The current state of higher education quality is seriously challenged and this continuous supply of low quality input, both as teachers and students, poses dire threats for the future of the country as a whole, writes Ayenachew Aseffa Woldegiyorgis.
Following on the expansion of higher education that has been underway for the last fifteen years, the Government of Ethiopia has planned to build eleven new universities during the second phase of the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP II). In preparation to have sufficient number of qualified teaching staff for the upcoming universities, the Ministry of Education, at the end of the 2014/15 academic year, invited graduating students to sit for a qualifying exam to be hired as graduate assistants. This is an improvement over the practice in the previous years, where only cumulative GPA and language proficiency were the basis for selecting candidates.
Close to ten thousand graduating students from 32 universities, interested in the job and who satisfied the minimum requirement of CGPA 2.75 for males and 2.5 for females, took the centrally prepared exam, in fourteen fields of studies. According to the results published on the Ministry’s website, 716 of the candidates were selected and invited to sign employment agreement and to start attending masters programs in their respective fields. Though it was not possible to obtain the full data from the ministry for in-depth analyses, taking a simple look at the results, one would find some very striking and very worrying.
Of the 716 candidates selected for graduate assistantship, 219 (30 percent) are females. This appears to be in line with the objective of increasing the share of female academic staff to 25 percent by the end of the Fifth Education Sector Development Program (ESDP V), in 2020. While the exam is marked out of 100, there is only one person who scored more than 80 (81 in the field of English language and literature from Gondar University) followed by a total of 28 candidates scoring between 70 and 79. The overall average score is 57.8 with no significant gender difference (59.3 for males and 54.3 for females).
A score of 57.8 in one’s major is something that can be identified as mediocre. But more interestingly, taking the 50 percent passing mark, as set in the Education and Training Policy, 127 of the selected candidates (or close to one-fifth) have scored a failing result. Here, there is a considerable gender gap: 12.9 percent for males as opposed to 29.7 percent for females. These are generally terrifying numbers. Not only has the new generation of university teachers a mediocre average result, one fifth of them actually failed in their own major subject. So, what knowledge would these teachers be passing on to their students? What moral ground would they have to stand in a classroom and teach a subject in which they failed to score a passing mark (50 percent)? How could they possibly know how to support their students in their areas of difficulty? Where do they get the courage, even the idea, to encourage and motivate their students to work hard and achieve the best they can? After all, these people know, first hand, that one does not need to work hard and achieve the best to assume one of the most important jobs in the country.
What is even more disturbing is the realization that this small data represents just the tip of the iceberg in the current state of affairs in the Ethiopian higher education quality. The average result mentioned above is only for the 716 candidates with the highest scores in their respective fields, representing about seven percent of all those who took the exam. One can imagine (or if the data were available one could have seen) how grim the results from the remaining 93 percent of the examinees could be. Even further, it has to be noted that those ten thousand graduates who sat for the exam have high academic standing with a cutoff point of 2.75 (2.5 for females) cumulative GPA. Hence, if the top performing graduates are found to be so incompetent, one would be obliged to ask how more incompetent the vast majority of the graduates would be—those who eventually join the labor market. The danger to the national economy could be far reaching as this class of graduates with low competency fills vacancies in the labor market. Of course it is understandable that there could be exceptions: those with better competence but low grades and those with high grades but not interested in taking the exam for graduate assistantship. But this would obviously be a negligible minority.
These low caliber and/or low academic performance teachers are one major input in the vicious circle of the feeble quality of higher education. On the other hand, the low quality in general education is supplying ‘unprepared’ students to the universities. ESDP V has reported that “many students joined higher education institutions with results below the 50 percent threshold in the higher education entrance examinations”. Further, the document stipulates that, along with the low quality of instruction, “the low-quality of students introduced to higher education, who—irrespective of teaching quality—do not have the skills for learning at this level”, could be the cause for the low graduation rate of regular undergraduate students. To make such an assessment on one hand and to hire university teachers with this level of academic performance appears to be in direct contradiction.
The problem is even more serious in certain fields. While the highest average score is in Biology (67.2) followed by Natural Resources Management (66.2), History and Heritage Management has the lowest average at 47.8, followed by Math (48.3) and Physics (50.5). Such low scores in math and physics, where 75 percent and 45 percent of the accepted candidates respectively have a failing mark, is particularly worrisome since these are basic subjects to the country’s priority areas in engineering, science and technology. This is also reflected in ESDP V which states that the university entrance examination result, particularly for Physics is “extremely low”.
On the other hand, ESDP V assesses that the research practice in universities is at a very low level. As of 2011/12 research accounted for only one percent of the total budget of all universities. The document also points out that even the existing research is conducted predominantly by graduate students. Given the quality of graduates, and of those admitted into graduate programs (like the new recruits assigned to different universities to pursue their master’s studies) one can easily realize that the quality of the current research practice is in serious jeopardy. This has also been substantiated by a research recently presented at the 34th May Annual International Education Conference, at Bahir Dar University. The preliminary report of the research, being conducted at Addis Ababa University, showed that the quality of graduate research is enormously affected by problems in various aspects of design and execution—methodological/technical, theoretical, ethical, and epistemological.
Therefore, not only is the current state of higher education quality seriously challenged, this continuous supply of low quality input, both as teachers and students, poses dire threats for the future of the country as a whole. Concomitantly, research and innovation in science and technology, an obbligato in the country’s development ambitions, are severely compromised.
Hence, the following, among others, can be considered as options of immediate response: creating an arrangement for competent professionals from industries to take part in teaching, perhaps partnering with the fresh recruits; establishing a mentorship program where senior staff would train and enable their novice colleagues; creating better pay and benefit package that attracts more qualified professionals in to the teaching job; better utilizing Ethiopian professionals in the diaspora; and, with all its drawbacks, using expatriates in certain important fields.
The long-term solution is, however, to slowdown expansion and focus on strengthening existing institutions, with particular emphasis on creating differentiation. Selected senior institutions have to be elevated to research universities and resourced accordingly. Those universities will be engaged in high-level academic and research work, which will have two fold benefits. First, through their institutes and centers of excellence, the universities will be the hub for knowledge generation and transfer, and for scientific and technological advancement. This provides the critically needed knowledge supply for the development of different sectors, such as agriculture and industry. Second, as epicenters of academic advancement, they will have the capacity to strategically produce highly trained and qualified academic staff for the to-be established universities.
These or others, it is high time to take the issue seriously and to immediately come up with practical solutions to avert the hovering crisis. Otherwise, it is obvious that the quality of the new-coming universities would be much worse than that of those already in business.
Ed.’s Note: Ayenachew is a higher education consultant for the World Bank in Washington DC. The views expressed in this article are of his own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Bank, or The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].