Ethiopia’s higher education infrastructure has mushroomed in the last 15 years. But the institutions suffer from half-written curriculums, unqualified – but party-loyal – lecturers, and shoddily built institutions. The rapid growth of Ethiopia’s higher education system has come at a cost, but it is moving forward all the same. Twenty years ago the Ethiopian government launched a huge and ambitious development strategy that called for “the cultivation of citizens with an all-round education capable of playing a conscious and active role in the economic, social, and political life of the country”. One of the principal results of Ethiopia’s agricultural development-led industrialisation strategy (ADLI) has been a rapid expansion in the country’s higher education system. In 2000 there were just two universities, but since then the country has built 29 more, with plans for another 11 to be completed within two years.
The quality of these new universities varies widely; from thriving research schools, to substandard institutions built to bolster the regime’s power in hostile regions. One professor recalls a hurried evacuation from part of a recently completed university while he was working there: one of the buildings had collapsed.
But there have also been success stories. The University of Jimma, for example, has come first in the Ethiopian Ministry of Education’s rankings for the past five years, and is held up as evidence of ADLI’s efficacy since its establishment in 1999. The most recent development at Jimma, the department of materials science and engineering (MSE), opened for students in 2013, and has quickly expanded to become one of the top research schools in the sub-Saharan region. The department’s founder, Dr Ali Eftekhari, has since received a fellowship from the African Academy of Sciences on the back of the project’s success.
This success is much-needed. At 8%, African higher education enrolment is significantly lower than the global average of 32%, and Ethiopia trails even further behind, with fewer than 6% of college-age adults at university. Research in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (Stem) is starting from a particularly low base in Africa. The World Bank reported last year that though the sub-Saharan region has “increased both the quantity and quality of its research” in recent years, much of this improvement is due to international collaboration, and a lack of native Africans is “reducing the economic impact and relevance of research”.
Dr Eftekhari echoes these concerns: “The problem for development in Ethiopia and similar African countries is higher education itself. This is the reason that I focused on PhD programs. “For instance, Jimma’s department of civil engineering has over 3,000 undergraduate students. These civil engineers are the future builders of the country, but there is not one PhD holder among the staff; most only have a BSc.”
Eftekhari improvised and sweet-talked in order to get the department established; in its first year, the department taught 18 PhD students – all native Ethiopians – on almost zero budget, with staff donating their time and money until funding was secured from the ministry of education. Despite the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front’s (EPRDF) push for development, Ethiopia’s political landscape remains a minefield for education professionals, says Eftekhari: “People are always suspicious about the political reasons behind each new project. I decided to start with zero budget to allay those doubts. In developing countries everything has some degree of flexibility. I used this to borrow staff and resources from the rest of the university until we could secure a budget.
“Many of the staff saw the project as a career opportunity,” says Eftekhari, but altruism also played a part. The department’s research focuses primarily on solving the country’s pressing poverty and development problems. “They knew they were actually saving lives,” says Jimma’s innovation coordinator, Maria Shou.
The belief that science and engineering is key to alleviating poverty propels the work of the school. Projects range from the development of super-capacitors for the provision of cheap power, to carbon nanomaterials for Ethiopia’s expanding construction industry. “You only need a couple of weeks in Ethiopia to realise that materials science is a priority,” says Pablo Corrochano, an assistant professor at the school. “Even in the capital you’ll experience cuts in power and water; in rural areas it’s even worse. Producing quality and inexpensive bricks for building houses, designing active water filters, and supplying ‘off-the-grid’ energy systems for rural areas are all vital to the country’s development.”
However, Jimma’s success could be seen as a bit of an anomaly. Paul O’Keeffe, a researcher at La Sapienza University of Rome, who specialises in Ethiopia’s higher education system, believes that similar initiatives are needed, but that the government’s politics are an obstacle: “My research indicates that the rapid expansion of the public university system has seen a dramatic decline in the quality of education offered in recent years. Instead of putting resources into improving the existing system, or establishing a few good institutions, the EPRDF has built many new universities, largely for political reasons.
“A lot of the time the universities are merely shells. They do not function as universities as we would expect and are poorly resourced, and in some cases shoddily built. It would seem that they are built almost as a token where the EPRDF can say to hostile regions ‘look we are doing something for you, we’ve built a university’.”
Even when the universities do function, the quality of education is often low: “Once the funding, say from a western development agency, is finished for a particular course, it is no longer taught as the university authorities believe they can get funding for a new course instead; whatever is the latest fashionable course. So often this type of education for development is not sustainable.”
Reports of spies, classroom propaganda, of curriculums that have been abandoned half-written due to funding cuts, and of unqualified staff are common at these universities, which make up the bulk of Ethiopian higher education, says O’Keeffe. “The party line is peddled during class, students are required to join the party, [there are] various reports of spies in the classrooms, who monitor what is said and who says it.”
A lecturer at Addis Ababa University, who wished to remain anonymous, is concerned primarily with the lack of qualifications among staff: “What is disturbing is that those who have just graduated with BAs and MAs are the lecturers. That is the manpower that they have. If you talk with students you wouldn’t believe that these students actually graduated from these so-called universities. Their inability to articulate their thoughts is breathtaking. It is extremely frustrating and you wonder how they have spent four years at university studying a doctorate.”
In this context, the MSE school provides a beacon of hope. The school’s success demonstrates that higher education – Stem research in particular – has the potential to thrive and play a central role in helping Ethiopia to reach its goal of becoming a middle-income nation by 2025, provided political interests are put to one side. Let’s hope the EPRDF takes note.