– A Layman’s/Woman’s Guide!
By Dr. Alemayehu Geda*
Let me begin by congratulating Addis Tribune on its commendable job of consistently running both online and in the print form.
I am a regular reader of the newspaper and am impressed by it progress. I hope that the late Ato Tamrat’s monumental work in developing the newspaper will go stronger from week to week. Congratulations on working along that line so far.
In this note I just want to raise a couple of points about Addis Ababa University that appeared in some of our newspapers. I myself was (I should say was) assistant professor at the Department of Economics in the Faculty of Business and Economics. I joined the department two and a half years ago. In the beginning I was excited about the department, and, in particular, about its staff profile. We managed to have probably one of the highest numbers of PhDs per department, brilliant junior (MSc) level instructors. We were keen to enlarge our acquisition of computers, books, launching a series of research discussion papers and eventually even writing textbooks to alleviate that daunting problem.
All of these good things and hopes just evaporated in about a year. In about two and a half years when I had been there, we had managed to lose more than five senior economists (at the level of assistant professor /PhD and above level) and it won’t be long before we start losing those bright junior staff (some of them have already started moving out). The interesting thing is that when we lose these people, we are sure that we would not see them again. I am positive that this problem is common to all the departments at AAU, although I am more familiar with the Department of Economics.
I do not want to indulge in speculating why this is the case? And who is to be blamed? and the like. That requires a separate analysis by itself. What I want your readers in particular and the citizens in general to look at is that the staff of the university are the backbone of academic education. Without them it is better to close the university. Now the question is this: does it make sense to close an institution that has been built over half a century? For me it does not just make sense! Then what should the government in general and the university in particular do? After all, it is a public institution run by tax-payers money? I will answer these questions by pointing out the major problems:
a) Bad incentive structure: It is obvious that the salary at the university, although high by an average public sector employee standard, is extremely low even to pay rent for a decent house. One of my undergraduate students told me that his/her salary is four times that of mine. Probably the country is poor to pay an international or even regional level competitive salary. (A one-month on international competitive level salary of those staff who left the department of economics at AAU could be equivalent to about three-year annual salary at AAU). Thus, the question is not to raise it to that level but for it to be decent enough to meet one's basic needs so that one does not have to rent somebody’s kitchen to live in with one's books and computers.
b) Bad Research Environment: Sometimes it may not be the actual basic salary that matters. I am sure a lot of my former colleagues agree that the university’s working environment in terms of facilitating research might be the most depressing one. I am positive that the Department of Economics can generate sufficient research to complement the income of its staff if the right incentive structure and serious devolution of power to the department is made. Otherwise many may find their way by opting out. You would be shocked by the bureaucracy in the university and its inefficiency if you want to carry out research.
c) Bad Incentive Structure for Administrative Staff: Partly related to the above point is that the administrative staff of AAU are being paid badly and acting that way. There is no question that the academic staff are the justification for the existence of the administrative staff. In AAU, however, it looks the other way round. I will argue that this is not because the administrative staff
do not know that but this is their way of reacting to the bad incentive structure in place.
d) Undemocratic running of the AAU: the various administrative and academic posts from Department head, to faculty deans, directors of institutes and the vice-presidency and presidency are acquired not merit or in accordance with a democratic
election process (except perhaps department heads, not always though) but by informal request of ‘are you OK if I give you
this post!’. I agree that the government might have reasons to have a say in the presidency and vice-presidency (although ideally I prefer if it doesn’t have that). If the government insists that it should have a say then the staff may nominate two or three and the government may approve its choice (semi-democracy) than the existing absolute imposition from above.
Definitely deanship, directorship and department heads need to be democratically elected by the staff. After all, I usually think administrative work is a sacrifice for an academic staff. An academic staff can justify that sacrifice because they get the opportunity to carry out institutional building. Such a serious devolution of power to the lower echelon is central, although I am aware of the tension between the existing and the emerging power structure. That takes me to my last point.
e) Lack of a Sense of Institutional Building: One major problem that I have observed at AAU is that most existing officials are least concerned about institution building. Short-termism and individual self-interest is the rule, not the exception. As an economist and a firm believer in the right incentive, I would opt for a relevant incentive structure to inculcate the sense of institution building on the would-be officials. I have increasingly tended to believe that one should not expect a lot from sheer patriotism.
Let me conclude by saying that we should not allow an institution, which produced so many good brains over the years, collapse like that. I also insist that the government has the responsibility of saving the situation because it is good for the country, it is good for the government itself (it can use the expertise) and it is good for the University community – and it is a win-win situation.
* The writer was Assistant Professor at the Dept. of Economics from 1997- January 2000 and now Resident
Macroeconomist at the Kenyan Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis.