As the academic year kicks off, the authorities are under plausible anxiety over how smoothly the academic year will transpire. Inter-communal conflicts and violence have taken a toll, undermining citizens’ confidence and restricting movements of citizens beyond the administrative boundaries of their residences.
Parents, more affected than others, are edgy to send their children away to distant places where they might be placed for a college education. The fear is not unwarranted, considering the shocking numbers of people displaced over the past months and the trauma it has caused the country.
In response, officials of the various regional states have begun reassuring students and their families that students’ safety and security will be a priority. But the nation has never been short of reassurances. The words of comfort by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) and members of his administration are carrying less and less currency among the public as violence becomes all too frequent.
Nonetheless, regaining control over violence, albeit a significant accomplishment for this administration, will only get students to the school campuses. The bar from there gets higher – creating higher learning institutions that are capable of graduating students with the necessary skills that prepare them for the labour market.
This does not merely comprise of schools discharging discipline, theoretical and practical skills to students; but imparting general competencies in digital literacy, communications, critical thinking and initiative taking. Fully equipped laboratories, well-supplied libraries, capable professors and properly maintained dormitories alone cannot produce a trained workforce that can improve the current lackluster capabilities of institutions. Academic freedom is a primary component, which can never flourish in an atmosphere of fear and where leaders of higher learning institutions have become partisans.
Despite its flaws, EPRDF’s effort to improve access to education is commendable. It has come a long way in offering citizens, poor or rich, the highest form of parity in educational opportunities as compared to previous governments. This year alone, 43 billion Br has been set aside for education, which is far higher than the amount the administration spends on agriculture, rural development, water and energy, and rivals expenditures on urban development and construction. Over a third of the annual budget goes into higher education. A commendable move by any standard.
But improved access to education has been overshadowed by the poor quality of graduating students flooding the labour market, a concern much discussed but with little to show for it. One of those voices is the recent 86-page road-map for education that has been put up for discussion which recommends better coordination and linkages between learning institutions, industries and practical training.
While all of the processes may be necessary inputs to improve the education system, they fail to stress the damage done to the politicisation of the over 40 institutions of higher learning spread across the country. The most crucial error was committed by the incumbent party’s failure to ensure institutional autonomy.
This was perhaps wrongly informed by the student movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which had its ideological strongholds in the universities and advocated against Emperor Haile Selassie’s regime.
There are positive steps, however, being taken today. It is refreshing to hear Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen signaling that there will be no political activities advocated or enforced by the ruling party on learning institutions. If he meant by this to say that his administration will not allow the ruling party to use institutions of higher learning as instruments of state coercion to advance partisan interests, it is most welcomed.
It is a crucial step towards ensuring that state resources will not be deployed in the service of any group’s partisan agenda; or that critical thinking, discussions and associations will not be boxed into a single corner.
But Ethiopia’s politics has changed significantly since the last academic year. Its greatest threat does not come from politicians or an incumbent set on monopolising the discourse. The increasing tendency is that the institutions themselves have become partisans along the lingo-cultural divide within the regions where the schools are located. Appointments of the universitys’ leadership and staff, despite being federal institutions, have been flagrantly ethnicised.
Indeed, like any other private or public institutions, most of the staff come from local residents living near the universities. People usually prefer to work somewhere close to their homes unless there are advantages to move away. It is also likely that students would form associations and debate in a manner that could have various political contexts.
As long as these are not dictated by the institutions, these activities by themselves do not pose a threat to academic freedom.
To the contrary, diverse views and dynamic student associations improve the overall education system. Universities should not be institutional funnels where knowledge is channeled to students to be memorised. Campuses should be places where students debate, theorise, form worldviews, and be informed of the socio-political and economic circumstances. These are necessary components of education whether a student’s field of study is engineering or social science.
But when institutions become captives to politics, discourses are curtailed and academic appointments and managerial positions fall prey to parochial decisions, and meritocray is delegated to the sidelines. When politics becomes identity-based and institutions continue to enforce partisan political agendas, schools become stratified along one-sided groups.
The longer this goes on unchecked, the likelier it is to become rampant. The natural tendency of groups is to try to strengthen their position when they feel another group is doing the same. It is a lesson the administration should have learned as inter-communal conflicts intensified quickly and overshadowed Abiy’s reform agenda.
Under these circumstances, diversity of ideas, objectivity and critical thinking will be discouraged and even punished. Partisan politics and groupings have snowball effects that are detrimental to academic freedom and the quality of education, and it needs to be nipped in the bud.
To begin with, preferential treatment that places card-carrying political party members in leadership positions – as presidents and vice presidents of learning institutions; or, appointments made on the bases of lingo-cultural backgrounds, a flagrant abuse often practiced by schools, should be abandoned.
Practical training of students and enhancing linkages with industries can only go so far in successfully producing and disseminating of knowledge. Going the rest of the way requires creating impartial and autonomous higher learning institutions, where students can be introduced to new and progressive ideas.
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