graduate

Putting the Cart Before the Horse

Having one of the largest reserves of human and natural resources, Ethiopia should have had a prosperous economy. However, it is one of the poorest countries in the world, as manifested through low per-capita income and low human-development index. The vast expansion of education and health services over the past two decades has not solved the problems of farmers and pastoralists or changed the lives of the overwhelming majority. As a result, the contribution of human capital to economic growth remains insignificant in Ethiopia. EBR’s Ashenafi Endale explores to shed light on the matter.

Getu Kebede, General Manager of Friendship Agro Industry, was not surprised when over 1,600 job seekers showed up for six vacancies posted by his company in August 2019. The winning applicant will travel to regional towns to sell and distribute poultry products and animal feeds produced by his company. He prepared an exam, containing 50 questions, to screen competent applicants. Most of the questions required common sense and general knowledge, with only a few related to marketing.

Getu was hoping many would pass the exam and he will be troubled to pick the right candidate. Unexpectedly, however, he was shocked to find out that only 12 correctly answered more than half the questions. “To my surprise, I asked questions that could be answered by anyone following new developments and trends in Ethiopia on Google and social media; but many of them failed to do so. My son, a 12 grader, only missed three questions while anyone with a mobile phone can also easily do it,” he says.

Such a reality reminds Getu, who has studied chemical engineering in India and business administration in South Africa, that Ethiopia is reaping the fruits of its ill-advised investment in the education system that gave more priority to quantity rather than quality. “It is only a number that we get in return for what is invested in the sector while the quality of education has hit rock bottom,” says Getu. “It is very discouraging and forces employers to reconsider their decision of hiring new graduates who are the products of a very flawed education system.”

Most employing organizations including public institutions avoid hiring fresh graduates unless they have ample budget allocation for training or are paying very low wages. Innovative self employing manpower is also scarce.

Scholars argue this half-baked human capital is responsible for the fundamental bottlenecks suppressing Ethiopia from achieving its grand visions—detrimental even more than institutionalization, good governance, and resource mobilization. “New graduates lack the basic skills and qualities employers look for. It is, hence, obvious that employing fresh graduates is very costly as they are expected to be trained and re-educated,” says Sara Tadios, creator of ICanJobs, a company that facilitates training and recruitment of fresh graduates.

Despite the annual production of close to 250,000 new graduates from 42 public universities, four private universities and close to 200 colleges, only one-fifth get jobs within six months after graduation. The bridge of direct human capital resource flow from higher education institutions to industries is also broken due to the mismatch between demand and supply. A detrimental inadequacy in language skills to undertake minimal tasks, absence of general knowledge, as well as specialization has widened the gap between graduates and industries’ needs.

For the past five years, Ethiopia has also been sandwiched between detaching itself from multi-layered problems and missing a generational opportunity for fundamental reform. While some scholars point that a revolution comes every 30 to 40 years, Ethiopia has missed numerous opportunities over the past century mainly due to an absence of human capital capable of handling changes or with an implementation capacity. Unwelcoming policies and actions from the ruling regimes towards the educated class has also widened the gap.

Although Ethiopia’s first and second GTP editions, which will conclude at the end of the current financial year, targeted structural transformation in the economy and achieving middle income status by 2025, all have been undershot due to poor implementation capacity, mistaken policies, and fundamental crises in the political arena.

“A new strategic plan is in the making, in political, economic and social aspects,” said Seleshi Bekele (PhD), Minister of Water, Irrigation and Energy. We have a huge manpower gap in productivity, economic transformation, clean energy, climate issues, and health. We cannot achieve most of the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs) without educated and capable human capital, let alone achieving middle income. Human capital is the main bottleneck for Ethiopia to exploit its immense potential and achieve progress,” added Seleshi.

Scholars also warn Ethiopia is at a critical juncture because its population is at an historic takeoff point, expected to double to 200 million within the next 30 years. “Ethiopia must not miss such an opportunity,” said Zafu Eyesuswork, a veteran banker and insurance guru. “The country must change the bulging youth segment into a growth potential, in tandem with technology, which is ending the monopoly over knowledge. However, “Ethiopia’s population size and structure has fundamental problems as the country has a lot to do in terms of human capital development,” says Aynalem Adugna (PhD.), Senior Statistician and Researcher at California Department of Social Services.

Human capital is often used to describe education, health, and other human capacities that can raise productivity. It is also understood as the developed skills, knowledge and capabilities of people needed for the production of goods and services. Human capital is the fundamental growth pillar for non-resource economies, particularly in the digital economy era and the fourth industrial revolution. Japan, Israel and many other resource deficient economies have extensively worked on educating their people. Contrastingly, Ethiopia’s problem is in line with what the eminent economist, Amartya Sen, said about India: ‘the Achilles heel of India is poor education, health and skewed development policy’. In sharp contrast, China succeeded in building an assured economy mainly by producing well educated and capable citizens.

“Unless real growth in human capital development starts to takeoff right now, along with the population growth, we will never get another chance to manage it. For China and many East Asian tigers, the secret to success was that they managed to enable the takeoff of the economy at the same time that their population started to rise astonishingly,” noted Debrework Zewdie (PhD), distinguished public health policy scholar at City University of New York.

She identifies three major challenges dragging Ethiopia from taking forward steps alongside the already galloping population size. The first includes: poor education, stunting and hunger. The second is the absence of good governance. A huge human force in Ethiopia, which could take the country forward, has been busy dismantling government because of lack of good governance. Thirdly, substantial amount of money is lost because of illicit financial flow, which could have been channeled to productive sectors that can potentially develop human capital.

Although Ethiopia achieved six of the 17 SDG targets, mainly in health and education, its human capital development index remained low because of chronic poverty and a huge gender gap. The 2019 Human Capital Development report also stresses that unlocking the potential of preprimary education in Ethiopia could be the solution for human capital advancement. Ethiopia ranked 173rd in the report and was grouped under ‘low human development.’ This subsequently resulted in UNCTAD’s removal of Ethiopia from the list of countries that would be middle income by 2025.

Curriculum and human capital
In the fourth industrial revolution, only countries with an emphasis on mind capital—innovation, research and development—are succeeding, unlike the resource and social capital focus of the old schools. However, this is farfetched in Africa, which is majorly stuck on industry 1.0. The first setback for African countries faced with the dilemma of starting from industry 1.0 or to leapfrog to industry 4.0, is the head-on collision with poor human capital.

It is no different for Ethiopia. With the intention of political regimes at the bottom-line, Ethiopia has never sharpened a genuine education system. Ethiopia’s current education curriculum was ratified in 1995, tailored to the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front’s (EPRDF) developmental state policies.

Perhaps, EPRDF’s insensitivity in firing over 40 senior and clear-minded lecturers from universities as it came to power was the first bad sign for the damages that were to follow. Since then, Ethiopia’s education curriculum has been a bone of contention among independent scholars and policy makers of the EPRDF, now replaced by the liberal Prosperity Party. Critics agree that the existing curriculum spearheaded by Genet Zewde, the Education Minister at the time of ratification 20 years ago, has castrated the minds of a generation. While the incumbent managed to increase the number of education facilities, largely for the sake of painting economic growth with public investment, quality education remained far from achieved.

This, however, does not mean Ethiopia has not made tangible progress in the education sector. The education system, adopted by the EPRDF-led government over the past two decades, expanded the number of learners from 10 million to more than 25 million today. The net enrollment rate (NER) in elementary education, for instance, jumped from only 29Pct in 1989 to more than 90Pct now, according to Ministry of Science and Higher Education.

The number of elementary schools tripled to 32,048 over the past two decades while the number of students enrolled in these schools increased from less than three million to more than 18 million. In secondary education, NER grew from 16Pct in 1999 to 26Pct.

Likewise, the higher education sector has come a long way since its humble beginnings. There were just three public universities, 16 colleges, and six research institutions in the 1990s, having fewer than 18,000 students. Today, there are 43 public universities, as well as growing private sector activity. Ethiopia did not have a single accredited privately owned tertiary institution before the early 1990s but now there are 61. The overall number of tertiary students in both public and private institutions surged by over 2,000 percent, from 34,000 in 1991 to over a million now.

Despite improvements, however, the quality of education remains low. The increases in enrollment have masked the deterioration in quality education. Such a reality prompted the government to launch the General Education Quality Improvement Package (GEQIP), but the issue of quality remains a daunting task. In fact, the rapid expansion of educational facilities over the past decades has overstrained the system and resulted in a slew of new problems, such as shortages of finance, in addition to the drop in quality education at each level. Many observers, including government officials, admit that the Ethiopian education system is in a state of crisis.

Ethiopia was ranked 111th in the 2019 Global Innovation Index, a significant fall back since a record-high improvement of 97th in 2014. The 2019 Legatum Prosperity Index ranks Ethiopia 150th, a three rank improvement since 2009. “From the get go, we fought the government to not implement the existing education curriculum. It was rather a political decision. Over 50Pct of the 3,000 PhD holders in Ethiopia are also not producing articles and research papers. The main aim of education is to produce the mind capital that helps countries exploit their resources. This is not what is happening in Ethiopia,” said Tesfaye Muheye, Former Director General of Higher Education Relevance and Quality Assurance (HERQA).

The ideological vacuum, in tandem with the absence of consensus between government, universities and the private sector, at least at principle level, has led to a diminished interest for quality education, thus sending the best minds to exile at the expense of the generation. The government introduced a series of Education Sector Development Program (ESDP) editions, since it was first introduced in 1997. Although the subsequent ESDP editions targeted improving quality, relevance, efficiency and equity of education, almost all are far from being reality. Government’s adult non-formal literacy programs also could not reduce the illiteracy rate, contrary to what was expected. Adult literacy rate in Ethiopia stands at 65Pct, less than the global average of 86.2Pct.

The number of Ethiopians in school has increased to 28Pct of the population. For instance, there were 4 million grade one students in 2016/17, up from 2.8 million in 2006. However, the enrollment numbers decline sharply as the grade level goes up, slipping to 1.1 million in grade 9, and only 254,703 12th graders. The large majority of pupils drop out after grade four, probably because they would be expected to move off their localities to attend further education. Only 54Pct finalize their primary education in Ethiopia, lower than the 83Pct global average. Relatively, Ethiopia has a better 12.5Pct enrollment rate in higher education, compared to the sub-Sahara African average of eight percent, but far from the 74Pct of developed countries.

“Dergue ran out of educated people and reduced university time to three years in order to fill the gap faster. Then EPRDF, now Prosperity Party, followed suit. Although all regimes brag they increased the number of graduate workers even in the lowest administrative levels, they lack basic knowledge and skills,” said Birhanu Gizaw (PhD.), senior lecturer and technologist at Addis Ababa Institute of Technology (AAiT).

There is also a vast disparity in educational participation between rural areas and urban centers, most notably Addis Ababa; as well as between low-income households and more affluent demographic groups; and between boys and girls. School drop-out rates are still one of the highest in the world as just slightly more than 50Pct of enrolled children complete elementary schooling. Participation rates also fall off markedly at higher levels—Ethiopia’s upper-secondary net enrollment rate still remains 17 percentage points below the current least developed countries (LDCs) average.

Scholars argue Ethiopia’s education problem has to do with curriculum drafter’s take on metaphysics, epistemology and even reality, apart from the policymakers’ intention to produce an ‘uninquiring’ generation. Moreover, the failure of Ethiopia’s educational system is attributed to the devastating crumble of three pillars in pursuit of quality education. The first and major problem is the fact that, overall, the educational curriculum approach is based on thin theory and lacks practical hands-on teaching. “Project based and applied practical teaching mechanisms should be the final solution. It can change students’ capacity development. Using such mechanisms, I succeeded in helping my students kick off ventures and startup businesses. But this is not yet tried in Ethiopia, ” said Mamo Muchie (PhD.), a scholar with over 40 years of teaching experience in Scandinavian universities, as well as in USA, China, India and currently in South Africa.

The second reason responsible for the poor quality of education is teachers’ quality at the kindergarten and primary levels. “If kids are poorly treated and educated at the lower levels, it is hard to correct even with excellent higher education,” Mamo added.

The third reason is that failures to open universities specialized in a certain academic area and adopt higher education programs accordingly are affecting the quality of education being delivered. In fact, Ethiopian universities are criticized for having the worst ‘me too’ disease. When the latest universities were opened, many were expecting specialization. However, all came with similar course formats of existing universities. “We have over 40 universities with similar departments and courses, which is thinning out the budgets and resources of the country,” said Amanuel Teshome, Lecturer at Ethiopian Institute of Architecture, Building Construction and City Development (EiABC) and President of the Association of Ethiopian Architects. “No university has evolved to a center of excellence. Universities have no R&D facilities; agricultural departments lack botanic gardens; students study only for examination. This has killed professionalism.”

According to ‘Problems and Solutions in Ethiopia’s Education and Training’, a document prepared in 2018 by the Education Strategy Center under the Ministry of Science and Higher Education, Ethiopia’s existing education curriculum has aggravated the problems. The document lists multidimensional factors contributing to the deteriorating quality. This includes outdated education philosophy, poor teachers’ quality and selection mechanisms, inconvenient educational facilities, failures in nurturing students with poorer results, and reluctance of stakeholders in maintaining good education mechanisms and environment.

The educational system, adopted over the past two decades, is also not integrated with the industrial sector, while also failing to encourage innovation, the document says. It also criticized the system of masking wastage of resources in the name of expansion of educational facilities, worsened by static and decaying leadership and management, complex resource allocation, and old and wrong education information systems. The document admits Ethiopia’s existing curriculum is full of theories heavier than other countries—complex even for teachers—and totally detached from practical teaching.

The study recommends revisions and amendments in the education and training policies and ideas, institutional reshaping, teachers’ selection criteria and training mechanisms, teachers’ incentive packages, university-industry linkages, and university administration. For former Director General of Higher Education Relevance and Quality Assurance, Tesfaye Meheye, this is a step in the right direction. “A paradigm shift in the education curriculum is a must. Students graduate from universities without learning how to learn, let alone becoming a productive force. We also need a relevant and sustainable knowledge stock,” asserts Tesfaye. “We must change the passive, inactive and traditional teaching system. We need a strict and standardized quality assurance culture at institution and program levels. All HERQA has been doing so far is a waste of resources.”
Way forward

In a bid to improve quality of education and produce competent graduates, the government is implementing a roadmap, approved a year ago, to serve as a guideline for the sector in the next decade. Amongst the 35 proposals incorporated into the road-map, 12 items will be implemented in the current academic year.

The road map will introduce a 6-2-4 education system, meaning students go through six years of primary education, two years of junior school, and four years of high school. The road map also envisages that students must take a regional exam at the end of grade six and a national exam after completing grade eight. According to the roadmap, while there won’t be tenth-grade national exams starting from the current academic year, a national higher education entrance examination will remain to be administered at the end of grade 12. Although such moves are welcomed by many, there are other issues that need urgent addressing, scholars say.

“Ethiopia must change its education curriculum. We are living in an era of digital capitalism, but Ethiopia and the whole of Africa don’t have enough mind capital to fit in and play a part. USA and China are changing the global landscape while Africa is sitting on its huge resources. DRC could not exploit its mineral worth USD24 trillion whilst Norway succeeded after transferring its single resource of oil to the public from government control,” argues Mamo.

Yet, he argues science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is not the final solution for everything but the Ethiopian government needs capable advisers on this endeavor. “All Africans are asking how to change their education system. Ethiopia needs a problem solving and innovative education system, not only a disciplinarian kind of education.”

Sossina Haile (PhD.), an outstanding global technologist in the energy innovation field who has studied material physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), suggests that educated Ethiopians in exile need to contribute in helping Ethiopia find its right path. “We have no less capacity in human capital, if provided the right education,” says Sossina, who is currently building an international standard girls’ boarding school in DebreBirhan, along her sister, a lawyer.

Shiferaw Taye (PhD), advisor to the Minister of Urban Development and Construction, agrees. “The main problem is how to bridge Ethiopian professionals who have good recommendations and solutions but have been pushed out from the country, due to the unfavorable political environment. Government is currently preparing new plans and roadmaps but there is no mechanism to include ideas from independent scholars,” said Shiferaw. Many Ethiopian geniuses abroad are contributing to the growth of foreign countries, but not their own. For instance, 65Pct of budgeted public resource is going to the construction industry, but the professional manpower that can take the industry forward is still missing.

Meanwhile, a total of between two to three million people are expected to join the job market annually. Less than half of them get jobs, according to data from the Jobs Creation Commission (JCC) established last year by the government to curve the escalating unemployment and under employment problem.

Fast on track, the National Job Creation Committee led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD), also rolled out its plan to create three million new jobs by the end of 2019/20, 14 million by 2025, and 20 million by 2030. Frustrated by the failure of the structural transformation from agriculture to industry, where the manufacturing sector was envisaged to hire two million employees annually, but only managed to hire less than 200,000, the government has shifted its focal areas to agriculture, mining, tourism and ICT. “Interventions are critical with regard to employability, skill development, and active labor markets in all the economic subsectors,” said Ephrem T. Lemango (PhD), Commissioner of JCC.


9th Year • Jan.16 – Feb.15 2020 • No. 82

Ashenafi Endale


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