would like to throw my ideas on two main areas. One is relating to the academic staff and incentives and the other relating to the facilities in the institutions.
Anyone who has the chance of studying abroad and make a courageous (and may I say the right) decision of returning to the country knows and accepts the fact that the country is not going to pay him/her a salary even distantly close to let alone international but also regional standards. He/she knows that he/she is going to end up in somebody's kitchen and be left at the mercy of the landlord even for small and may be not so small things like water and electricity. Phone! – Oh forget it- you are asking a luxury. Consider this somewhat shocking parallel. An MBA graduate can earn in the ranges of 70- 80K US Dollar/ annum internationally. When such a person returns to the country and join his home institution he is going to get less than 2K US dollar per annum (assuming 1USD = 8 Ethiopian Birr). This simply means a yearly international MBA salary is equivalent to more than 35 years salary in Ethiopia (if at all the person lives that long or doesn't retire). I know there is something called comparative cost of living, and this nominal figure has to be seen within that context, but this shows the determination and sacrifice that people who are studying abroad and returning to the country are paying. So the question is not a salary by the international standard but something even close to what the local business pay for comparable skills. A couple of years ago, while I was at AAU, I approached three of my top students and suggested that they should join the department. To my shocking surprise, all of them turn me down saying that they already have a better deal elsewhere. This was quiet an experience to me because in my time all what we moil and toil for was to be on the top so that we can stay in the University- something to be proud of!
Returning back to the fate of those who are studying abroad, it seems that the country's systems are structured in such a way to scare off the possible returnees. Let's imagine that this person has managed to save from his meager student budget (everyone knows how Ethiopian students are living with PBJ- Peanut Butter and Jelly ("Dabo Bemarmaratha") and how saving is their religion) and intends to bring home some items. Well the custom authorities expect him to pay tax- god knows where he is going to get the money from. Mind you, he/she was starving him/herself to afford such items and that is all what he/she has-over and out! Now bear with me, what would it cost the government to waive off such taxes for returning students unless otherwise there is a thinking that the tax the government is collecting worth more than the service that this person is going to render to the country? Actually there is a double standard in this as well. If the person returns under the IOM package, he/she is entitled to import all items, including car free of tax. But if she/he returns upon his/her will, forget it. The government also provides free and immediate housing for expatriate Indians. But if you are an Ethiopian you are not even entitled to get a preferential treatment for renting a house from the Administration of Rented Houses- another double standard and lack of respect to your own citizens.
Coming back to my second point of the university facilities and speaking of the Addis Ababa University, (which, for some obscure reason, the MOE despises most, though once she was part of the family), I think we may soon stop to call it a University. Start with the library, I think I better call it an antiquated collection and that should said it all not to mention the "friendliness" of the librarians! For heavens sake you have to beg them to do their job. It seems that the library is a forgotten child and nobody is interested in improving both the facilities and its collection. Rather, in some disciplines, the Civil Service College, with its history of 8 or 7 years only does have more to offer than the 50 years old university. Because somebody cares. In the world, which is pacing rapidly with the advent of ICT, AAU is far lagging behind, even from similar institutions in the rest of the continent in terms of exposure to modern technologies and ideas. Internet use is limited to few offices and even then due to cost and human factors you can't do more than e-mail. Do our students have the chance to experiment with this technology, which is fast becoming the driver of everything? No! They don't. Our curriculum, which was once internationally comparable, is fading fast out of picture while we are still stack with the ideas of the 60's and 70's. The university environment in the way of promoting research is so "conducive" so much so that nobody dares to speak about doing a research of whatsoever type. Simply the staff and the students are suffering from chronic idea poverty and in the 20ths century we are producing people for the 18th century. Do the government and the responsible ministry care? Let their action speak!
Looking inside the University's administration, starting from the VP office, it is a classic example of an inefficient and highly bureaucratic system- the only part of that system which seems to function is the cleaners and gardeners. They deserve a credit for keeping the campus as tidy and beautiful as one possibly can make it. But if you go to the personnel, purchasing, oh the infamous finance (a safe heaven for accounting dropouts and academic victims-with all due respect), you will be surprised and automatically remind yourself of the Amharic adage "Ye latchen lej kimal belat". The registrar- I think students do have a lot to say about its "efficiency" and its bizarre and arbitrary decisions. I will do a big injustice if I fail to mention the all-almighty kings of campus-the Campus Police. God! They do all what they can to make your life and day as miserable as possible. They don't give a damn to the countries legal system, and can arrest students (and at times staff too) arbitrarily for a reason as simple as not liking the color of your eyes. My Gosh, they have created their own small empire and their own set of rules to govern their empire. I think AAU must be the only higher learning institution in the world to keep a prison, I mean a prison in all its senses, inside the campus.
So one may naturally ask what is there at AAU? I will tell you - the brightest and hard working students that are the future of this country! They are the motivation and their eagerness gives the stamina to go on working, even if with frustration, in this odd place!
To summarize, with all the above pushing effects within the system, I think the countries higher education system is at the cross roads and need a serious attention both in the way of creating a healthy environment for encouraging people to join and stay within the system and in the way of improving the facilities and internal administration of individual institutions. It is farce to say that we have 6 or 7 universities when in actual terms we don't have any. I think it is imperative to think about the quality and not being taken away by the sheer numbers- the quantity. Even if what I wrote sounds pessimist, I am not hopeless. I like to stay optimist and hope to see the revival of the system, at least that way I will die happily-that is the minimum you can get when you are optimist- dying happily.