Demeke Mekonnen, the ultimate deputy prime minister of Ethiopia and the chair of the new social cluster of ministries, has been sitting at the helm of the national social capital base for the past three years.
As the nation's Minister of Education, Demeke occupies a post that has been all the more controversial since the time of Genet Zewede, the former minister of education and now ambassador of Ethiopia to India.
With the long overdue controversy over education comes the debate about its quality, which has been lingering since the 'EPRDFites' reformed the educational system with a vision to make it more open, flexible, problem-solving and 'developmental'.
As the reforms resumed, however, a large section of society stood against the changes. Critics dropped out of the sky like rainfall in monsoon season. The 'EPRDFites' were pushed on to the defensive, yet, they stood their ground.
Largely, the focus of the critics was on quality. A long-held view that relates quality with the number of years spent in education stood at the core of the resistance. Completing high-school at grade 10 was conceived as a non-standard.
If there was one aspect of the reform that obtained popularity within the larger public sphere, it was the option provided to students, who completed grade 10, to study technical and vocational trainings. This option was taken as a solution to the rampant unemployment rates present within high school graduates. Otherwise, the whole reform would have been bashed for being too naïve, with regards to the essence of education.
The ruling 'EPRDFites' were, however, compelled to outline the basis of the policy change. They attributed the change to the need to enhance access to education and align it with economic benefits. A nation with an economy trapped by a poor social capital base cannot have the luxury of producing many academics, their argument goes. What the economy demands is a labour base that is able to enhance economic productivity, in the short-term, and hence the change in policy.
By and large, the face of the reform was Genet Zewede. Hence, people still associate the reform and its related externalities with her.
Things have evolved so much since then. The understanding of the significance of the reform has also seen improvement, as has the face of the very ministry that stirred the system.
With Demeke, as education minister, comes an individual experienced in teaching with the realities of resource constraints. The modest minister, with amazing patience in listening to alternatives, seems to also have brought stability to a ministry that once was hailed as a 'tower of bureaucracy'. Functional operations of the sector have also seen significant strides, both vertically and horizontally.
A result of all these changes had been the significant leap in the national student enrolment rate over the last 13 years. To such an extent that the student community of the nation has now reached close to 19 million, by 2011/12, with a bias towards primary education. It is now listed as the top performer, and reformer, in sub-Saharan Africa. An enrolment ratio of 96.4pc in primary education is indeed outstanding by any standard.
Even then, Demeke and his colleagues in the education policy sphere continue to struggle with the one dimension that had, for a long time, been associated with Genet - quality. Competence in the education sector continues to toddle far behind access. And students cannot live up to the telling of their certificate. It is, indeed, getting worse with each passing year.
In their favour, the 'EPRDFites' seem to have developed the backbone to accept the existence of the problem. Where they are being challenged is in striking a proper balance between quantity and quality. Understandably, they do not have even the slightest need to play the quality card at the expense of the quantity card.
Partly, however, their long overdue passivity at the beginning of the reform has worsened the situation. Now, the problem matrix has grown too big to fix with ordinary measures.
A combination of efforts by the multitudes of institutions, stretching from the Ministry of Education (MoE) to the Higher Education Relevance & Quality Agency (HERQA), could not manage to settle the tide. It has become a systemic battle.
No battle seems to be too deep for the 'EPRDFites' to pass through, however. They rightly have understood the battle in the education sector and created systemic instruments for rectifying the quality problem.
One such instrument is now being tested at the higher education institutions of the country. A framework constituting verifiable performance indicators; the instrument obliges institutes to only graduate students who fulfil the minimum competence criteria. It also imposes a threshold on the number of students that an 'accredited' institution should graduate.
Similar to the policy measures that education policy chiefs, from Genet to Demeke, have been taking, this latest instrument remains minimalist. It exists as an island in the sea of the disturbed education waters.
As positive as the intent of the policy action may be, it lacks links to quality assurance packages, at primary and secondary school levels. It is too small to effect change in a system that is getting constantly dwarfed by the rising tides of incompetence.
What Demeke and his cadre of policy officers might have overlooked, under this latest measure, is the role of linkages in quality assurance. No education quality assurance instrument can be effective unless it is designed with thorough accounting of the context in which it is implemented. Optimum benefits always reside within effective backward and forward linkages.
Therein lays the assignment for Demeke. As in the very cluster that he oversees, quality of education involves a collaboration of players that ought to be interconnected effectively, in order to bring about change.
Certainly, doing so would not take as much fortitude as his former reformer colleagues. What is at stake is to rightly trace the stakeholders, from teachers to students and on to employers, at each level; map their relationship and stakes, and align the whole system of quality assurance with the systemic demand.
Of course, this is easier said than done. But for a minister that has spent so much time at the grassroots level, it is not an unreachable target. Deploying the political will that Demeke commands for such a worthy cause, both for the EPRDF and himself, would also be wise.
After all, sustainable economic growth cannot be realised without a critical mass of functionally literate citizens, with the capacity to effectively run the wheels of the economy. And there could be no better cause for Demeke to throw his political weight into.