Ethiopia’s temples of higher learning

By Elissa Jobson in Addis Ababa

Posted on July 7, 2010 07:39

The Ethiopian government’s plans for 13 new universities will expand access to education throughout the country, but not until it addresses a shortage of teachers and materials

When Ethiopia’s communist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam was defeated in 1991, only 18% of the population attended primary school. Today, this has risen to around 95%. Although such progress has not been mirrored at the secondary level, where enrolment stands at around 45%, the country’s eight universities do not have the capacity to deal with the flood of young men and women wanting access to degree programmes.

Adama University is meant to be a model university, but it still needs many more computers, writes Dr Tilahun Erduno on our CleanSlate blog.

In August 2005, the Ethiopian government began an ambitious plan to build 13 new universities with the hope of providing places for an additional 121,000 students. Working on a budget of approximately j374m and to a very short time frame, the government planned for construction to be completed within four years. But, as so often happens with major infrastructure projects, the deadline has not been met. Six sites should be fully operational later this year and the rest are due for completion sometime in 2011.

In an effort both to avoid exacerbating existing federal tensions and to decentralise higher education, the campus building programme carefully chose the new locations to ensure that each of the country’s administrative regions has its own new university. By ensuring that students come from across the whole of Ethiopia, and not just the surrounding area, the new university system should promote a greater understanding of cultural and ethnic differences. It seems to be working. “It is very nice to have different peoples and languages representing all of Ethiopia and sharing experiences,” says Tihitan, a student at Debre Markos University.

Human-centred education

The government also intends to create a cadre of graduates to drive forward Ethiopia’s industrial development. The university building programme is one piece in a wider plan for the country. “Poverty is the number one problem in this country,” state minister for education Wondwossen Kiflu told The Africa Report. “All our development programmes are derived from this vision. We have to eradicate poverty in this country by around 2020 in the Ethiopian calendar (2027 in the Gregorian calendar).” ?

Two years ago the government decided to change the balance of subjects in all universities – new and old alike – away from the humanities and towards the sciences. After conducting a study of education systems in countries that have achieved rapid economic development since 1945, the curriculum was split 70:30 in favour of science and technology, following the examples of Germany and Taiwan.

“We played with a lot of numbers,” Wondwossen said. “But the main thing is that science and technology should have the biggest focus and the largest share – out of this, engineering is 40%. These graduates are going to directly address the most important development programmes in the country, in particular in the priority manufacturing sectors.”?

A further aim of the project is the development of the construction industry. Budgetary and time constraints meant that the design, building and admission of students are all taking place in parallel. Students from local technological and vocational education and training colleges gain practical work experience in masonry, plumbing and carpentry on the university building sites.

Previously, around 80-90% of their courses had been theoretical. “It develops student confidence and it is good for them to see a real world environment,” says Mulugate Gebremeskel, a vocational counsellor who has placed students at the Debre Markos site.

However, limited classroom space, uncompleted libraries – with few textbooks and even fewer computers – water shortages, crowded dormitories – currently six people share rooms designed to accommodate four – makeshift shower and toilet facilities, and the general inconvenience of living and studying in the middle of a building site are just some of the problems facing students at the new universities.

Lacking books and teachers?

“There is a huge shortage of books and there is an outdated system in the library – nothing is computerised,” said one student. Perhaps the biggest problem is the lack of sufficiently qualified teachers, as Wondwossen admits. “Laboratories, you can buy them, but the key problem is teachers. For this, we have a massive programme to train our teachers. We will use our own resources to train more masters and PhD students. In parallel, we are also working with India and South Africa through distance education. So, by tackling it in those ways, we can address the teacher shortage because this is critical.”?

The students admit that it has been difficult at times and that conditions are not ideal, but there is little alternative. “At least I have got the chance to study law. Without these new universities, I wouldn’t be able to study at all,” said Adey, a second-year student at Debre Markos University.

This article was first published in The Africa Report April-May 2010 edition.

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