The poor showing of undergraduate students of Ethiopian universities in the first-ever exit examination tests have elicited the predictable reactions. Of the 150,184 eligible candidate graduates out of the registered 194,239 who sat for the exam a fortnight ago, only 61,054 managed to score the required 50 percent and above to earn their bachelor’s degrees, representing 40.65 percent of the total prospective graduates. Some of the figures released in a briefing last week by the State Minister of Education Samuel Kifle (Ph.D) show a mixed bag of results with public universities students outperforming their private universities peers. Out of the 77, 981 students, drawn from 44 public universities, who took part in the final assessment, around 62.5 percent passed the exam while the figure is only 17.23 percent for the 72, 203 students hailing from private higher learning institutions. The implications of these troubling numbers are disconcerting and call for a deep reflection on the part of all concerned.
In April 2022 the Ministry of Education unveiled in a plan to roll out exit exams in all undergraduate university programs from the 2022/2023 academic year that it asserted was part of a sectoral reform whose overarching goal was to create an enabling environment for universities to carry out their mission efficiently and effectively and become a source of knowledge, research, and innovation. At the time experts in the field said the ministry’s move was a manifestation of waning trust in the poor quality of the tertiary education system in Ethiopia, adding it was triggered by the belief that the scheme will help set in motion attitudinal changes by dissuading students from engaging in endemic exam cheating and motivating them to excel through hard work. Given the extent and depth of the problem it’s worth addressing here the experts’ diagnosis of the problem and their proposed solutions.
The professionals have long held that Ethiopia’s 1994 education policy, which attached greater importance to expanding the coverage of education at a rapid clip, is one of the major factors to which the sorry state of higher education can be attributed. There can be no denying that despite the bevy of both intrinsic and external challenges it has been faced with, the policy has brought about a modicum of positive results since its implementation. The challenges it has been confronted with include, among others, the erosion of meritocracy and accountability due to the blatant politicization of the education system; the absence of adequate educational facilities and materials; corruption; and the poor quality and working conditions of instructors. Consequently, as alarming as the exit exams results may be, they did not come as a surprise to watchers who for decades had expressed misgivings about the risks these factors posed.
The introduction of the exit exams has naturally led to questions about the need to administer them in the first place. Proponents of the exams argue that they are needed to ascertain whether prospective graduates have attained the intended learning outcomes of the courses they took. They contend that several benefits can accrue from the exams if they are crafted as a reliable yardstick by which the effectiveness of tertiary education can be measured. Improving the declining quality of education and re-establishing trust in a poorly faring higher education system; instituting a system of accountability and transparency through which students, instructors, higher education institutions and academic leaders can be appraised for their success or failure; providing invaluable information to universities on the overall quality of their system with a view to prioritizing high-quality instruction and thereby enhance their competitiveness; and allowing employers to gauge the performance and potential of recent college graduates whom they wish to employ are some of the upsides the defenders ascribe to exit exams.
Detractors, however, cite a host of reasons that they claim render exit exams unnecessary and sometimes even counter-productive. They have doubts if an exit exam can accurately measure a student’s proficiency in a particular subject or inter-disciplinary topics. They also have reservations about the ability of exit exams to evaluate practical skills, arguing paper-based exams ae not appropriate when it comes to measuring the possession of such skills. Moreover, critics say, the fairness of the exams may be called into question if they are perceived to be stumbling blocks to employment opportunities. They further maintain that the exams can lead to a glut of students who are left in a limbo when they fail them in large numbers, potentially becoming an embarrassment to the higher education center in question and the system as well as driving universities to engage in unlawful activities to avert such a specter from coming to pass.
No one should labor under the delusion that the introduction of exit exams for undergraduate university students will be a panacea for the persistent poor quality of higher education in Ethiopia. The Ministry of Education should particularly see to it that the scheme will not end up as yet another failed prop that does nothing to fix durably the multi-faceted difficulties besetting the sector. If confidence in the efficacy and integrity higher education system is to be restored, it’s imperative that all stakeholders resist the urge to tout a single initiative as a silver bullet and deliberately work on seeking holistic and long-term solutions that enable policymakers to rectify the perennial quality issues from which the system has been ailing for far too long. In the interim due consideration should be given to alleviating the plight of students who failed the exit exam and ensuring that the valuable time and money spent on them does not go to waste. The shocking exit exam results sound a cautionary tale that all Ethiopians ignore at their peril.