Ethiopian Election 2010: Derg, EPRDF and Education

Education in Ethiopia
A low quality college education blessed with a government degree is common in Ethiopia.
Education in Ethiopia
"We have now completed the work quantitatively,” an official at the Ministry of Education said, after 19 years. “Now it is time for us to begin working on quality.”

I came across two students from Addis Ketema School. I took the notebook of one of them. The red tick marks showed that she had got all the answers right for the class exercises the teachers gave. She had all the right answers, written in English in the blank spaces. When I started reading the whole thing, to my unforgettable shock, I discovered that this student had got the whole thing terrifyingly wrong. There was absolutely not a single word written in recognisable English in her entire notebook. And I am not talking about bad handwriting. What went wrong? This happened a few years ago.

A couple of weeks ago, I met a computer science graduate from Hawassa University. She has a job that pays well but not one that was much related to what she had studied. She decided to quit and to start looking for a job where she could do some “computer science.” For those who told her to stay put, she said, “You do not understand. I have a degree in computer science.

But it was mostly theory.”

When they were taught networking, it was all on paper and blackboard, no real practical work. She has a degree, but not the practical know how that should come with it. Blame it on her own stupidity, if you like, but that is a stupidity that has been blessed with a government degree.

An awkward truth in local election debates is that the country is so poor that no matter what anybody might offer to do, it could hardly be good enough to be wholeheartedly accepted by everybody. There simply are not enough resources to throw around. But then again governments’ policies matter with respect to the proper use of the extremely meagre resources available and the achievement of accepted economic goals.

Ethiopia has hardly known any leadership that submitted itself to the will of the people or to democratic principles. Nonetheless, Mengistu Hailemariam’s military regime will probably be remembered as the one during which so much more had been lost. Of course, one point may be considered in favour of that regime. No one knew that regime when it was not at war. And at least the war with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) was not one which was of its making. It had been there for years before it came to power. And immediately after it came to power, there was Meles Zenawi’s Tigrian People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the north, Somalia in the east and the problems closer to the centre, which led to the widespread massacre of Ethiopian youths in the Red Terror.

Would the Derg have been as evil if it had been at peace, at least the kind of peace that we know now? Very hard to surmise. Among the common things between today’s regime and the Derg were that both loved associations, especially youth associations and women’s associations. One difference in this regard may be that while social groups are pressured to join the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) today, the ugly and brutal Derg did not force people to join the Workers’ Party of Ethiopia, save those who were holding executive positions in the government.

On education and the use of the youth, the two regimes have some major differences. In the old days, the Derg had the determination to make each and every one of the citizens of Ethiopia literate. Households who had become fully literate earned themselves a card, which was pinned to the outside wall of their house for everyone to see. Every high school graduate had a national obligation (service) to go out wherever he/she was assigned to teach both young and elderly who had not had the chance to go to school.

Yes, there were many difficulties, especially the conditions under which those young urban boys and girls had to survive during the two months they spent teaching their compatriots. But thousands of them did go out annually by will or by force. The Derg was not afraid that those young people would teach the wrong ideologies to the general population. Truth be told, thousands of Ethiopians had been able to read and write and do simple arithmetic, which they at least used in the market. Some even got started that way and made it to college.

Enter the EPRDF. As any force that comes to power by means of force, the Revolutionary Democrats had the task of calming the country. Soon after coming to power, their learned members (those who seemed to have had been made to memorise precise answers for anticipated questions) answered questions from the public regarding flags, ethnicity, Assab, Eritrea, and whatever else was posed.

Then the EPRDF announced that it had scrapped the basic education programme. Then it made a wholesale dismissal of the professors at Addis Abeba University. The education policy did things to the system that left the whole thing in a big mess.

I think there were two driving forces to everything that the EPRDF did. First it so mistrusted the public that it would allow nothing that was done by people who were not politically trustworthy. So, why risk sending thousands of young people for two months to rural and remote areas or to the uneducated in urban areas in the name of giving basic education to the less fortunate? What if they taught the wrong arithmetic? Why tolerate precious professors on the merit of their intelligence if they are likely to poison the minds of the college-going youth with antirevolutionary democratic messages? That could have been one reason.

Another reason was that they thought that the way out of poverty would be just as easy as deciding to walk out of it, which led to simplistic and naïve policies that, so far, have failed to achieve much results in the quality of education nationwide. It is true that access to college education in Ethiopia had, for long, been determined by quotas rather than merit. The EPRDF took this for granted and opened numerous colleges, so that as many people as possible could go in.

“We have now completed the work quantitatively,” an official at the Ministry of Education said, after 19 years. “Now it is time for us to begin working on quality.”

Are they going to send everybody back to a quality school?

Today there are lots of colleges, high schools, and elementary schools. Incredibly, more children are going to school than ever before. The same with the college going students.

But, to say the least, the once prestigious Addis Abeba University has been going downhill in terms of the quality of its education over the past 19 years, arguably getting even worse than it was during the Derg. Ironically, when the Commercial College announced that it had started receiving students for degree programmes, many students withdrew from Addis Abeba University and joined what should have been a less important college.

Moreover, countless high school graduates are going to college, without deserving it, to be taught by lecturers who do not deserve even to teach. Today we have a lot of degree holders who are no good in their fields of study. Maybe employers should speak about their experiences employing some of today’s graduates.

One could debate at length the whole philosophy driving the Revolutionary Democrats’ education system, curriculum production, the 70:30 system, the preparatory programme, the many subjects that are not taught because there are too few teachers for the too numerous schools, the emphasis on quantity over quality, and the ignorant graduate.

These are issues that matter tremendously. Debate or no debate, the candidates in the 2010 election should better know what they want to do with the national education policy. This is the age of knowledge. Formal and informal education all matter.

The EPRDF should stop defending the status quo, for it does not deserve it, and tell the public the of sweeping changes that should be taken. The opposition candidates should emphasise how they are going to overhaul the system if they are going to win. At least Beyene Petros (PhD) has repeatedly been heard saying that he is after the big position. He had briefly been a Minister of Education in the early days of the EPRDF. Remember?

Ayenew Haileselassie : Addis Fortune