2 June 2018

Ethiopia: ABCs of Quality Education

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It is not yet 100 percent, but Ethiopia has come a long way to realising universal access to education. On the quality side much has been documented, commented and joked about. As more and more university graduates remain unemployed, the issue of joblessness remains unaddressed.

As we reflect on this issue, I feel that we have left too little of a room to mull over the state of the primary and secondary level education system in Ethiopia. Akin to higher learning institutions, schools are also failing Ethiopian youth.

The capital's Quality & Relevance Regulatory Agency has just approved tuition fee increases for two-thirds of the private schools in the city. School fees in the coming year will be up by 10pc to 40pc for those parents that believe private schools do a better job of educating their children.

The price of sending a child to a private school has become more expensive and parents have to shoulder this increases along with higher costs of food and housing. This will unavoidably heat up the debate over recurrent hikes of school fees.

It is perhaps for that reason that the Agency has put the ball in the parents' courts. Private schools are not free to make adjustments to school fees on their own. They have to first consult with parents, and if there is an agreement, they can then increase their fees. Getting approval from the Agency is just a formality.

The fact that the Agency is involved in school fee increases makes no sense. The schools, as long as they are private enterprises, should have every right to set their own fees. Tuition hikes in the middle of a school year should not be allowed as it is unfair both to parents and students. But once the school year ends, adjusting fees should be fair game. Price setting should be left to suppliers, not users.

Why such strange rules are applied to schools is evident. The ruling coalition deems itself pro-poor and creates policies accordingly. Often than not, this thinking undermines quality.

Negotiations between school management and parents regarding fees increases are no more different than the national college entrance exams that are used as the criteria and basis for university admissions.

I support the increase in school fees. This is not because I own a school, but as a result of the lack of practical experience schools fail to enshrine in students and the slew of incompetent secondary and primary teachers that flood the city.

I remember, fresh out of high-school, mocking a friend who was about to become a teacher, not out of interest but due to lack of choices. The teaching profession has long lost its prestige - its status since having been hijacked by better-paying professions such as medicine.

I do not believe we can go far in increasing the quality of education with unenthusiastic and narrow-minded teachers in tow. We need to invest in teachers to ensure that Ethiopia will have a skilled labour force that can improve productivity and, if nothing else, make the nation self-sufficient in the production of wheat, sugar and edible oils.

It is important not to be naïve. There is no reason to expect that business-minded people, which includes owners of schools, will not pass their cost increases to the customers, in this case, parents, to protect their profit margins. When businesses feel that they are entirely within their rights to shortchange customers, it is often the case that they may choose to do just that.

That is why it is vital for the government to apply quality standards robustly. Even better, it is about time that public universities take into consideration grade point averages (GPAs) for admissions.

Until such times that the number of private schools can accommodate the demands of the increasing number of school-age children in Ethiopia, it is likely that parents will fill the pinch as tuition fees become more expensive. In the meantime, the government must do its part in improving access to public primary and secondary schools. In due time, school fees will moderate, and pricing will be grounded upon a school's reputation.

Subsequent leaders of our nation have claimed that the way out of poverty for Ethiopia is through education. But we need to keep in mind that educated citizens should not merely be able to read and write.

Critical thinking, creativity, digital literacy, adaptability and communication are the skills needed to thrive in the 21st century. I am afraid the youth that our education system is cranking out are not anywhere ready for this brave new world.

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