Higher education in Ethiopia on death row

By TedD.  Staffer of De Birhan Media23/06/2012

Friedrich Wilhelm von Humboldt or Humboldt in short (22 June 1767 – 8 April 1835) was a Prussian philosopher.

Humboldt reversed the role of the State in education: ‘Education of the individual must everywhere be as free as possible, taking the least possible account of civic circumstances. Man educated in that way must then join the State and, as it were, test the Constitution of the State against his individuality’. And he also said education should be free from outside interference, ‘Education will be good to the extent that it suffers no outside intervention; it will be all the more effective, the greater the latitude left to the diligence of the teachers and the emulation of their pupils’. He advocated the ‘idea of a uniform educational structure with three successive stages i.e from elementary to territory levels’, though this was less implemented.

“The freedom of science and autonomy of the teaching staff are the premisses on which Humboldt’s university model is based.” States UNESCO’s 2000 report. Marianna Wertz’s 1993 headed “Wilhelm von Humboldt Classical Education Curriculum” states that Humboldt’s ‘revolutionary’ school reforms ‘produced best educated citizenry’ and attributes it to his focus to philology, language. She also says “Humboldt’s approach to reforming the Prussian school system was based on his determination to create citizens capable of thinking for themselves.” Which means that freedom of thought was central to his theories and educational reforms that culminated in him founding one of the famed universities, Berlin University.Humbldot is very much remembered for his care for freedom and liberty centered thoughts and ideas that were exhibited in his writings on education reform and theories.

The education system in Ethiopia especially higher education is at its worst stage now than ever. According to Tekeste Negash’s 2006 paper, Education in Ethiopia From Crisis to the Brink of Collapse, Education in Ethiopia “…despite phenomenal growth in enrolment, has deepened and the education system is in fact on the verge of collapse.”

Is it the absence of “freedom of science and autonomy of the teaching staff?” the cause for this or negligence of philology? Or other?  Two major causes are hypothesized in this article: government’s focus on quantity than quality and politicization (regimes interference) of education.

Ethiopic Education

Tekeste writes “The golden age of modern education in Ethiopia is usually dated to the years between 1941 and 1970 (the reign of HIM Hilesellasie). The education sector with his late majesty the Emperor as frontline minister was by far the best staffed and financed.” Education was free and it appealed more to the poorer section of the population; the rich and the aristocracy were less enticed by the economic returns of education.

According to Tekeste’s article, the Ethiopian political system that prevailed in the country between 1974 and 1991 was the complete antithesis of the Imperial one. The political economy of Marxism/Leninism was made a subject at all levels of the education system. However, with the coming of the Revolutionary Democrats in 1991, the landscape of Ethiopian education has changed again. Enrollment in all sectors of higher education (diploma, undergraduate and post-graduate) increased from 18, 000 in 1991 to 147,000 in 2003 and the enrollment in governmental higher institutions alone reached around 100,000 in 2010/11.  Dr. Philip Rayner & Prof. Kate Ashcroft wrote in Ethiopian Higher Education: Expansion, Dilemmas and Quality 2011 that there are now approximately 66 private institutions offering undergraduate degree programs in Ethiopia and the private sector accounts for approximately 25 percent of the country’s undergraduate enrollments.

The curriculum and education policy has also been changed. Tekeste’s 2006 paper argues that there were two major reasons for the rapid expansion of education under the current regime these are “…the Poverty Reduction Strategy Policy, that the Ethiopian government was obliged to submit to the World Bank as a partial condition for continued loans and aid” and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that made countries commit to achieve universal education for all and reduce poverty. International organizations have recently reported that Ethiopia would achieve MDG 2 i.e. universal access to primary education before 2015. It is now 90%. On the other side of this same continuum lays a research report by the Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA), 2010 that found significant number grade 2 and 3 Ethiopian students unable to read and comprehend their own languages given as medium of instruction. These are the kids that grow and join universities and become potential employees.
Why is Ethiopian Higher Education in death bed?Managed by politicians, interference:
The mismanagement and politicization of Ethiopian universities began as soon as the Meles Zenawi regime took power in 1991 and dismissed over 40 senior academics from Addis Abeba University.  Since then, the day to day activities of the universities were directly and indirectly managed through the interference of officials that assume political appointments. For example, a Report by Makonnen Bishaw titled Ethiopian Higher Education in Crisis, December 2002 states that the interference of the government particularly Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, then Minister of Capacity Building, Tefera Walewa and the Ministry of Education on higher institution lecturers to conduct ‘self criticism and be evaluated by their students’ led to protracted debates with finally leading to the resignation of three Addis Abeba University academics;  University’s president, Prof. Eshetu Wencheko,academic vice president, Dr. Tet’emke Mehari, and business vice president, Ato Tesfaye Biru.

An Addis Abeba University lecturer told this writer that he has been chastised by the Department for mentioning the names of Dr. Berhanu Nega during his class on Ethiopian economy. Similarly he said, academic papers and journal articles are highly scrutinized for political contents and consequences are likely if published. Most University Department Heads are members of the ruling party with immense power of spying and taking measures against fellow academic members. Academics report strict control and interference in their teaching and research works by the government.

Conflict of Interest: In line with the above premises, the other source of  downfall to Ethiopian public universities emanates from conflict of interest that politically appointed Board of Directors of  these 30 public Universities find themselves in. The Board of Directors is the ultimate leadership and decision making body of universities. All Ethiopian Universities are lead by top leadership of the ruling party. These politicians interfere and make decisions on academic matters of the universities they have no knowledge about. Secondly, as these universities often make research, educational and other contractual agreements with various governmental institutions, these Board Chairmen find themselves in huge conflict of interest as they preside over two public entities at the same time. For example: Junedin Sado, member of the Executive Council of the ruling party OPDO/EPRDF and Minister of Civil Service also is the current Board Chairman of the Addis Abeba University. There have been several cases in which his Ministry signed different contracts with Addis Abeba University and found himself in conflict of interests. Shiferaw Shigute, top member of SNNPR/EPRDF and President of Southern Region/SNNPR is the Board Chairman of Awassa University.  The Regional President has been embroiled in legal battles that were caused by his regional office and the University.  Awassa University is also said to be filled by academics and administrators who are relatives of  Shiferaw. Dr. Tewodros Adhanom, who is the Central Committee member of the ruling TPLF/EPRDF party and Minister of Health is also the Board Chairman of Jimma University. The College of Public Health and Medical Sciences of Jimma University (JU) is one of the few and prestigious Medical colleges aligned with Jimma University Specialized Hospital (JUSH) managed under this college as the hospital. The College and Hospital also fall under the Minsitry of Health. Here is when Dr. Tewodros finds himself in corrupt and conflicting interests between academic and non academic political duties. Similarly, Mekele University is led by former gorilla fighter,  Tewodros Hagos who is also the Central Committee member of the ruling TPLF/EPRDF Party is a close relative and friend of Mekelle University’s Vice president (former President). The fact that the Boards of all Ethiopian Public Universities are led by ruling party top politicians puts the individuals in conflict of interest, develops corruption and control, promotes interference and changes institutes into political entities than educational centers.

Corruption: Corruption refers to financial and power abuse here. One of the public universities that was recently a major cake of corruption debates was Mekelle University. Websites and News Blogs that favor and slant towards the ruling regime have even taken the corruption issue of Mekelle University and entertained it in their own pages. One commenter on the pro TPLF/EPRDF site wrote the following comment,

Let me tell you one thing, for instance, one of the audit committee allegation(of Mekelle University) is that about people who went for their PHD study while being paid their full salary. According to the by-law of ministry of education, when one go for his higher study, he will be paid half of his/her salary if and only if that person stay abroad for long time. But in the case of MU, there are some PHD sandwich programmes which are between Belgium and MU under the IUC project from the Belgian government. These PHD students stay in Belgium not for more than 4-5 months and most their research work has to be done in their homeland.

Mekelle University has been repeatedly up on the headlines for auditing related charges last year. According to the Audit report by the Federal Auditor for 2011 on Mekelle University, the University made a purchase of over 225,368,777̣.76 birr items with no public advertisement or notice, made an unofficial supervision of projects worth 73,063,911.00 birr, expenses without customs declaration of worth 25,458,618 .58 birr and expenses with fake receipts worth over 3,361,999.53 were made. The details regarding this from the Federal Auditor can be read from the attachment (here). Similarly, another Website raimoq.com reported that Mekelle University, although teaching staff of the University have been contributing 10% from their salary for housing program, overseen by Dr. Kindeya Geberehiwot, who deputizes the university, there has been no news about it and the money has never been audited. The President of the University and their web reportedly spend the nights drinking whisky in pubs and bars such as Wosen, Milano, Axum and Abraha with Board members of the University, Tewodros Hagos and Abdi Zemo (high government officials and TPLF members). Correspondingly, these same individuals are accused by the same Website of embezzling the 40 million birr allocated to the Department of History to ‘rewrite Ethiopian History’.
The problem of financial corruption is not limited to Mekelle University. Universities such as Awasa, Jimma, Addis Abeba, Bahirdar, Gondar, Nazeret, Arba Minch and Alamaya have been allegedly involved in corruption from petit to white collar level major financial embezzlement in procurement, bid, purchasing, research, funding and related expenditures. The Presidents of these universities have also been abusing their power arbitrarily. Some expelled, hired, promoted or transferred academics they liked or disliked.
Nepotism: The current regime is especially accused for peaking nepotism unlike the previous ones. It is becoming the trend that universities are being staffed by people of same ethnic group or village. Jimma University and Awassa University are named in this casing as hubs of nepotism where most employees are relatives and cronies of the Presidents and top officials of the Universities. Nepotism is also seen in the award of scholarship too. The TPLF/EPRDF government has often been blamed for favoring and sending members of one ethnic (Tigrean) for higher studies in prestigious universities abroad. Some lecturers from some Universities that this writer spoke to stated that nepotism in the awarding of scholarships existed.  “While Tigrean or obediently loyal lecturers are assigned scholarships in world-class universities in the West, non Tigrean and dissident lecturers are sent to African and Asian countries to do their Masters and PhDs” said a lecturer from Mekelle University. Likewise, in the presence of seasoned and qualified lecturers who are ready for scholarships, newly entrant lecturers with close connection to the ruling party are offered international scholarships.

Mass enrollment: As stated above one of the most dangerous conditions that are leading the Ethiopian higher education to the death row is mass enrollment of students. For the sake of achieving MDGs and continuation of loans from bilateral and multilateral organizations, the regime of Meles Zenawi solely endeavors at qualitatively increasing the number of university entrants than their capacity, future and quality. This agenda is not also considerate of the capacity of the economy’s ability to accommodate the overflow of graduates. According to one professor from Addis Abeba University, the intelligence divergence of EPRDF’s new policy students is ‘bipolar’. He says “at the top narrow end of the polarity, you have very few conspicuously intelligent students while at the wider bottom of the pyramid are the majority of students who cannot even properly spell or write simple words and complete sentences”. Lecturers are chastised not to demote students but ‘assist’ them graduate as much as they can.  The unplanned policy of mass enrollment ended in creating students who take classes over crowded, due to absence of toilets, do their sanitation in the bush and attend with no university equipment and lab. The case is severe within newly founded Universities.

Absence of quality: A report by the Department of International Development, UK in 2010 concluded and recommended that the rate of expansion of public higher education in Ethiopia has been too fast for the Government to allocate the recurrent expenditure needed to maintain quality: higher education absorbs over 40 percent of the total public resources available for education in the country and that the Government should slow down the pace of expansion and pay more attention to quality and value for money. Although a quasi-autonomous organization called the Higher Education Relevance and Quality Assurance Agency (HERQA) was established in 2003 under the Higher Education Proclamation to look after the quality of education, most private colleges and universities have been complaining that it was a toothless organization solely working on private institutions than the public.   The other point that could be included within the quality issue is plagiarism and/or theses marketing. The mass enrolled and affirmatively promoted students find themselves at loss when they reach their graduation year and have to produce minor theses. In the past few years, copying theses papers from previous years or getting theses done through cash is becoming regularity. Deutsche Welle Amharic Radio program reported on 15 June 2012 that shops that write and sell students theses and dissertations are being rampant all over the country. These theses selling shops are putting hard working students at a disadvantage, according to a female student from Hawasa University that the Radio spoke to.

Becoming hubs of anti-social behavior than enlightenment: In the old days, Ethiopian universities were popular for producing the most vibrant and socially responsive minds. Universities were places of academic and idea debates. If there are student protests now days, they are either related to quality of food in the university or ethnic related. This culture has been totally replaced with a new culture of “leisure”. Today’s Ethiopian universities have dominantly become places where students do mainly focus on their clothing, fun, parties, picnics, drugs, uncontrolled sex, Khat and the like than education. Academy is being secondary for most. A couple of years ago, Addis Neger Online reported that female students of Bahir Dar University were allegedly engaged in prostitution and that the University was considering measures. In the same way, it has been found out that female university students in Mekelle, Addis Abeba, Adama, Hawasa, Gonder and Jimma are also reportedly involved in the same business.“Few years ago, it was only few female students who were academically dismissed and for fear of the embarrassment if they returned home early practiced the business on the sly. But now a days, most female students do go out with doctors, lawyers and business people in the cities brokered by hotel staff for the sake of financial gain, peer pressure or fun” told a Netsi (not real name), a student of Haromaya University.

Another trend in the university is celebrating university wide student days such as national day, girl’s day, nationalities day, crazy day and the like. Although most are socializing events, some of them turn out spiteful and anti social. A recent photograph of Adama University students that has gone viral on Facebook is one example of that. The students in the Photograph are seen naked with no clothes when celebrating crazy day. The role of the University Administration and proctors to watch over such issues poses a quandary. Ethnic fragmentation is also the nastiest culture of today’s universities. Students form their own ethnic groupings and mingle with other ethnic groups in very rare cases. Ethnically instigated interethnic fights and violence within campuses is also spreading unbridled.

Politicization of recruitment and administration: With quickly expanding universities and mass enrollment of students, the regime took the option of recruiting novice Bachelors Degree holders from other universities to lecture in the newly opened institutions of higher education. Most of these young lecturers have little or no understanding of ‘basic skills’, current affairs and language. They are reportedly over and over again recruited either due only to their cumulative grades or political factors. Equally, key academic and administrative posts are held by young recruits trusted by the authorities making the academic business politicized. Lecturers with steadfast principle and belief for academic and personal freedom within the universities are secluded or gag. In general, students and employees that are members of the ruling party have infested most of these universities.

Since becoming a member of the ruling party developed into being a perquisite to finding employment in public institutions, students have shifted to craving to being members of EPRDF than study hard secure easy job upon completion. The politicization of universities in Ethiopia has completely changed the earliest ideals and mission of education that was plainly laid out by Humbldot and other education theorists. This writer recalls when he was asked about his ethnic group when in the middle of his interview for a Masters Program in Journalism and Communications in Addis Abeba University.

Unfair grading and favoritism: These problems are closely related to nepotism and corruption. Those involved in this behavior are both lecturers and administrative staff mainly in the Registrars. Some lecturers give good grades and mark better those students that they are personally acquainted to or their names sounds similar to their own ethnic origin. Most university registrars are run by party loyal administrators who are vested with huge power. The Registrars are accused of systematically changing grades of students that make secret payments. The Addis Abeba based biweekly, Reporter reported last week that a Registrar officer at the Addis Abeba University has been charged of receiving payments and changing students’ grades that were already signed by lecturers. Students from the region of the ruling TPLF/EPRDF and their party members are treated with special privileges and in they serve the regime in spying students and safeguarding the regime.

Young, educated and unemployed: The Central Statistical Agency of Ethiopia doesn’t have latest figures of the rate of unemployment (youth) in Ethiopia. Even the last one of 2007 shows a very small number of urban youth unemployment (around 20%) which is far from what is actual. Previous regimes education policies were not cautious of what the economy could absorb. Similar mistake is being committed by the current regime that exclusively concentrates on boasting at having a large quantity of students, schools and universities. The current 70/30 policy that forces higher institutions both private and public to enroll 70% of their students to science and technology based subjects and 30 percent to the arts and humanities has caused a huge crisis in the institutions resulting in wastage of resources, unexpected expenditure and redirection of majority of their resources to science and technology.  It is also doubtful as these students graduate from these universities find job in the sector that is not yet ripe enough to soak up.

Similarly, due to chocking policies and interference by the government, many private higher education institutions have closed their business for due, whilst some of the founders and Presidents of these private colleges fled the country.

Reorganizing Addis Abeba University 

After the ineffectiveness of the Business Process Re-engineering (BPR), the oldest and largest University in Ethiopia, Addis Abeba University launched a new scheme of reorganizing the university called “Reorganization of Structural and Governance System of the University” in December 2011. This extensive and radical restructuring plan is currently under implementation. According to our sources in the University the Reorganization process “has caused a discomfort and chaos in the University”.

The new AAU Restructuring Draft Document that De Birhan has stumbled up on reads,

“The newly proposed structure of the academic units, administrative services and the Governance System of the University are expected to create flat structure with empowered and comprehensive academic and administrative units.”

It argues that the existing structure of governance and organizational structure of AAU has been “vertical and bureaucratic” and proposes the change it.

Therefore, the peculiar features of the proposed (now being implemented) structural organization and governance system of AAU include: Reorganizing Offices of Vice Presidents (The redesigned structure of the University consists of the following four Vice Presidents and one Executive Director (with a rank of Vice President), the Integration of the management of Graduate and Undergraduate Programs under one VP’s Office, integration of Student Services and the Office of the Dean of Students, new Office of Vice President for Institutional Development and Community Services, merging of offices such as Office of Strategic Planning with Change Management Office, dissolution of the positions of Chief Academic Officers and Office of Ombudsman, reorganizing all academic units under colleges(In the new structural arrangement, there will be no independent/self standing school/centers that exist outside a college, and program units do not exist outside departments/schools/centers.), colleges shall also exercise legislative and regulatory powers, replacement of college directors by college deans (college dean will be the chief executive officer), dissolving program units, and reorienting research institutes (engage in activities of research and publishing, and teaching for 75% and 25% respectively).

The not as much of deliberated and discussed Reorganization Scheme produced through a top-down task force of 15, has caused fury within the universities community. Many colleges and departments have been reshuffled, academic and administrative staff members are to be changed around, made redundant and transferred to other sectors. Importantly, it disembowels popular and voiced academics putting them under the control of politically assigned lower strata employees. Departments and courses that the government does not consider ‘developmental’ have been dissolved or merged. The academics and teaching staff of those departments were transferred to other departments or made to work beyond or below their capacities.

“Since the coming of this government the first major exodus of Ethiopian academics was in 1991. I fear this year is now going to be the second major exodus” said one senior fellow of AAU in an informal discussion with De Birhan’s partner in Addis Abeba.

Although the Proposal attests to implement a bottom-up and empowering program, what the Ministry of Education and the University are doing is “implement the policies of the regime top-down” said Abraham Alemu, a former lecturer at the Department of Ethiopian Literature and Foklore after he left Ethiopia for due last month. His own Department has been one of the victims of the new Restructuring Scheme which has been reorganized as College of Language Studies, Humanities and Journalism and saw the dissolving of all Ethiopian languages studies but three of the major (Amharic, Tigregna and Oromingna). Read Abraham’s letter here. This was unacceptable by many including Abraham as the languages are all Ethiopian and need not be discarded from the Department. “As a government that claims to be pro-federalism, the focus on foreign language and only three local languages is just an ignominy” said another lecturer in the same College.
Three months ago, AAU students who got a leaked information about the Reorganization process had stopped class for three days fearing that it would affect them but as they were assured that it won’t, they resumed class after three days protest. This was not reported in any media.

As has been presented above, Ethiopian higher education is at its most critical juncture in time. It is at an administrative, academic, economical and social death row. The hypotheses were proven correct. Earlier Ethiopian scholars such as Mekonen Bishaw and Tekeste Negash have been consecutively warning and cautioning that Ethiopian higher education was in “crisis”, this writer finds the current stage of higher education rather in “death row”. There are various cases of embezzlement, arbitrary dismissal; random recruitment and misrule that have been documented in these Ethiopian universities by De Birhan. They were withheld due to lack of proper verification and for the sake of avoiding ‘unnecessary personal damage’ on the reported individuals and scholars. The theories and thoughts of William Von Humbldot quoted at the introduction of this article are surely not in the books or pockets of corruption embattled Ethiopian educators.  The problems need immediate policy analysis and recommendations. The source of the crisis is principally policy. The quantity based and centered education policy has to be reviewed. The second recommendation for the improvement of education in Ethiopia is mainly freeing Universities and colleges from politicization and government interference. Higher institutions should not be used for the politicization and indoctrination missions of the ruling party. They should be centers of “freedom of science and autonomy of the teaching staff” as Humbldot postulated.

© De Birhan Media June 2012


  1. Read this entirely covers all rounded problems of the univeeristies of Ethiopia from across the Board to the cleaning staff of the univeristies of Ethiopia is in fact clear. In Jimma the Universality head is also in big corrupt. He uses the car of the uniceristy to buy his own family kesel and sheep.

  2. Satisfing article. But you have not write about ‘hodam mehuran’. I know only one honest and not hodam Scholar in Ethiopia now: only Dr. Dagnachew of AAU Philosophy Department. He is the only brave and free intellectual. Almost all of the universities of today live for their stomach. They side with the government or act as if they see no injustice. Not only the government they are also weak.

  3. It is a very long and tiresome article but i was read the conclusion and i agree with that. Education politicization in Ethiopia is not only in university but also in high school and elementary level also. Students in high school are teachered about government policy and made member of party.

  4. It is a very long and tiresome article but i was read the conclusion and i agree with that. Education politicization in Ethiopia is not only in university but also in high school and elementary level also. Students in high school are teachered about government policy and made member of party.

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