Planning can build resilience in HE amid disasters, conflict
A 2019 Humanitarian Needs Overview by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, indicated at the time there were about 2.62 million school-aged children in Ethiopia affected by displacement and who were in need of humanitarian and education support.
Much has happened in Ethiopia since and, as a result of these challenges, the ministry of education has established an Education in Emergencies Cluster with action plans feeding into the country’s Education Sector Development Plans and the development of a multi-year resilience programme.
While such interventions are commendable, the government intervention neglects the higher education sector, which continues to be affected by a variety of similar challenges, although not at a scale comparable to the lower levels of education.
A victim of internal conflict
Ethiopia’s 50 public universities accommodate 85% of all the students enrolled in higher education, with the remaining enrolment covered by the estimated 350 private institutions across the country.
The role of public universities in providing masters and PhD programmes is especially critical, with private universities contributing only 7% of masters students to the national pool and none at PhD level.
Despite the many gains over the past few decades, the Ethiopian higher education sector has been rocked by persistent challenges caused by ethnic tensions within universities and armed conflicts that occur in different parts of the country.
The confrontation between the government and opposition forces in various regions of Ethiopia have had a severe impact, including a loss of life, the destruction of universities’ property, interruption of academic calendars and student and staff displacement.
The past three years, especially, have had a serious impact on the sector. In particular, immediately after the devastating impact of COVID in 2020, the sector has been challenged by the Tigray armed conflict.
Although recently abated after the signing of a peace accord between the warring parties, the armed conflict between the Ethiopian central government and the Tigray region had a serious impact on many spheres, including the education sector.
The current unrest in the Amhara region, where 10 public universities are located, is feared to affect the normal conduct of the new academic year, which is expected to begin in a few weeks’ time.
The government needs to plan for the possibility of this challenge by drawing important lessons from the past few years when similar challenges were faced by the sector.
The Tigray conflict
The conflict in the Tigray region from 2020-22 caused substantial damage at all levels of the education system.
As reported by the Recovery and Rehabilitation Plan, a document released by the ministries of health and education in August, 2022, the destruction in the education sector has affected more than 4.2 million learners and close to 200,000 teachers and education staff.
The conflict destroyed 2,681 schools completely and 4,158 partially. A total of 38 technical and vocational education and training (TVET) institutions and three universities reportedly sustained varying levels of damage.
The number of destroyed TVETs and universities in the Tigray region was not included in the report, due to a lack of data.
The assessment and recovery plan prepared by the Ethiopian government, with technical assistance from the World Bank, indicates that the education sector requires US$2.2 billion to recoup lost learning and rebuild destroyed facilities.
The World Bank granted US$300 million for the implementation of this project, while the government similarly allocated ETB20 billion (US$359 million).
The recovery and reconstruction programme was designed to be implemented for five years in three phases, according to the documents prepared by the two ministries.
Recent conflict zone
Recently, armed conflict has erupted in the Amhara region with its feared impact derailing the 2022 recovery plan and damage incurred at all levels of the system.
The conflict is expected to exacerbate the overall situation in the country and affect the government’s plan for universities.
The Amhara region currently hosts 10 universities, representing one-fifth of the country’s 50 public universities. The universities include first-generation universities like Bahir Dar and Gondar universities that have huge facilities and cater for tens of thousands of students and staff.
In addition to the impact on infrastructure that may be damaged or lost at these universities, some of which were affected during the neighbouring Tigray conflict, the current armed turmoil will take its toll on the operational plans of the universities and the individual lives of students, academic and support staff working at the universities.
The toll on the mental, physical, and emotional development of students cannot be underestimated. Its impact on their academic progress and achievement is also understandable.
As experienced previously, teachers may be displaced from their universities with the possible impact on them and their families. Addressing the needs of these staff requires tracking their movement and catering to their personal and professional needs.
The negative impact of internal armed conflicts cannot be confined to areas where the problem is taking place. Among others, problems will manifest themselves in terms of the capacity of the economy to pay for the damage caused by the internal conflicts.
One such impact is the budget strain on the economy in general and a resultant budget reduction assigned to the sector.
The shrinking of the budget allocated to Ethiopian universities over the past few years can partly be explained by this unfortunate development.
What can be done in the interim?
Political solutions remain the key to solving armed conflicts and internal displacements, but there is an overall belief that efforts should minimise the damage to a higher education sector that appears to be persistently affected.
One major intervention required is the need for a detailed study of the impact of armed and internal conflicts on the higher education sector.
With limited information about the damage to the sector, there is indeed a need for a close examination of the persistent challenges, with proposed strategies and interventions to address the needs of the sector, individual institutions, students and teachers affected.
This should lead towards the development of a more resilient sector with set priorities and workable strategies to address the eminent temporary or permanent challenges that appear to be a common phenomenon in many countries facing similar challenges.
In addition to developing appropriate plans and mechanisms for limiting possible damage to the sector, providing special assistance to students and staff in the interim requires organised responses at ministry level.
Past experience shows that one of the challenges with regard to students who might be forced to interrupt their education due to armed conflicts is the lack of students’ records which often challenges students’ ability to pursue their education in relatively peaceful regions of the country.
In this regard, the ministry of education should create a mechanism by which data at individual institutions can be made available at the ministry or create a central archive for access on a needs basis.
In a similar vein, temporarily assigning staff to other sites and institutions requires prior preparation and appropriate strategies.
Schemes, in particular, should be developed to use institutions in relatively peaceful regions to temporarily accommodate students and instructors from the conflict-affected regions.
Overall, as is the case with lower levels of education, the persistent challenges in the higher sector require an active engagement of the ministry and relevant stakeholders to reduce the continued impact posed by internal conflicts that come and go.
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 email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. This is a commentary.