Booming higher education and the challenges of job creation

This is the graduation season in Ethiopia. It is a season of festivities, celebrations and also anxiety. Nine thousand and seven hundred students have recently graduated from the Addis Ababa University (AAU). An almost equal number of graduates came out of universities from the Southern states universities. Many regional universities have produced thousands of fresh graduates as well as post-graduate students. This is the modern face of Ethiopian higher education that in full bloom despite criticism against the falling of the quality of education.

And all this happened in the last twenty or so years since the country embarked on the path of aggressive growth in higher education, costing the nation billions of Birr and the dedication and hard work of hundreds of thousands of students and scholars. However, Ethiopia’s higher education is a still unfinished story.

True, it is still in full bloom but concerns are expressed as to the wisdom of producing tens of thousands of young and energetic youngsters whose talent is going to be wasted on the dry land of joblessness and hopelessness. What is the use of producing tens of thousands of new graduates that make a difference in the lives of tens of millions of citizens who live in the rural areas in particular.

PM Abiy has hit the nail when he told the following to this year’s AAU graduates that seventy years ago our people farmed with ploughs pulled by oxen. Seventy years later today people are farming in the same way. What is the difference for the generation? What is the value of holding degrees in such a situation? Certainly the nation is looking for educated graduates who make a difference and not the same stereotypes of college leavers who brandish their certificates, brag about them and think of grabbing the good life that money can buy by hook or by crook. Unfortunately, this is increasingly becoming a mirage of self-deception.

The more recent story of Ethiopian higher education is a mixed bag of astonishing successes and shocking failures. From a couple of colleges concentrated in the capital Addis Ababa, higher education is now provided in dozens of universities across the entire country.

Equity in the distribution of advanced education is of course a big achievement. Tens of thousands of girls who were previously marginalized, have been enabled to get access to higher education in an unprecedented way. College and university lecturers have been produced in large numbers. In short, higher education has become one of the most promising areas the government and the people have vested their hopes as a locomotive that would pull the entire nation forward in this age of reforms.

However, the challenges are equally daunting. There is a basic existential question facing college education in Ethiopia today. What kind of higher education is provided to the present and coming generations of young students and what to do with them once they leave college and embark on the tedious search for jobs? As job creation is lagging far behind the number of young graduates who join the job market every year, optimism soon leaves the place to disillusionment This is of course the worst thing that can happen to students fresh out of college, full of dreams and preparing to live their dreams.

The local media are reporting news about crowds of young graduates still looking for jobs three years after securing their BAs Master’s degrees. It is a sad story of time and energy wasted, dreams turning into nightmares and plans and projects cut short or aborted. In Ethiopia, equity in higher education is certainly not yet complemented by equity in job opportunity.

In the old days, when educated or skilled manpower was in short supply, graduates did not have to bang their heads against walls in order to get jobs. In the good old days, college graduates were treated as privileged citizens or heroes and treated with VIP status. They were envied by many and were ready to pay any sacrifice to pay back their debts to the nation. All this was possible because the right educational system was put in place with a collective vision to make the nation great and enviable.

Nowadays jobs are scarce and when they come by, the criteria for job recruitment are sometimes disheartening if not shocking. Many employers are said to be selecting their employees on the basis their grades. The higher their GPAs, the more likely they land jobs at private enterprises. There is no evil in giving priority to the more talented graduates but the trouble comes when those who passed exams with flying colors disappoint their employers by failing to do their job according to the standard requirements. It is often here that the failure of the educational system to produce qualified workers most intensely revealed.

It is of course an embarrassment for straight A or B students not to live to the expectations when they are tested in practice. Theoretical learning, has remained the hallmark of Ethiopia’s educational system for a long time. Practical training was not only largely absent but also shunned by both educators and students. This was the basis on which an elitist education system was established and ran for decades, mostly producing talkers rather than doers, theoreticians rather than practical people providing solutions to practical problems that affect the nation and its people.

The second and still prevailing problem is the  emergence of a kind of “nationalization” of higher learning by expelling foreign educators and hiring local ones who are often badly trained for the job and lack experience. This was the general practice under the old military government. Educating a new generation is not obviously something you learn on the job.

Educators are generally expected to come to the lecture halls fully formed, self-confident and experienced. The Derg government with its erroneous and political xenophobic policy of replacing foreigners with local educators has led to the deterioration of the teaching-learning process and the sharp fall in the quality of education at colleges and universities. The negative repercussions are still reverberating across the educational system.

The decision by the pre-reform leadership, to expel dozens of relatively better-formed and experienced lecturers because of their political views, has further eroded the little effort that had been made in the previous decades in terms of quality of educators.

This decision led to the hiring and firing of inexperienced and incapable educators for whom being politically correct was more important than their qualifications, abilities or experiences. Political favoritism had turned colleges and universities into grounds for the recruitment of politically correct and docile lecturers to the detriment of their more qualified and critical-minded peers.

Instead of becoming centers of excellence, critical thinking and innovation, the institutions of higher learning have become battlegrounds where official views dominated and critics were hounded and expelled to leave their places to the yes men and self-serving educated elite. The adverse effect of letting politics rule colleges is obvious right now when ethnic politics has made inroads and turned these institutions into battlegrounds of different ethnic perceptions.

It would be farfetched to expect able-minded, critical thinking and innovative young graduates to come out of the murky grounds of all those colleges and universities that pride themselves only on the number of graduates they train every year and the number of colleges they have built in a given year instead of focusing on the quality of the youngsters they have trained. The disappointing performance of the young graduates when they face the challenges of the work place. This is the direct result of the poor state of the entire educational establishment and not the personal failure of Mr. X, Y or Z.

What is more worrisome is the fact that by wrongly politicizing the universities along ethnic lines, the pre-reform EPRDF leadership had created an alibi for the sharp decline in educational quality. As an old edge has it, those who sow the wind will reap the whirlwind. The policy has produced a generation of misguided young students.

By engaging in senseless and useless ethnic politicking, these youngsters have completely lost sight of what it means to be educated. Most of the ongoing mess in regional politics is directly or indirectly helped and abetted by the educational system that wrongly placed the priorities and ill-advised the students by putting the criteria of “political correctness” above ability and talent.

As a result of all this, the job market was skewed in favor of those who acquiesce with the status quo and not in favor of independent thinkers, if there are at all any such students. We often talk of the inflation of prices of goods and services. What the country is now facing in the job market is a kind of inflation of graduates or job seekers who cannot find jobs.

The general response from the government to this situation is that the graduates are expected “to create jobs instead of trying to find jobs”. Unfortunately, it is not possible to create jobs out of thin air. Job creation requires not only skills and hard work but also money and support from the relevant stakeholders such as small and big businesses, government, communities, and non-profit organizations engaged in poverty alleviation schemes.

Government is still pouring money into building ineffective colleges and universities. A great deal of the money is wasted through lack of accountability and various corrupt practices. The construction of new colleges is taking many years and shortage of funds is often leading to frequent stoppages of construction.

Mismanagement is a big problem here. The government is not duty bound to build new colleges until all parts of the country are dotted with higher educational institutions. This has not been done in any country around the world. Quality of instruction and not political correctness should be the guiding principle.

The politics of higher education has now clearly led to backlashes that need a thorough revision of the entire system and not piecemeal reforms. And it would be more meaningful to create jobs to the already graduated students instead of keeping on building new campuses that repeat the same cycle of inefficiency and wastage.

Instead of spending huge amounts of money for the construction of modern and expensive buildings in the midst of the rural backwoods, it would be more reasonable to put the money in job creation schemes and give hope to the hopeless graduate who are spending their times looking for jobs that are in short supply. The new graduates are inevitably facing the grim reality of jobs that do not come easily. In the process, they will learn that holding a degree is only the end of academic life and that the real life challenges start soon afterwards.

The Ethiopian Herald Sunday Edition 28 July 2019


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