Although the number of higher education institutions and students has been meteorically rising, the last few years has seen families reluctant from sending their children to campuses outside their area of comfort. Some of those who dared do so waited anxiously for months for the return of their children stranded on campuses engulfed with ethnic politics and war. The minority that can afford private tertiary education are receiving substandard schooling mostly in business fields. Labor market proportions, university-industry linkages, and nation building endeavors are being upended.
Unlike Ethiopia’s political movement of the 1960s, which was spearheaded by politically organized university students, contemporary politics is operated by full-time politicians who recharacterize narrations to fit their alternative reality and use universities and students as pawns in their game. EBR’s Trualem Asmare explores the extent of empty registrars and whether the changing nature of politics and the election can change things and give hope to students.
Haimanot Belete, 21, and her siblings all completed secondary school education at Kokebe Tsibah in Addis Ababa. She was very excited when she passed the national university entrance exam in 2020. However, her hard work and dreams of becoming a medical doctor turned to feebleness when she was assigned to Wellega University, in western Oromia, where an insurgency has taken grip as of the last couple of years.
“My family refused to send me there because of high ethnic and political tension. Especially after the government revealed that ethnic Amhara students from Ambo University were kidnapped in western Wellega, I lost the courage. Both my brothers who completed high school this year were also too scared to go to regional universities,” said Haimanot.
Haimanot deferred her dream as she missed out on education for the 2020/21 school year. “My family are daily laborers and could not afford to send me to a private university in Addis Ababa. They raised us working hard and without reliable incomes. I studied very hard to pass the national exam to join university. But my dream has turned hopeless now; I am demoralized. I now have to find a job to support them.”
Similarly, a number of the 147,000 students who were assigned to public universities throughout the nation failed to register at their designated campuses. Over 358,000 students took the national university entrance exam this year, according to data from the Ministry of Science and Higher Education (MoSHE).
Out of the 45 public universities in the country, 14 are in Oromia, 10 in South, nine in Amhara, and four in Tigray regions. They offer 391 bachelor’s, 741 master’s, and 335 doctoral degrees. Mekelle University leads with 111 first degree programs, while Dembi Dolo University has the least with six. In second degree and doctoral programs, Addis Ababa University leads with 155 and 75, respectively. Public universities’ enrolment peaked at 800,000 in 2015/6, before starting to decline.
“Normal disagreements in universities escalate towards violent ethnic conflict. This is the stifling ethnic tension in the political space reflected on students. We have been working hard to protect the security of students in our campus but when the issue is beyond our capacity, Federal Police officers take over. We also confer with elders, Aba Gadas, societal and religious leaders, members of the security apparatus, and university administrators to solve campus conflicts peacefully,” says Gutu Deme, Public and Foreign Relations Director at Selale University. Opened in 2016 in Fiche town just 120 kilometers from the capital, the university is among the third-generation of universities which started teaching in the last decade. Of the 1,885 students assigned to Selale University in 2020/21, over 600 did not register and attend class, according to Gutu.
Families are increasingly refusing to send students to universities outside of their own region, a trend exacerbated by the abduction of students by insurgents in 2019. This incident, and its backdrop of general political tension, tangibly firmed the decision of families nationwide.
While most students—both fresh and continuing—failed to show up at their departments this year, even those who did manage faced various security threats up to the point of getting killed on campus. University administrators in Gondar, Woldiya, and Dire Dawa have officially disclosed student murders on their campuses this year. In 2019, three university students were killed on campus in Amhara and Oromia.
But since 2020, the nature of violence against university students has shifted to disconnecting them from the outside world by making transport inaccessible. For instance, the 15,000 new students delegated to Tigray universities were stranded as war broke out in November 2020, struggling to find food as café workers left the campuses. Granted, however, that only a portion of them had registered in the first place. Following the federal government’s apparent inaction, hundreds of stranded students’ families gathered in front of UNECA in July to protest and demand independent bodies including UNECA safely return their children. According to a MoSHE statement in August, the ministry managed to retrieve 10,164 students from Adigrat, Raya, Axum, and Mekelle universities to their families, after they being stranded for months in Tigray.
Similar disruptions have been seen in Amhara universities, including Woldia and Raya, where students halted their education to return to their families. As tension between regional and federal political factions spirals to tectonic national and geopolitical disruptions, students assigned to universities outside Addis Ababa are deciding to remain at home. “The teaching and learning process was interrupted in 2020/21 due to security issues. We are working on how to continue next year,” stated MoSHE. The ministry is expected to transfer students from war-inflicted regions if the political clashes fail to stabilize.
“Most students are declining to attend government universities and are instead enrolling in private universities and colleges in their surroundings. We are working to find exact numbers. This will severely affect the number of university graduates the country will have in the future as well as having a negative effect on the quality of education. As a solution, all universities must work hard to separate politics from education, and students must understand how dangerous politics is,’’ said Tarekegn Geresu, Public Relations Coordination Head at Higher Education Relevance and Quality Agency (HERQA).
There are 292 private colleges and four private universities in the country. Recently, four new institutions were licensed to provide online education.
Tirusew Teffera (PhD), Professor of Special Needs Education at Addis Ababa University, says that “students can neither learn, nor can lecturers teach, in the absence of peace. Substantial numbers have missed out of class in 2021. This is a generation missing out. The country cannot have the right balance of human capital that it needs in the coming years. The university-industry linkage will also weaken. Private universities and colleges focus on business fields, thus creating a scarcity of science-based graduates. This is the result of ethnic conflict.’’
The government and most universities are not adopting single conflict resolution mechanisms. They are rather creating coverup stories to mask the death of students on campus. As a result, no university or government institution has taken responsibility for the loss of life over the past few years.
In principle, universities are pure academic institutions and should be free of political activities. However, the federal government, as administrator of universities, has the duty to protect them from any subversion to regional politics. According to reports and obituaries posted by universities, students from the Amhara ethnic group are unable to study in universities in Oromia and Tigray, and vice versa.
The boundaries which separate academic institutions from politics have been broken, as has been the role of federal and regional governments. Governments have particularly failed in controlling political parties, including itself, from conducting political activities on campus.
Political parties and insurgents place members on campuses, according to insiders. “It is not outside the view of government intelligence when they create informal groups and ethnic-based networks. Even university registrar offices are part of the crime as they disclose students’ ethnic backgrounds to nefarious groups. Ethnic political parties have taken control of the universities in their respective regions. They kill students from ‘other’ ethnic backgrounds to send a message to other ethnic parties in other ‘rival’ regions,” said students from Bahir Dar University students’ union speaking to EBR on the condition of anonymity.
“It is usually those party-affiliated groups on campus that kill students of other ethnic backgrounds as a signal to escalate tensions with rival ethnic parties. This became the trend especially after ethnic politics reached an extreme around 2018. For instance, the government blamed the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) for the kidnapping and killing of Amhara students in Wellega University whilst Oromia Region officials blamed parties affiliated with the Amhara ethnic group for attacking Oromo students in Woldiya and Dire Dawa universities.
Therefore, university students are being killed not because they are really involved in political activities, unlike the student’s movement towards the end of the imperial regime. Rather, students are the chess moves of ethnic political parties. Although party tension has relatively calmed down following June’s national election, the scars they have left on university campuses still hasn’t healed. Families are no longer willing to send their students to universities outside of their regions or ethnic group. This will have an insurmountable implication over the labor landscape, education quality, as well as nation building efforts,” added the student.
According to Tirusew, in order to resolve the conflict, MoSHE must open discussion stages with students in each university. “Each student must freely discuss ideas, opinions, and their interests with government officials. Universities have learned the impacts of ethnic conflict and can engage with knowledge and experience sharing through the arts on a regular basis. Students from different regional states, outlooks, backgrounds, languages but learning for one goal, must be able to communicate and stay on one page. Many students have been injured or killed. They must create unity and stop external political manipulation on campus. Students must stop lending their hand to ethnic politicians. But outside campuses, it is government’s responsibility to ensure the safety and security of students at any cost and give assurance to families. This is critical.”
“Diversity should not be a source of conflict,” says Haimanot. EBR
9th Year • September 2021 • No. 100