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Ongoing Discourse About Higher Education in Ethiopia

Opinion by Tesfa H., Addis Tribune (Addis Ababa), 6 October 2000

Addis Ababa—The ongoing debate and the response of the ministry encouraged me to write this piece. I really appreciate the first writers (WIC Sep 10, 2000 and WIC Sep 16, 2000 and earlier) for their initiative in taking up a long over due discussion about the ills and hopes of higher education institutions in Ethiopia.

It underscores not only that the spirit of critical thinking and discourse is still alive but also people still are genuinely concerned, contrary to what is often presumed, about the future of higher education institutions. If I am to take the ministry by its words, it seems to be interested to address the problems plaguing higher education institutions. I do also share the hope that higher education institutions will‘bloom’, at least in the future, and will be able to play the roles expected of them given that appropriate measures are taken both by the individual staff and those responsible in running these institutions, notably the ministry.

The issues and concerns raised by the writers so far are not confined to staff material benefits only. It will be wrong if the whole problem is reduced to the question of salary and staff benefits. The staff of higher education institutions is demanding both for right incentive mechanisms and favorable working conditions. Although a lot has already been written about the first, I would like to add a few points before stepping to raising issues of concern related to the latter.

Higher education institutions are entrusted not only with the task of producing capable and responsible citizens who are to take up various responsibilities in the society but to be part of the problem solving exercise itself, namely the development challenge. No one can underestimate the significance of human capital in the development of any country. Higher education staff like most of their fellow countrymen live by/for these ideals and want to contribute what they can in this respect. But people do not live by ideals only. Hence, it is important that right incentive mechanisms are in place in higher education institutions. These include, among others, fair salary scale and other benefits, efficient promotion mechanisms that encourage competition and innovative research among staff and fertile ground for teaching and research. Staff members have been (are) willing to do their part to make this a reality given that the management of the institution and the responsible ministry does so too. However, the reality prevailing in higher education institutions is far from encouraging. Both the‘old’universities and colleges, those with long experiences, better infrastructure and manpower and in the‘new’ones, are at pains to maintain their manpower, sometimes with pleas and sometimes by administrative means, instead of focusing on their main task. What the staff has been demanding for long is simply for a fair pay commensurate with its responsibilities and qualifications. But to no avail. I found the latest response of the ministry, that the current situation in the country making it difficult to give an appropriate response even if the ministry believes that such a response was long over due, rather surprising. This response is not short of turning a blind eye to the concerns and demands of the staff. The ministry had three/four years to respond if it wished to.

Actually, it is in the pattern of the ministry. The ministry (including the management in higher education institutions) seems to focus more on stick than on the carrot or on addressing symptoms than on curing the root causes of the problem. Instead of encouraging staff members to stay in the system through a workable incentive mechanism, the system has reverted to quasi-illegal ways. Similar to the practice during the Derg era, the ministry has started requiring staff members leaving for further studies to sign an obligation to work for 12 or 15 years (those going for PhD) or pay compensation worth of Birr 140 000 or more. What I wonder is, leaving aside the question of its legality, whether the ministry realizes how this provides the final blow to the hope and confidence of the staff in the system. Instead what the ministry could have done is to make the system more attractive and responsive. Incentives pay more, blackmailing or coercion doesn’t; we should have learnt that from our experience in the last two to three decades. Nobody expects the ministry to do miracles, but everyone at least expects it to be responsive and fair. The recurrent flight of staff to better paying jobs domestically and the sad story of mass brain drain seems to continue unabated because those responsible are unwilling to raise a finger to address it.

Coming to the question of working conditions, higher education institutions are expected to be seedbeds of new ideas, a room for innovative research and free flow of ideas and the birthplace of future responsible citizens, teachers, managers, scientists and leaders. The current leaders of this country should have seen this more than anybody else. Right working condition involves creating the necessary infrastructure for teaching and research (the hard ware), and a willing, accommodating and efficient management system, both administrative and academic, that facilitates but not stifles the spirit and process of higher learning and research.

A look into the current management body of higher education institutions shows that most of the handpicked leaders are either despots who run these institutions not as academic institutions but as their own fiefdoms or are‘invalids’who are helpless in the execution of the tasks entrusted to them and are always at pains to point their finger at the ministry for everything ill happening in their institution. Despots operate not by consent and they, together with their loyalists, are turning these institutions into structures that are rigid and unresponsive to the problems and concerns of its staff. These people see the ordinary staff as something disposable; it is only them who are indispensable.

The Ministry of Education wants us to believe that the selection of management bodies in higher education institutions is transparent and all major decisions are made by successive consultations of those responsible. Most of us who stayed in higher education institutions long enough to see the dangers of such malpractice, had hoped that possession of‘red cards’and political/personal loyalty should be things of the past. If staff members in higher education institutions are not entrusted to (s)elect their own management bodies, I don’t see how we can expect transparency in decision making and accountability for actions taken by those impositions, let alone to talk of the blooming of a democratic culture in the country. This is quite evident now a days in the heavy handedness of decision-making, prevalence of bureaucratic bottlenecks and inefficiencies in higher education institutions. It is a common knowledge that several months, if not years, pass by before staff members are granted the meager but deserved salary increments mainly due to inefficiency and irresponsibility of the system, both in the institutions and the ministry. There seem to exist no system at all which governs the different institutions. Different rules seem to govern these institutions; and if there are any, personal whims seem to matter most.

One of the writers has indicated the state of infrastructure of higher education institutions. The libraries, laboratories green-houses, etc. are in a pretty bad shape. Even in the‘new’universities, contrary to the claim of quality and modernity, they leave a lot to be desired. Given the current procurement and project implementation practice of the ministry, where the ministry wants to run each and everything by itself in spite of its own problems of lack of skilled manpower and inefficiency, it won’t be surprising to see the mess we are in: the supplies that remain stocked in the warehouses of the ministry until the expiry of the guarantee (grace) period instead of being installed or used, the missing and misplaced items (some items sent to the south while another component goes to the north), the cracking walls and floors of‘new’buildings, delays and lack of follow-up and so on and so forth. Desire is something but proper implementation is another matter. First the ministry has to have staff members who are competent, willing and responsible. The ministry should see the need to delegate power to the universities and colleges under it.

If the ministry wants, as it claims, to help higher education institutions to‘bloom’it is important that it clean its house and it has to seriously see what is going on in the several institutions under its‘tutelage’and enter into direct dialogue (create mechanisms for dialogue) with the staff of these institutions. It is only then that it can be responsive, supportive and instrument for change.