Those Who Can Don’t Teach

The debate over the education system never seems to abate as the multitude of graduates that are flooding the workplace are leaving much to be desired when it comes to skill. This flaw mainly emanates from the quality of the teachers in higher learning institutions, writes Ambessaw Assegued (

At a restaurant in the capital of Ethiopia, an American professor and a lecturer at Addis Abeba University sat conversing. The American appears to be a tenured ivy-league researcher with his tailored grey tweed jacket, matching dark trousers, blue button-down shirt and brown patent-leather loafers.

His companion has the ruffled look of an underpaid civil servant, and he has presented himself in an ill-fitting blue suit, mismatched shirt, tie, socks and shoes. He appears to be irritated and detracted by the American’s insistance  to stay focused on the main point of their discussion – a new research project to be launched in Ethiopia.

The American deliberates the requirements of the project in measured tones pointing out that he and his research team will be in the lead. But he is constantly interrupted by the local lecturer who sees no reason for the foreign professor to sully himself with the sordid task of fieldwork and report writing. Speaking in faulty English, he delivers lengthy monologues offering himself in the role of a paid consultant to do the research.

The ivy-league professor demurs and repeats his resistance to the proposed arrangement. Their conversation goes on for a while with the Ethiopian lecturer continuing to dissuade the foreigner to strike a deal and the American resisting the proposal.

Eventually, the American professor makes some excuses to end the discussion and dispatches his companion with vague promises of looking into the matter further.

This phenomenon of highly educated Ethiopians soliciting outside extra income is well established. Low paid enterprise leaders, full professors, institutional managers, surgeons and dentists are scouring the marketplace looking for additional cash to augment their inadequate incomes.

Another foreign researcher working in Ethiopia relates similar experiences she encounters while discussing a potential research project with local scholars. She reports how the conversation constantly veers towards strategising ways to direct the monetary benefits of the project towards the local partner, and the minimal importance given to the object of the research itself.

“The problem is that these university professors are low-paid and are very detracted from their work by monetary needs. They are not motivated to do more than the very minimum required of them as academicians,” she observes.

She bemoans the fact that excuses are made, and resistance is put up by Ethiopian academicians when weaknesses in the system are pointed out to them. She observes, for instance, that there is no research centre established for Chinese studies at Addis Abeba University, despite the strong Chinese presence in Ethiopia.

This major lapse in academia is defended by Ethiopian lecturers as a sensible policy on the basis that the university is tasked with producing technically skilled graduates to feed the growing demands of industries.

The university system is not upheld as a centre of higher learning and enlightenment, rather as a place of vocational training. This view aims towards lowering the system into mediocracy rather than raising it to the highest levels of academic excellence in Ethiopia.

It is dropping the standards of quality when university education is equated with vocational training. Our aspirations should be to achieve the much-exalted academic values of Western European and American institutions rather than mimicking the third-rate canons of Indian and Pakistani schools that churn out multitudes of graduates.

The ever-expanding number of universities and rise in student population figures cannot be put up as signs of progress if the quality of teaching and the resources of the academic universe remain meagre. The young foreign scholar observes that the way to improve the overall quality of higher-level education in Ethiopia is to reduce the number of universities and to divert the savings towards paying premium wages to teachers.

Another critical observation she makes is the need to expand academic activities in the campuses by establishing more research centres and by bringing in high-calibre educators from distinguished institutions in the West.

Educational standards cannot be raised merely by increasing the number of Indian contract-teachers recruited. To begin with, they are not drafted from the top-tier of the Indian educated class. The cream of that crop is mostly found attached to top-notch industries and schools in Silicon Valley, California and New York. They are not likely to be teaching college courses at a university in Ethiopia.

To improve the quality of education in Ethiopia the college systems must attract and retain high-quality Ethiopian teachers. The key attractions are both higher pay and providing the necessary academic resources at the schools. Creating a public university system steeped in the highest cultures of learning, ethics, research and intellectual development must be the basis of our national renewal and growth.

Higher pay alone may not be enough to sway low-paid academicians from seeking ways to earn extra money, but that is the place to start in reforming the education system.  Meanwhile, the Ethiopian lecturer leaves the conference with undisguised frustration that he has not managed to enhance his paltry income in the meeting.

Left alone, the ivy-league professor looks at the world from his preeminent position of large endowment and comfortable income. He cannot comprehend the financial dilemma and preoccupation of his low-paid local colleague. He sits back in his chair and seems to ponder about the encounter he just had with his companion.

By Ambessaw Assegued

Published on May 19,2018 [ Vol 19 ,No 942]



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