Should university service be compulsory for all students?
Since the inception in 1950 of the University College of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s first higher education institution, community service has been one of the three mandatory tasks that tertiary institutions have been expected to deliver.
On top of enhancing this legally ascribed responsibility, the ministry’s new plan is designed in response to the increasing challenges the higher education sector has been facing since the introduction of a new political order in 1991.
Ethiopia’s Education Roadmap (2018) in which the need for the new scheme was suggested, identifies the continuous erosion of unity among university students after the introduction of ethnic federalism.
A year’s national service has, therefore, been suggested as one of the mechanisms to build national unity by assigning students to locations or regions different from their home location or geographical region.
In terms of operationalising the plan, the ministry’s new intention appears to be closely benchmarked against the former EUS whose history and lessons remain largely unexplored and less understood.
Ethiopian University Service
The EUS is considered to have been the first locally crafted and nationally organised scheme of community service introduced within the Ethiopian higher education system. As a national service involving university students, it was, perhaps, one of the earliest of its kind on the continent.
Although the late Professor Mesfin Woldemariam, a renowned Ethiopian scholar, first made the formal proposal for this nationwide scheme in 1961, the initiative was launched only a few years later. A deliberate choice was made to avoid the term ‘national service’ due to its military connotation. The service was operational from 1964-74.
Available written sources about the service indicate a variety of experiences that could provide useful lessons.
Organisational and operational features
The EUS intended to provide services to rural communities with the purpose of improving their lives and allowing university students to benefit from educational experiences during the service period.
EUS had its own organisational and administrative structures to expedite its responsibilities.
Participants were engaged in two major areas during the 12 months of university service: teaching and non-teaching tasks.
The teaching tasks were undertaken at various rural schools under the ministry of education and included teaching regular classes and providing supplementary lessons or tutorials for academically weak students and illiterate adults and children.
The non-teaching tasks were delivered in service-giving organisations and ministries such as public health, interior, justice, agriculture, national community development and social affairs.
The services included inspecting public eating and drinking places, building water supply and sanitary mechanisms, providing general health education, giving orientations about child care, nutrition and home management, serving as pharmacists and social workers in hospitals and assisting in the construction of schools, reading rooms, roads and bridges.
Before their deployment, participants were given orientations related to the objectives of Ethiopian University Service, the rules and regulations concerning the programme, expected challenges, and methods of executing their specific tasks in the field.
Achievements and tribulations
EUS contributed significantly to addressing the acute shortage of teachers and saved the government expenses it could have incurred if it were to employ local or foreign teachers.
In fact, the contribution towards supplementing the teaching tasks undertaken by ill-qualified teachers in schools has often been cited as EUS’ monumental achievement.
A similar contribution was also made in non-teaching areas through the provision of health and agriculture-related services and information provided to the rural community to improve their lives.
Another benefit ascribed to the programme was the eye-opening experience it gave to university students about the lives of the communities they worked in specifically, and Ethiopia in general.
Apart from heightening their consciousness and determination to help the national development process, the service provided students the opportunity to apply their theoretical knowledge in solving societal problems and gathering relevant data they used back at the university toward the completion of their final-year theses.
Nonetheless, as the first nationally organised scheme that involved thousands of students, EUS experienced many challenges and tribulations during the course of its implementation.
These challenges were mainly related to administering and coordinating the programme and the unintended consequences of political activism within the university community.
The increasing activism among students did not only draw the attention of the government, but also aggravated the suspicion and resistance on the part of local governors, government officials and community leaders, leading to the imprisonment, expulsion and transfer of some participants from their original assignments.
Consequently, the government had to exercise budgetary cuts and other forms of political pressure which severely restricted continued programme expansion and development.
Finally, the EUS was halted by decisions of the Provisional Military Administrative Council (commonly known as the Dergue), which was instituted as a new government after the 1974 revolution.
The Dergue had little taste for continuing the programme because of the political threats posed. It rather chose to introduce its own version of ‘Development through Cooperation Campaign’ in 1974 which continued only for the next two years amid serious opposition from the university community.
Community services provided through university national service are a common feature in many countries.
There is a growing international trend in which many countries across the globe are instituting national youth service programmes that involve tertiary-level students in community development.
Available evidence indicates that there are countries where youth service initiatives are sponsored or led by the government, with the active participation of civil society, academic institutions and international organisations.
In Asia, the most popular programme is perhaps the Indian National Service Scheme, involving the participation of young people in colleges and universities across all states in the country.
The scheme was first launched in 1969 with 37 universities with the primary objective of developing the personality and character of students and as an instrument for national integration.
Indonesia has a similar programme known as Kuliah Kerja Nyata, which means ‘learning through real work’, whose main outcomes are identified as character-building for students and improving their motivation to make constructive contributions to their country.
In some countries of the Middle East and North Africa, or the MENA region, civil society organisations, international organisations and universities undertake youth service programmes in cooperation with their national governments.
The Ghana National Service Scheme, or NSS, founded in 1973, is another example in Africa, where a mandatory year of community service is given by Ghanaians who have completed tertiary-level education.
Other examples in Africa include the National Youth Service Corps in Nigeria and programme-based services (eg medicine and dentistry) in South Africa that students complete before graduating.
Rather than operating within a national development framework, other South African programmes are organised by individual institutions and tend to be locally focused.
Most of the aforementioned programmes seek to establish meaningful linkages between ‘campus and community’, and ‘knowledge and action’ and aim at involving university students in solving community problems such as hunger, illiteracy, disease and unemployment.
These programmes also aim at developing self-understanding, skills and competencies, a sense of social and civic responsibility, leadership qualities and democratic values among the youth that participate. They are considered to be useful in promoting national integration, common citizenship and social harmony.
Despite the many achievements and challenges, the EUS can be regarded as one of Ethiopia’s few local educational initiatives that had significant impact and achievements.
The statements from the then Advisory Committee on Higher Education said: “We have no hesitation in saying that the EUS is an inspiration of genius. So far as we know, Ethiopia is leading Africa and, indeed, most of the world, in this enterprise.”
Although the ministry is yet to outline the goals and detailed plans of its new scheme, one of the objectives set in the 2018 Education roadmap aims at promoting the sense of unity among the youth that the system is said to have lost over the past few decades.
It is proper to ask whether this goal can be achieved easily without a corresponding shift in terms of the political trends and the direction set at national level, since the existing political environment can have its own impact toward the success of such a plan.
If the new scheme of reintroducing national youth service is benchmarked against the former EUS, it should also indicate the fate of the hitherto internship programmes that have been integrated into the existing curriculum of Ethiopian universities since 2019.
Another area of focus should be the challenges of resourcing, coordinating and administering the envisaged national programme, given sectoral developments over the past five decades.
The current size of Ethiopia’s higher education sector with nearly a million students, 50 public and 350 private institutions of higher learning, requires huge resource and organisational capacity compared to the past when it was relatively easier to handle such matters.
Additional consideration should also be made about the challenges of maintaining the major educational and developmental goals of the programme amid the dangers of exposing the youth to other influences that may derail the envisaged objectives of the service.
Addressing the above and related concerns as part of the overall planned national service scheme will contribute meaningfully to the success of the promising direction the ministry wishes to pursue.
Global experiences also show that such a huge enterprise cannot be set up hastily and requires careful planning and the need for drawing useful lessons from our own backyard and across the globe.
Wondwosen Tamrat (PhD) is an associate professor and founding president of St Mary’s University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a collaborating scholar of the Programme for Research on Private Higher Education at the State University of New York at Albany, United States, and coordinator of the private higher education sub-cluster of the Continental Education Strategy for Africa. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. This is a commentary.