Politicizing Education Has Heavy Price

If there has been anything interesting about the aspect of governance in Ethiopia these last couple of years, it would be the standoff between the Minister of Education and college entrance exam takers. Young TikTokers have been making humorous videos calling out Birhanu Nega (PhD), the Minister of Education, for the serious changes the Ministry was making around the way the entrance exams were to be administered.

The changes were necessary on the part of the Ministry as national exams have been stolen and distributed to students well before they were administered- a practice that has been typical for about ten years now. The bad habit started in 2014 when Jawar Mohammed, the then-exiled political activist, claimed to have had the exams stolen as the then incumbent, the Ethiopian People’s Liberation Front (EPRDF), failed to listen to the movement he was said to have been leading.

Jawar’s move didn’t draw much heat at the time as no one was willing to look beyond its political significance. Ever since that one case, stealing national exams has become a tradition. This occurred against the backdrop of an allegation against the EPRDF’s education policy, which many perceived to be more concerned with quantity than quality. The allegation goes as far as making education the reason for the nation’s entire challenges.

Birhanu was appointed in October 2021 to change all that: to put in place a policy that focuses on quality while working to turn around bad practices such as stealing the national exam. To do the latter, Birhanu and his colleagues at the Ministry planned to administer the national exam at universities and increase the number of codes in exam booklets to 12, from six. During their exam time, students wouldn’t be allowed to leave the premises of their respective exam sites and wouldn’t be allowed to carry cell phones, among other instructions.

Apart from some amusing criticism from TikTokers and some economists who wonder if the new method is expensive, the Ministry has received a lot of support for their recent attention to the matter. The real feeling of taking a national exam was suddenly felt all over the nation, as it should be. The states were also largely cooperative in making sure the exams would be undertaken as planned.

The first round of social science students started taking the exam on October 10, 2022. By far, this round of the exam was well-administered nationwide, except for Debre Markos University. The university that was hosting students from the surrounding secondary schools witnessed protests by exam takers who refused to take the exams, claiming the exams had been leaked to students in other states prior to the exam dates, allegations with no evidence.

Birhanu and his colleagues stated at a press conference on October 13, 2022, that the more than 12,000 students who refused to take the exams would not have another chance. The number of students proved shocking, even for those who say the whole thing was just politicized with no evidence of the students’ allegations.

In recent years, there has been an increased focus on the role of education in society. This has led to a debate about the appropriate level of politicization of education. Some believe that education should be used as a tool to promote political agendas, while others believe that it should be kept separate from politics.

There are several reasons why politicizing education can be problematic. First, it can lead to division and conflict among students and educators. Second, it can distract from the primary purpose of education, which is to provide individuals with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in life. Third, politicizing education can have a negative impact on academic freedom and the quality of teaching and learning.

Education must always be viewed as a non-political arena, no matter how good an opportunity that arena might offer for one to win the political game. Politicizing issues is problematic because it diverts attention from the actual problem-solving process, and right now, education is fraught with problems that require unbiased attention at the political level. EBR

11th Year • Oct 2022 • No. 111

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