Ethiopia's higher learning institutions have not had that long a history, at least not one as some of the universities in Europe boast. Even some of the oldest in Addis Abeba, Haramaya or Gonder, have only recently pushed 60 years of age. But what the institutions lack in age, they make up for in being momentous, specifically in the politics of the country, with the revolutionary roots of a great many of contemporary leaders dating back to the student movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Despite having served as an ideological stronghold, and the source of resistance that catapulted political change, universities continue to lack to be afforded the sort of attention they severely deserve. For all the Revolutionary Democrats' attempt to turn every adult in Ethiopia into a college graduate, the signs that these universities can cultivate innovation, produce vital research papers or the sort of skilled labour force that can alter Ethiopia's status arguably as a destination for investors looking to exploit low-cost labour are scarce.
For a ruling coalition that is trying to fashion an economy in the image of its developmental ideology, rationing of resources has been a tool to bring about structural transformation. If it is not land or hard currency, then it is human capital. Currently, the government wants to see 70pc of all students in public universities take technology and science-related studies, while the rest study social and human sciences. A curriculum, which is under revision, is likewise transferred top-down, from the Ministry of Education (MoE) to the higher learning institutions.
Worse, exam results serve as the ultimate measure of success. It can be seen in the Ministry's recent decision to introduce exit exams to undergraduate students. While it is fitting that the government has noticed that graduates lack the sort of skills employers are looking for, it is too minor a safety net to protect against the shortage of productivity.
It only considers a person's score against an across-the-board assessment over an insufficient time-space, like all other exams, with too little tools to gauge an individual's skill. The exit exam thus serves as a microcosm of higher institution's inability, not just to fail to reward talent, but to neglect even to see it, for within such a system, the forest has come to matter much more than the tree.
And the infatuation with expanding this forest shows little sign of abating. Just this year, 11 public universities were inaugurated. And to boost their enrollment capacity to 2,500 students from the current 1,500, the parliament recently approved half a billion Birr. Compared to the national annual budget for education though, such costs are peanuts.
The education sector's share of the current federal budget is 43 billion Br. And by the time the Ministry's fifth five-year Education Sector Development Programme (ESDP- V), a strategy for the improvement of education in Ethiopia, ends in 2020, the nation is projected to have been set back over a 100 billion Br. Higher education will consume almost a third of that amount.
Indeed, the Revolutionary Democrats' indulgence has not been for nought. For instance, almost twice as many adult females can read and write by 2016 compared to their number only a decade back. And with about over half a million students in public higher learning institutions and an annual 150,000 graduates, there is progress, at least where quantity is concerned.
Labour productivity still suffers though, even compared to neighbouring countries such as Kenya, if gross domestic product (GDP) per capita can be an accurate indicator. Anecdotal evidence likewise betrays a lack of specific job-related knowledge and skills of fresh graduates that are entering the labour force, especially within the nation's context of that profession, leading to employer's dissatisfaction.
The fact that this could happen has never been lost on the government, which was why Higher Education Relevance & Quality Agency (HERQA) was set up. Meant to safeguard quality, it assesses higher learning institutions on factors such as the number of researches published, graduation rates and progression from enrollment to graduation, amongst others, some of which are result-based parameters.
While a majority of these measurements are indeed critical, for there is no need to drive quantity away if there are means of ensuring quality too, there are a slew of performance indicators it should have likewise considered. Universities' collaboration with industries, for instance, should figure into the Agency's parameter for quality assurance, where students' training would be far more hands-on and relevant within the context of a specific industry.
The institutions' disengagement with alumni is also an often overlooked feature the Agency should thrive to overturn. For alumni are a critical group with an excellent understanding of the challenges of passing through that institution's system, and how it relates to the professional world, the universities should be required to work with them.
Add to such parameters for the assurance of quality, student surveys and the number of extracurricular activities, and student participation in the latter, and the Agency should have an adequate notion of the institution's ability to reward creativity and innovation.
In line with this, affording public universities increased autonomy is critical; one that can successfully resist political influence, have principles and adapt to change when necessary. The leadership of higher learning institutions needs to be able to have room to experiment and design a path that can produce a much needed skilled workforce.
Allowing universities some leeway in student enrollment can be one place to start. Of course, doing as such could complicate the government's plan to expand access since the sorts of additional parameters that could be used here are high school grade point averages (GPAs) or extracurricular activities. But with the highly varied resources that institutions of secondary education across the country possess, admissions could be heavily geared towards those that are financially robust.
And this is not to mention the Pandora's Box such reform can open in undoubtedly making student admissions further prone to favouritism. But the answer to this is closer supervision and enforcement. The improvement to students' entry should likewise be a relaxation of the status quo, with universities having room to accept those they believe are the best and the brightest.
The universities also ought to have the freedom to choose their curricula. The regulatory body of education should be able to make recommendations but must not dictate too much of the process. The Agency should likewise sufficiently test the success of universities' curricula but without the need to force them from being able to experiment in the teaching process. Who to teach and how must largely remain a mandate of the institutions.
It was the American writer Alvin Toffler that said, "The illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn."
The fact that access to education has improved, as the world becomes more modern and sophisticated, will mean little to the graduates that join the workforce without the mental tools to compete. As the global population increases and automation eats into employment rates, they will need the drive to improve continuously, work under much stress and innovate.
For that, Ethiopia needs to build the sorts of institutions that can empower students to "learn, unlearn and relearn." This will not be as resource intensive as expanding access. Policymakers' willingness to allow greater autonomy to universities' leadership and the implementation of more comprehensive means of assuring quality ought to suffice.