Does Ethiopia’s education roadmap need adjustments?efforts as shoddy and on the brink of collapse.
Currently around 30 million children and youths are enrolled in Ethiopian schools, including about a million tertiary students.
Despite the significant importance Ethiopian society attaches to education, it has rarely been a major rallying subject for political parties that compete in government elections.
After the change of prime minister in the mid-2018 and that of government in mid-2021 the Ethiopian higher education sector has continued without significant redirection, but has felt the impact of challenges such as COVID-19 and its aftermath, internal war and economic challenges.
Most of the recent changes in the sector have been endorsed as the shifts already captured in the Education Development Roadmap in 2018 to steer the sector until 2030.
In that sense, except for some structural changes in the system, current developments, 18 months after a change in the government, reflect a continuation of the directions set by the previous one.
An educational roadmap for Ethiopia
The Education Development Roadmap began as a full-fledged sectoral project in January 2016 and was endorsed by stakeholders in 2018 as it proposed fundamental changes for the decade ahead.
Notwithstanding its limitations, the roadmap may be regarded as one of only a few such attempts in the educational history of the country and a culmination of the country’s urgent need to reform the education sector in line with the national vision and development goals set by the government and the growing dissatisfaction within societies about the system’s outcomes.
The work involved a series of activities that included a desk review, field work, international benchmarking visits (to Malaysia and Vietnam) and wider consultations among relevant stakeholders.
While the desk review also involved an extensive assessment of national and international relevant documents, the field work covered all relevant state and non-state actors, including the federal government, regional states, city administrations, civil societies and the general public.
University presidents, deans, directors and experts, professional association leaders, school principals, teachers, and students as well as parents were involved in the development of the roadmap at different stages. Opinions and views were also gathered from top political leaders such as ministers, parliamentarians, regional presidents, and bureau heads.
The roadmap envisages the use of education as an instrument for attaining Ethiopia’s vision of becoming a lower- middle income country by 2030 and speeding up its industrialisation process by accelerating human capital development and technological capacity. This is commensurate with the developmental policies adopted by the previous and new governments.
Reform areas identified in the roadmap fall under the six major categories of pre-primary and primary education, secondary (grades 9 and 10) and preparatory education (grades 11 and 12), teacher education and development, technical and vocational education and training, or TVET, higher education, and policy, governance and leadership.
Reform areas in higher education
The reform planned for the higher education sector has been focused on thematic areas including access, equity, unity with diversity, quality, relevance, efficiency, research, technology transfer and community services, and the financing of higher education.
The roadmap proposes a further expansion of the system from the current 13% to a 22% gross enrollment ratio (GER) in order to meet the country’s aspiration of joining the lower middle-income countries by 2025/ 2030.
Specific strategies such as strengthening existing universities, opening new and satellite campuses, exploring alternative delivery mechanisms to expand higher education including opening the Ethiopian Open University, expanding continuing and distance education, starting online programmes, and enhancing the contribution of the private higher education sector were proposed.
It is not clear how government’s plan to focus on consolidating the public sector, rather than opening new institutions, will align with these broad strategies. However, the expansion of higher education shows little sign of abating, even amidst the challenges the sector is facing and despite the fact that all plans have not been achieved.
While there is an increased sidelining of distance education as a modality due to a lack of trust from government authorities in this mode of delivery, the provision of online education has started, perhaps triggered by the impact of COVID 19.
Additional reforms proposed included strengthening the training of university teachers, capacity building activities that would help improve the qualification mix of the academic staff, and an increase in female students’ enrolment as well as the share of female academic staff by strengthening affirmative action policies.
The challenge in these specific areas remains paramount with limited changes in most of the proposed areas. An encouraging move that the government has taken includes the rebranding of Kotebe Metropolitan University as a university of education with one of its major aims to train teachers for all levels of education.
The various gaps identified with regards to equity have led to proposed reforms that have included special support and dedicated budget allocations to disadvantaged students such as those from rural areas, poor families, and emerging and pastoral regions.
The strategies proposed include arranging training for instructors on gender and disability support mechanisms, establishing a strong database of students including the economic background of their parents, providing professional services at disability centres and other service centres that provide service to disabled students, and making resources available to support students from poorer and disadvantaged groups.
With a few exceptions, there appears to be limited progress in all these areas due to the impact of COVID-19 and the civil war in the Tigray region, which have strained the budget and focus of most of the universities.
Unity in diversity
The roadmap recognises the extensive deterioration of unity within the university community since the introduction of an ethnic-based federation in 1995.
Proposed reform directions include introducing new courses that expose students to the diverse realities and cultures or peoples of Ethiopia, and using programmes that connect students with families in the vicinity of the university.
Some universities have made encouraging efforts to connect students with families in the surrounding community, but such efforts appear to be dwindling since the COVID pandemic struck.
Common courses have also been introduced in the first year of undergraduate programmes, but their impact on students is still too early to judge.
Additional reform areas are related to the allocation of earmarked budgets and designating special offices that would help coordinate similar efforts, the need for changing the current student placement system, and reintroducing university service before the final year of undergraduate programmes.
The increasing financial challenges in universities must be affecting the implementation of these plans, but the ministry has developed a new guideline that considers additional criteria in student placement. The full implementation is still pending. Another plan in the pipeline is the introduction of a university service year before students complete their undergraduate studies.
Improvement in this area has included reforms in the areas of producing university graduates with a balanced set of cognitive and non-cognitive skills and having higher-order thinking skills such as critical, creative and problem-solving thinking, and a high degree of computer literacy.
As a result, universities have started shifting their focus towards non-cognitive skills – though success on this front is still limited and dependent on individual institutions rather than on system level interventions.
The direction of the reform also includes improving campus environments, especially in the recently established universities, to properly develop and use ICT for academic and research purposes.
While the Ministry’s development of a 10-year (2020-30) digital action plan is expected to respond to this concern, its full implementation is not easy given the time and huge resource the ambitious plan requires.
Additional reform areas envisage improving the quality of education in primary, secondary and preparatory education, in order to increase the quality of education in higher education, and the need for strengthening quality assurance enhancement programmes in universities, in general, as well as in distance education and online learning.
The poor quality of education at lower levels still continues to affect the type of students at universities. The ministry’s effort to improve lower levels of education and initiatives such as the introduction of elite boarding schools may be a step in the right direction, but more time is needed to bear the expected results.
Another area of reform envisaged was providing more autonomy to the national quality assurance agency, the Higher Education Relevance and Quality Agency (HERQA).
Without achieving the coveted autonomy from the Ministry of Education, HERQA has now been reorganised as an Education and Training Authority (ETA) with a mandate to cover all levels of education.This extended responsibility is, however, feared to worsen ETA’s efficiency and undermine its existing capacity.
The ETA’s decision to temporarily discontinue its accreditation of new programmes and providers is, perhaps, an indication of its limited capacities before readjusting itself to the new responsibilities.
Promoting internationalisation, introducing a university ranking system and improved university funding based on key performance indicators were also proposed as additional means of improving the quality of higher education. However, none of these plans appear to have materialised. Recruiting foreign staff has especially gone down due to the lack of foreign exchange which is affecting the system.
The reforms proposed concern the relevance of higher education and include developing entrepreneurial skills and initiatives, appointing industry leaders as part-time professors, and revising the 70:30 enrolment policy (natural science:social science) at least every five years based on continuous assessment of the needs of the industry.
The reform agenda has also included differentiation among universities, the introduction of a senior exit exam for all subjects, implementing a modular approach properly, and introducing a Labour Market Information System as an active labour market policy instrument.
Some of these changes, such as the revision of the enrollment policy, differentiation and exit exam policies, are being implemented, while others await further action.
Proposals aimed at greater efficiency included changing the three-year degree programmes to four-year programmes to enable universities to provide basic and general courses in the freshman programme, and the introduction of a university student internship service program which requires students to spend an additional year after the end of their final year of undergraduate study. While the latter is being planned, the former proposal has already been realised.
Proposed changes include revising the current ratio of administrative staff vis-à-vis academics to fall between 1:2 and 1:3 to increase the efficiency of the higher education institutions, and the need for fairly distributing the time of academics in line with the very mission of higher education.
While a few universities are progressing well on this front the success rate is not equally shared by others.
Research, technology transfer and community services
Changes in this area are proposed to include improving research infrastructure (laboratory, publishing, transport), the promotion of local journals, increasing budget and instructor time for research, technology transfer and community service activities to at least 5% of the total budget.
Except for the promotion of local journals, none of the other reforms appear to have been realised, mainly due to the huge shortage of finances universities have been facing over the last few years.
The same appears to be true with regards the other proposed reform areas, such as improving the purchasing and financial systems of universities and enhancing university-industry linkages.
Proposed financial reforms in the sector include the implementation of block grant allocation formula, raising the cost sharing of students from 15% to 30% over the next 15 years, promoting the use of diversified financing modalities, introducing efficient purchasing and budget utilisation systems, and introducing a system of competitive research and technology transfer budget award.
There is little change in these areas although the recent government direction of granting more autonomy to public universities is expected to bring substantial change in the sphere.
Changes and implementation challenges
The higher education reform areas in the roadmap have been further consolidated in the ten-year plan (2020-2030) set by the former Ministry of Science and Higher Education. Some of the areas of progress identified above have been facilitated through a change of working structures at the level of the ministry and within individual institutions.
Another change is related to integrating the previous Ministry of Science and Higher Education into the Ministry of Education that focuses on general and higher education, while TVET is now under another ministry.
Reforms such as reassigning the ministry’s human resources and university presidents based on merit-based criteria has been done, which means that employees were not allowed to keep their positions but had to reapply and compete for them.
Board members of public higher education institutions have similarly been reelected to reflect the same aspiration. How much these moves have brought about efficiency to the ministry and individual institutions is yet to be seen.
Notwithstanding the progress made, the sector continues to be challenged by the aftermath of COVID and the internal war in Tigray that ensued in November 2020, which had an impact that cannot be overemphasised.
This has led to the rapid deterioration of the budget allocated to the sector, the disruption of classes, infrastructural damage to universities in war-affected regions, and the irregularity of the academic calendar in the other universities.
There is also the impact of the political system and, in particular, ethnic confrontations that continue to rock the university community.
Furthermore, the impact of the economy on the working lives of staff, who find it hard to make ends meet and have been threatening to embark on strikes and boycotts, have to be considered.
The way forward
Although there may be a lack of clarity on the way forward for the education system and its priorities, the many sectoral changes occurring in the last few years within the education ministry (or ministries) and the universities have been aligned, by and large, with the reforms proposed in the roadmap.
However, the fact that the reforms proposed are not implemented in a holistic manner, in a clearly defined sequence, and with proper monitoring and evaluation schemes in place, appears to be a source of concern. This may be partly explained by the fact that since 2020 the implementation has been challenged by COVID, the deteriorating economic capacity of the nation, and the internal war.
The recent peace agreement between the government and the warring party in Tigray offers a ray of hope for the future although the conflict’s aftermath is expected to linger and may affect the level of proposed changes in the years to come.
However, given the unprecedented challenges the system has experienced and the increasing demands for a strengthened sector, there is, perhaps, a need to revisit and adjust the reform agenda, and its priorities as well as sectoral budgets and resources.
Addressing this urgent need appears to be key to ensure Ethiopia has stronger institutions and better prepared citizens to meet its developmental challenges and positively influence its future.
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.